Everyone is really bad at the gay marriage debate

Today I want to be a fence-sitter and criticise the poor argumentation of gay marriage supporters, and the poor arguments of its opponents. To do that, let me give you four statements, and four answers – on the definition of marriage, on the desire for equality, on freedom of speech, and on Channel Ten’s The Project.

To be clear going in here, I am aware that Christians are not the only religious denomination arguing against gay marriage. But the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is the most vocal, and the Margaret Court fiasco is completely bound up with the fact that she is a deeply Christian minister, and her arguments draw most of their logic from ‘the bible’.

And, since we live in the age of ‘fake news’ and because I am in the business of making people critically literate about the information they consume, let me offer this disclaimer: these are my opinions. They are not facts, but interpretations of facts. There are factual numbers in here for which I can provide reliable sources. There are statements in here that I have thought about carefully, and I hope they are convincing. I am not emotionally involved in this post in any way other than general eye-rolling at how lame each side can be.


‘Marriage is defined in the bible, by God’

That may be the case, but in Australia marriage is also defined in the Marriage Act (1961), and a subsequent amendment in 2004 made by the Howard government which restricted it to people of the opposite sex. So, in secular law in Australia, the idea of marriage as being between a man and a woman is actually a rather recent phenomenon. It’s exactly the sort of bizarre anachronism you’d expect from John Howard, but that’s another matter.

Whatever your religious views, we live in a secular, pluralist democracy. That is a good thing – we separate church and state for the simple reason that it would be inappropriate to impose the spiritual values of any one religious group on the overwhelming majority of society to who do not hold the same faith. The largest religious denomination in Australia in 2011 was Roman Catholicism, at 25.3% of the population. This was followed by ‘no religion’ at 22.3%, and then flowing through other Christian denominations, and then on to the relatively small number of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jedi that make up the balance.

The Bible, of course, has been reinterpreted and rewritten again and again over thousands of years.

It is inappropriate, then, to define a legal institution along boundaries marked by divine providence, since the providence of said divinity is so subject to wild interpretation. The principle that best serves us is to ask: “if there are legal rights flowing from this law, do those rights extend equally to each citizen in the country?” If they don’t – as is currently the case with Marriage Act – then the law needs to be changed.

‘Why do you feel like LGBTIQ people don’t deserve to be equal?’

I hate hearing gay rights activists ask this question of their opponents. It misses the point on a range of fronts.

Firstly, there’s a bit of a category error here. Most Christian opponents of marriage equality don’t actively see themselves as more deserving of legal rights and privileges than Queer Australians. What they see, instead, is a religious sacrament – ‘marriage’ – which by definition is between a man and a woman. This is a definitional issue for many people, like saying ‘up’ means ‘down’ or fish swim on land. Imputing some sort of random hatred of gays to all Christians – which I admit is definitely the case for some – is a bit absurd.

I have very good Christian friends who are opposed to gay marriage but deeply supportive of all other gay rights, and who actively seek to improve the material conditions that young gay people face (homelessness, victimisation, bullying, substance abuse, etc). The issue is deep-seated spiritual one, and those are difficult issues to unpick with cold rationality.

This doesn’t mean I agree. If I have committed Catholic friends who are able to square the circle of support for gay marriage with their faith – as Kristina Keneally so beautifully articulates – then I think it is possible for others to think the same. But I’m not so naive as to think that because of this disagreement over the category ‘marriage’ that these people are just straight up and down bigots. That doesn’t help public debate.

The point is simply this: don’t assume motives that are not actually present. Deal with the substance of the debate and argue rationally – this argument about ‘why do you hate us’ might feel nice, but it’ll do nothing to move either side.

‘Christians are denied freedom of speech, we are being silenced’

This is just as emotive and silly a reaction as arguing that ‘all christians hate gay people’ or that there is some deep-seated desire to deny gays equality in law.

Christians – particularly in Australia – are an incredibly powerful, hegemonic group. This means that Christian values assume what we call a ‘normative’ position in our society. Christianity wields enormous historical political power in Australia, and continues to do so. You only need to look at the arguments that get articulated by politicians, by the privileged way that leaders report their spiritual values, by the then-obsession with Julia Gillard’s atheism (and her own sops to the primacy of faith despite that).

