Steph JuddABC RELIGION AND ETHICS 22 MAY 2013
BY WARNING KEVIN RUDD THAT HIS CHANGE OF HEART ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE WAS “BURNING BRIDGES” WITH THE CHRISTIAN CONSTITUENCY, THE ACL WAS ACTUALLY WARNING THE COALITION NOT TO FOLLOW SUIT.
When Kevin Rudd wrote on his blog on Monday night that he had changed his mind over same-sex marriage, the Australian Twittersphere – or, at least, the community of political hacks that populate it – erupted into a cacophony of speculation. Some dismissed it as political posturing, a desperate bid for relevance, an attempt further to undermine the Labor party, a fickle pandering to public opinion, and on it went. But it was the response of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) on Tuesday morning that really caught the attention of the media and public alike.
In many respects, the ACL’s response to Rudd’s about-face uses much the same rhetoric that it has employed throughout the same-sex marriage debate. When it all boils down, the ACL’s stance against same-sex marriage (or against “redefining marriage”) isn’t framed in religious terms; rather, it uses a “common good” argument which pivots on a particular conception about what constitutes the best interests of children.
Whether or not one agrees with what the ACL takes to be the “common good,” it’s probably inaccurate to characterize their stance as bigoted. The perhaps uncomfortable truth is that those who work for the ACL are not heartless bigots driven by self-interest. Those whom I have met, in the course of writing a thesis on the ACL and the same-sex marriage debate, are warm and compassionate people, motivated by the sincere conviction that the proposed legislative change to the Marriage Act will do harm to Australian society, and particularly our children.
It is, of course, easier to caricature people we disagree with rather than engage with their political or moral stance – but that seems to be the status quo of Australian political discourse. Now, I’m not claiming that the ACL are hapless victims; indeed, while the ACL have undeniably been the target of such ad hominem attacks and vitriol, it is equally true that they’ve served some back too. Little wonder, then, that some cannot help but interpret the ACL’s public statements as hateful.
I don’t want to venture into the warzone of the substantive debate over same-sex marriage. What I want to do instead is lay out some findings which are relevant to the ACL’s specific claim that Rudd is “burning bridges” with the Christian constituency by changing his stance on same-sex marriage.
The most powerful weapon in the ACL’s lobbying arsenal has always been its claim to represent a significant proportion of the Australian electorate: the “Christian constituency.” In his media release on Tuesday, Lyle Shelton (Jim Wallace’s successor, in a seamless, well-planned passing of the leadership baton) states that Rudd’s change of mind will be “a huge disappointment for Christians,” a group that Shelton later claims comprises 20% of the population.
It’s not subtle, and it’s not meant to be. The idea of a Christian constituency or Christian vote – the terms are often used interchangeably – is a deliberate lobbying strategy used to persuade MPs that they ignore the views of the ACL at their own electoral peril. It has been ubiquitous in the ACL’s political vernacular almost from the outset, and has saturated its media releases since at least 2004. But how accurate is it? There are two separate issues here: whether there is such a thing as a “Christian constituency,” and whether the ACL does, in fact, reflect its views?
To cut to the chase, while it is doubtless true that a significant percentage of Australians identify with the Christian faith, the consensus among the social researchers is that the claim that a block Christian vote exists in Australian politics is weak; there is simply too much diversity of political opinion to claim that one group reflects the views of all Christians. As a Christian attending an inner-city university, a complaint I often hear from my Christian friends is that the ACL purports to represent them, even though they do not share their views on everything. This raises the question, just how representative is the ACL?
The ACL tries to “flex” its representative muscle to politicians through various means, but principally through petitions and signed statements like the one referred to in their latest media release. The 2011 joint statement of church leaders against same-sex marriage and the 2012 church leaders petition indicate support from the leaders of most Christian denominations, including Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox churches, Anglicans and “Independent” churches (most of which have Pentecostal persuasions, based on the content of their websites). The Uniting Church is a notable omission. The ACL has strong working relationships with most denominational leaders across the Christian spectrum, and on that basis it might be fair to claim that the ACL represents orthodox Christian beliefs.
However, the patterns of informal affiliation at the lower levels of the church structures are rather different. I couldn’t get hold of the ACL’s membership records, so here is the closest I could get – a breakdown of the denominational affiliation of their 2012 petition:
Of these 268 church leaders, 120 were from independent churches and the vast majority of these were Pentecostal. This is consistent with the evidence given by a number of interviewees who had the impression that Pentecostals are the strongest supporters of the ACL, financially and otherwise. Part of the reason for this may be that the Pentecostal and independent churches do not have the same organizational structures through which they can engage with government in an effective and coherent manner. Consequently, it is likely that these churches delegate their engagement to the ACL. (Though it is important to note that Hillsong is not affiliated with the ACL in any way.)
Suffice it to say that while the Christian identity of the ACL is formally non-denominational, this petition suggests that the ACL has stronger connections with the Pentecostal and Baptist churches. The next question is, are these dynamics of support broadly representative of the Christian constituency? Apparently not:
This in itself does not suggest that the ACL is not representative of the views of church-going Christians generally: the 2012 petition was of Christian leaders, not church-goers. As a close Pentecostal friend recently reminded me, the non-hierarchical structure of the Pentecostal/Independent churches, along with the fact that there are just more “variations” of Pentecostal church movements, means that there is arguably a greater pool of leaders from which to draw signatures. The disproportion might simply be attributable to that fact, rather than the lack of support within the broader base of church-going Christians. It is also worth noting that there are probably more nominal Christians in the Catholic and Anglican census figures.
