Further Protection of Religious Freedom is dangerous if it is primarily the protection of prejudice.
Humans are social beings. Thus rights are not disconnected from privileges and responsibilities. In this context the current debate on religious freedom has a problematic starting point. Using the Folau controversy as its example, those proposing a tightening of laws protecting ‘religious freedom’ are competing with the hard won rights of others. Any right or freedom must be honed by respect, respect for difference, respect for others and respect for the reality that any passion, no matter how deeply held, must be perceived as transitory pending new insights through learning, research, interaction with others and prayerful reflection, for we all ‘see through a glass darkly’.
Let us first identify the proponents. They are not Islamic extremists for whom religious freedom in a democratic country is not automatically reciprocated through civility and respect. They insist that those not like them are infidels on their way to perdition who can be legitimately helped along this path. They are not members of cults with a history of indoctrination and fanaticism who abuse the freedoms and privileges accorded them in a free society. They are not the indigenous people of Australia who are historically the ones who have suffered most through discriminatory practices. Their long held spiritual and religious rituals and practices have at best been misunderstood and at worse crushed into extinction. They are not Bahais, Sikhs or Buddhists, new-comers to Australia whose ethnic and religious identity are often intertwined. No, they are right wing Christians who overwhelmingly identify with one side of Australian politics, who are not persecuted, whose freedom to exercise their faith is not in any way under threat, who enjoy considerable governmental largesse through school chaplaincies taxation provisions etc, but whose obsession with sexuality and gender has been challenged by the voice of the LGBTIQ community.
It is hardly a matter of irrelevance that in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church, Christians who have most identified in this manner have invested much energy in maintaining male headship in their Churches’ institutional and worshipping life, thus denying women a full expression of their leadership capacity.
In the Old Testament consideration of sexuality (and food) is undertaken through the lens of taboo, in Arabic - haram (forbidden). Sexual activity or food becomes taboo when it is considered unclean, when it is thought to pollute or corrupt. But on what grounds can food or sexuality be considered taboo? Before monotheism became fully developed, anything to do with another nation or people, and therefore its god(s), was taboo. Saul is famously chastised by Samuel for retaining perfectly good sheep he stole from the Amalekites after he had put them to rout! In the Old Testament, taboo remained strictly enforced even when Hebrew faith became monotheistic, because unclean is considered more pervasive than clean. Unclean undermines or pollutes what is clean. This is the gist of the rhetorical exchange in Haggai 2: 12-13. It appears right wing conservative Christianity is shaped by texts like the Haggai text and is more influenced by the Old Testament than the New testament.
In the New Testament Jesus completely turns this teaching on its head. He touches a leper, he does not become unclean, the leper is made clean. The woman with the issue of blood touches Jesus, he does not become unclean, she is made well. In company with the dead, Jesus is not made unclean, the dead are raised etc. The teaching of Jesus is that love overcomes hate, light is stronger than darkness, grace outpaces ungrace. Life lived in this manner does not need protection. Expression of prejudicial views toward others should not be protected.
Those Christians who want the protection of religious freedom laws appear to be wanting to protect their right to live out of the Old Testament concept of clean and unclean. In Acts 10 Peter was confronted with the difference between his old faith and the following of Jesus when, in his dream, he was told not to call unclean what God calls clean.
In the marriage equality debate it was said that legalising same sex marriage would in some way diminish ‘traditional marriage’. How so? Has it?
Everyone has the right to say and think whatever they like in the privacy of their own home – or do they? Does a man who believes in male headship as an expression of his religion have the right to demean and belittle his wife, depriving her of financial and other autonomy? She ought to have protection under the law from such abuse of religious freedom, not the other way around.
Every preacher has the right to preach whatever she or he likes from the pulpit of their denomination – but do they? Australian society is rightly concerned when an Imam incites extremism or violent behaviour, notwithstanding the Imam might claim his preaching is entirely consistent with his religious belief.
What about a religious teacher in School, (Church or public) who wants the right to teach a short history of the world, that humans lived amongst dinosaurs etc. Does religious freedom give someone the right to undermine childhood confidence in the exploration of multiple scientific disciplines, confidence necessary in the building blocks of knowledge? Whether it be throwing doubt into the proven value of vaccination, or questioning climate science on the basis that ‘God is in control’, such ‘religious freedom’ is very costly to society, for steps that could mitigate threat are shelved or abandoned.
If Australian citizens are being denied the right to worship as they please, their right should be protected. But is anyone being denied this right? If some religious institutions are being granted privileges that others are being denied, then that inequality needs correction.
What does need attention is political correctness gone mad. In the process of bowing the knee to a multi-faith society the religious seasons of Christmas and Easter are being secularised to the extent that their deep religious roots are denied full public expression. I do not wish to hear the banal ‘happy holiday’ I want to believe there is more to life than supermarket bargains.
Finally, in light of this week’s extraordinary attacks on journalists and journalism surely the freedom that needs protecting is the freedom of the press. Without a free and robust fourth estate democracy will wither and Australia will be reduced to the prevailing culture and fear of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Journalists rely upon sources within the general public. Often these sources are whistle blowers. We are developing pattern of making whistle blowers the criminals rather than the people or activity they uncover. But that is another blog