Recently at the Frank Walker memorial lecture, Penny Wong – who is herself a practicing Christian – argued that:

“The problem in all of this is the application of religious belief to the framing of law in a secular society…Religion-based moral codes continue to limit the freedoms and the rights of those who, in the view of religious groups, do not ‘conform’ to their views”

She is correct. But the blow-back from the ACL was savage. This is largely because Lyle Shelton – Chief of Staff for the ACL – relentlessly pursues issues regulating sex and gender to the near exclusion of all else. And he has transmuted a debate about the definition of marriage into one about ‘freedom of speech’.

In a blog post on the execrable ACL website, he describes Wong’s comments as ‘frightening for freedom of speech’, and suggests that ‘elites’ are trying to silence Christians.

In another post he asks:

“Whatever side Australians are on in the debate about redefining marriage, all of us have got to ask ourselves what side of the freedom of speech debate we are on.”

This from a man who frequently expresses his views in the media, who is posting about this on a glossy website, who has an enormous lobbying organisation at his disposal, three and a half thousand Twitter followers, regularly appears on Q&A and other platforms on the allegedly biased ABC, and who has the ear of dozens of politicians who run this country.

There is no threat of jail, no denial of voice. His posts are shared widely on social media.

The same goes for Margaret Court – venturing an opinion and then discovering that people disagree with you is exactly what freedom of speech is about. That people can call for a tennis court to be renamed is also freedom of speech. Even if the court were to be renamed, that would still have done nothing to impinge on Court’s freedom of speech. In fact, the court has arguably given her a larger platform to pronounce her views.

‘So Pat, what do you think of Margaret Court on The Project?’

Well this is kind of what started the whole post. The interview was a train-wreck, but for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and most glaringly, because Court’s arguments were ridiculous. When Waleed Aly cites statistical evidence that for quite some time now a significant majority of Australians support marriage equality, Court dismisses the data out of hand. Her counter-argument? The first few chapters of the Bible. That is literally the most terrible argument I have seen, aside from Pell v Dawkins on Q&A a few years back.

Religion and Science do not always need to disagree, but the times where they are most incompatible are when people are trying to draw supporting evidence into policy debates between empirical data and biblical imperatives. It is a meaningless conversation.

But that sort of underlines the problem I have more broadly with The Project’s project. Their anodyne liberalism kind of pisses me off, particularly because it has taken a good thinker like Waleed Aly and sanitised his intellectualism for Channel Ten.

The Project is vacuous. I’m not saying it tramples freedom of speech, because it still gives a platform to people like Steve Price (regrettably) and Margaret Court to express their views. But the counter-arguments put the panel are just so mind-numbingly lame. You know Aly thinks carefully, but he doesn’t articulate his arguments with enough panache. And worse, the other panellists present all these progressive liberal views (views that, for the most part, I share) as though they were self-evident truths.

They are not, they need to be argued for and defended.

And that’s why we keep jogging round the same hamster wheel in public debate.


One Reply to “Everyone is really bad at the gay marriage debate”

  1. The Marriage Act requires FOUR criteria for a relationship to be a legal Marriage in Australia – The Union must be between a MAN and a WOMAN, it also must be to the EXCLUSION of ALL others, it must be VOLUNTARILY entered into, and it must be for LIFE. Only one of these criteria is ever discussed.

    A very high proportion of partners in Australian Marriages have extra marital affairs, some are serial offenders, but their marriages remain legal.

    A very high proportion of young people still “have to” get married because the girl falls pregnant. In the past this was seen as shameful for the family, and great pressure was put on young couples to marry, many of whom were really unwilling, but did so to appease their families.

    Everyone knows we have no fault divorce in Australia, and it is easy to get a divorce, so Marriage does not have to be “for Life, and divorce is common”.

    The only criteria that is enforced by law in Australia is that Marriage should be between man and a woman – Why is this so??

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