A scourge of Western democracy is poisoning same-sex marriage debate
John Howard has exposed the fatuousness of Liberal ministers who have said a Yes vote would not have widespread consequences for religious freedom.
This has been a seismic week in the development of Australia’s political culture.
John Howard’s intervention in the same-sex debate was his most dramatic and passionate since he left the prime ministership in 2007. He accused the Turnbull government of not taking religious freedom seriously and condemned it for not producing the bill it would put to parliament if the Yes vote wins. He accused the government of trivialising religious freedom and demanded it clarify how it would protect “parental rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom” if the Yes vote passed.
Howard’s intervention exposes the utter fatuousness of Liberal ministers who, until yesterday, had generally claimed a Yes vote would have no consequences for religious freedom beyond needing to ensure religious ministers did not have to officiate at gay weddings. In response to Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten were forced to acknowledge that there would need to be some extra protection for religious freedom. But ministers still spoke as though the main issue was clerics officiating at weddings.
Let’s be very clear. That is about the least likely threat to religious freedom arising out of this process. The threat to religious liberty is much more pervasive.
Legalising same-sex marriage will vastly increase the power and propensity of all forms of anti-discrimination legislation, and attendant government propaganda bodies, to harass religious institutions on the basis that their traditional teachings constitute discrimination.
This is already happening. Much of it will happen under state laws. It is absurd for the federal government to ignore the interaction of federal and state laws.
A sense of this has caused Tony Abbott to go so far as to argue for the abolition of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Although Howard is a proponent of the No case, he pointed out what should be the obvious path for Liberals supporting the Yes case.
The Liberal Yes campaigners should promise to enact this onbalance sensible reform and at the same time seriously strengthen Australia’s pathetically weak religious freedom laws.
This would be legitimate in principle and also would be powerful politically. It would be true to Liberal values, help with the Liberal base, and divide Labor and Yes case proponents between moderates and extremists. The Liberals would fulfil their historic role of introducing incremental reforms sensibly with balancing safeguards.
Instead the government’s attitude is one of complete, heedless surrender: if we just give in on this issue as quickly as possible we can get back to the economy and national security.
This whole episode shows how comprehensively illthought-out and unprepared the mainstream Liberal approach is to what will be an ever growing dynamic of identity politics in Australia, as has happened in every other Western country. This dynamic threatens to bitterly, needlessly divide our culture, damage our politics and overwhelm the Liberal Party, which seemingly cannot make the most elementary calculations of principle and politics.
Unlike Howard, I support the Yes case, for two reasons of principle and one of pragmatism.
The first reason of principle is that once society and the law recognise, as they do now, that gay couples can have children, including through adoption, then the most important people in this discussion are those children. They benefit if their parents’ commitment to each other has the legal force of marriage.
The second reason of principle is that the social consensus that marriage is between one man and one woman for life has substantially broken down. Therefore it is not the role of the state to enforce it any longer. The Christian churches have every right, through persuasion and example, to try to re-establish
that consensus. But the argument against enforcing it is very strong.
The third and pragmatic reason for supporting the Yes vote is that it is much better for this reform to be carried out by a centre-right government that can also enshrine serious protections for religious freedom. The utter cluelessness of the Turnbull government on these matters is dispiriting.
Identity politics is a pervasive and generally destructive force around the Western world. It is the idea that your political position, and your political and even moral worth in some circumstances, is defined by some element of your identity, such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever, rather than by the beliefs and commitments you enter into.
The thrust of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was to try to achieve a civic equality in the treatment of everybody, to be colour blind, identity blind, as it were, in civic matters.
The destructiveness of identity politics is that it poisons relations between human beings by claiming that historic injustices require civic inequalities to remedy them today. This requires that some groups be classified as victims and others as villains.
Last week furnished an interesting US example. In a Senate confirmation hearing for an Appeals Court judge, Amy Coney Barrett, liberal Democrat Dianne Feinstein criticised her because she was a practising Catholic. Feinstein commented: “Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different … in your case the dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern.”
This arose because Barrett had written of the ethical difficulties of pronouncing in a capital punishment case because she opposed capital punishment. One option for judges would be to recuse themselves. But Barrett wrote explicitly: “Judges cannot, nor should they try to, align our legal system with the church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.”
But because Christianity is cast by identity politics as the villain, Barrett was considered prima facie unfit because she is a conscientious Catholic.
You can see something of the same impulse in the grotesque misuse of the term “white Christendom” by the normally sensible Stan Grant in his recent contribution to the history wars.
Identity politics is devastating Western political cultures in several ways.
One, because it requires a villain, and the villain is normally some version of “white Christendom”, it inevitably provokes white identitarian politics as a backlash. Two, because it wants to remake the public soul, rather than mere public policy, its demands can never be satisfied. This ideological tendency was evident in Hillary Clinton’s embrace of “unconscious bias” in last year’s election. According to this, even white folks who reject racism at every point of their lives are still inherently racist because they suffer from “unconscious bias”. Three, identity politics tries to make client groups feel good because the broader society apologises to them, thus the business of apology has to go on forever. The apology is like a drug of addiction. A little is good at first, but then more is required, then more and more forever.
And four, because the champions of identity politics, almost always comfortable middle-class activists, see themselves as fighting against horrendous historic evils, they recognise no bounds at all of moderation in their language or respect for people who conscientiously disagree with their proposals.
Thus Benjamin Law, in most respects a good and talented fellow, could tweet that he would “hate-f..k” coalition MPs to cure them of their homophobia. Imagine the society-wide and justified core meltdown there would be if some advocate of the No case said he would be happy to have rough sex with supporters of the Yes case to show them how good straight sex is. Even typing the words is unseemly and makes you squeamish.
The point here is not to make a martyr of Law. He is a mainstream figure but not central. The point is to illustrate where identity politics always goes, and always goes wrong.
That Law cannot see how profoundly offensive his comments were, that they implied a complete lack of respect for human beings who disagree with him, illustrates the toxic power of identity politics. In his Quarterly Essay, he quotes Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews as saying “extreme Liberals” who opposed the Safe Schools program were not offended by the program but: “I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it”.
Andrews is normally a sensible person, moderate in his language. But his accusation, that unnamed Liberal politicians hate gay kids is outrageous and so grave that it should be made with the greatest caution. Similarly, Law says unnamed politicians “seem to loathe their queer constituents”. Can Law, or more importantly Andrews, really believe they are helping any gay teenager who may feel psychologically vulnerable by falsely telling them that a large cohort of politicians hates them?
There are two ways centreright parties can make a real mess of identity politics. One is to get so hostile to its manifest dishonesty and bullying that they take it out not on the extremist activists but on some of the people they claim to represent, especially by failing to enact reasonable reforms that may help any disadvantaged person. The other way is simply to surrender to identity politics in the hope that pre-emptive capitulation to an ever increasing identity politics agenda will buy them the peace to win politically on issues where they are more comfortable.
Alas, there is no coward’s refuge. They will just lose decisively to the left or they will be displaced by more militant and far less responsible alternative forces on the right.