There is additional evidence to suggest that the ACL has stronger support in Queensland churches. The following graph provides a categorization of the signatories to the 2012 petition according to location (again, there may be other variables which account for this apparent disproportion):
The ACL has no formal alignments with any one particular denomination over another, and it is careful not to speak in terms of “representing” any group beyond its members or supporters. I want to be careful not to misrepresent the ACL: its intention is to be inclusive of all denominations that subscribe to the values the ACL promotes.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that the ACL overestimates the number of people whose views it reflects. For instance, it occasionally infers that its views are shared by the 61% of the population affiliated with the Christian religion. On other occasions, it will narrow the range of those whose views it purports to reflect.
To take one example, a 2011 Galaxy Research poll commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality (AME) indicated that 53% of Christians were in support of same-sex marriage. In response, Jim Wallace argued that because the Galaxy poll did not include a question about how regularly the respondent attended church, the statistic probably included nominal Christians, or people who identify more with Christianity than other religions but who do not attend church regularly. This is a fair call, given the fact that they seek to reflect the views of “Bible-believing Christians,” not those with a vague cultural association with Christianity. But it has to be said that the argument jars somewhat with the ACL’s occasional leveraging of the census statistic that 61% of Australians identify as Christian in its lobbying efforts – it is thus a good sign that in their latest media release, they only cited the statistic of 20% of church-goers, and perhaps they will more regularly use this figure in their parliamentary lobbying.
In short, I’m unconvinced by Shelton’s claim that Kevin Rudd’s change of heart regarding same-sex marriage has burnt his bridges with the Christian constituency. For starters, the notion of a Christian constituency is ambiguous. Furthermore, there is diversity of opinions within the church – and within evangelical, “Bible-believing” churches, at that. I know that some Christian friends who trust Jesus will be disappointed by Rudd, and others will be proud of him, and still more won’t care because they don’t think that same-sex marriage will damage society.
Either way, it is perhaps either clumsy or disingenuous to clump all Christians together and claim that they respond uniformly to political phenomena. I’ll also confess to being rather disappointed by Shelton’s sledge against Rudd – primarily because I think its tone lacks grace.
It is clear on the face of it that the ACL is attempting to exert its political clout. This is by no means unique to the ACL; indeed, one of the by-products of a political system like ours is that lobbyists know that they will only be listened to if they can demonstrate that their views represent the views of a broader section of society, specifically of the variety that will cast a vote on election day. In my interviews with Parliamentarians across the political spectrum, I found that the most significant variable affecting how receptive a politician is to the ACL’s lobbying efforts is how representative they perceive the ACL to be, and whether they are convinced that the ACL is able to mobilise a “Christian vote” on a particular issue. In this latest media release, the ACL once again invokes the idea that they represent the Christian constituency.
But this raises an interesting question from a political science perspective: to whom is the ACL flexing its political muscle? The ACL’s comments could validly be considered to be a threat to Labor. Shelton’s tone is unequivocal:
“Mr Rudd’s announcement that he supports same sex marriage will be a huge disappointment for Christians and leaves their hopes for the preservation of marriage clearly with the Coalition and Christian-based minor parties … Mr Rudd seems intent on burning bridges not only with colleagues, but with a constituency which had long given him the benefit of the doubt … If this is an attempt to wedge Julia Gillard, it will cost Mr Rudd the last of his following in the Christian Constituency.”
To describe Shelton’s media release as “forthright” would be an understatement. But I do not believe that its intended audience is Kevin Rudd or even Labor. Why? Put simply, the pattern of influence enjoyed by the ACL seems to be asymmetrical towards the Coalition. By this, I mean that it seems as though there are fewer within the Labor Party who give much weight to what the ACL says. One Labor MP told me that while the ACL’s voice has “some legitimacy and some logic,” the noise it makes has to be tempered by the “number of bodies behind that voice.” My take on the ACL is that, though they purport to maintain a bipartisan approach to politics, their relationship with Labor is tense. There seems to be a growing undercurrent of wariness within Labor towards the ACL, and the sentiment would appear to be mutual. Likewise, it would also appear that the ACL has a natural affinity with the Coalition.
In other words, I think Shelton’s statement is actually a shot across the Coalition’s bow. The ACL has far greater influence with the Coalition (although, this influence is still not as dominant as some claim), and so it may well be that the ACL is giving an indirect reminder to Abbott and company that they should not abandon their policy on marriage lightly, lest they risk losing the support of a significant part of the constituency.
The direct statement that supporting same-sex marriage amounted to Rudd “burning bridges” with the Christian constituency provided a correlative indirect warning to the Coalition that, should they follow suite with a conscience vote or a change in party platform, they would be burning the bridges between the Coalition and the ACL.
Steph Judd is in her final year of a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at the University of Sydney. She recently graduated from her first degree, Bachelor of Arts (Honours I), during which she wrote a thesis on the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in the same-sex marriage debate under the supervision of Rodney Smith.