It's a scene you can imagine happening at any backyard barbecue in Australia: three mates having a friendly discussion about same-sex marriage over a beer. Not much to get wound up about, right?
There's a lot of head-scratching going on in the aftermath of the Bible Society's 'Keeping it Light' video. The public backlash and subsequent boycott of Coopers (whose beer features prominently in the video) prompted the company to renounce it and even go so far as to join Australian Marriage Equality to prove it is 'supportive of diversity'.
The Bible Society didn't think the video would be a problem, but it inadvertently pushed a lot of buttons they didn't even know existed. The Bible Society genuinely thought it was helping, and seems truly surprised at the reaction to the video. There's a lot of confusion — there's no hate or outright bigotry, just a polite exchange of views. Are we really so intolerant to tolerance?
There are a lot of layers to the public's reaction to the video, but here's one: the Bible Society itself has never taken an explicit public position on the present marriage debate, but its sister organisation, the Centre for Public Christianity, only features videos and essays by people who hold an exclusively man-woman view of marriage.
It isn't a huge stretch to say that the Bible Society as an organisation probably supports the more conservative view, and the public knows, or at least suspects this to be true. Other public-facing Christian organisations have been far more vocal about their opinion on marriage and the Bible Society, fairly or unfairly, is painted with the same brush.
But the Bible Society plays the role of impartial moderator in the video. It makes the discussion feel like a setup — the umpire is playing for one of the teams! It doesn't feel like a discussion being had in good faith, which undercuts the entire basis for the campaign.
It goes deeper. There's intense frustration in the community about the inaction over same-sex marriage. The only thing preventing the legislation of the reform is the Liberal Party's insistence on having a national plebiscite instead of allowing its members to have a free vote in parliament.
But the people on each side of the discussion were both Liberal Party members drinking beer made by Coopers, a company with a long history of donating to the Liberal Party. Tim Wilson, who took the pro-reform side of the discussion but supported the plebiscite in the recent past, has a chequered reputation amongst the LGBTI community which resoundingly rejected the plebiscite.
"Better engagement from the Bible Society with LGBTI groups would facilitate a much more fruitful and respectful discussion."
Someone in favour of changing the Marriage Act doesn't necessarily look at this video and see three mates having a friendly disagreement about the future of marriage. Instead, it's entirely possible they see three men in collusion — neat, polite, smiling and utterly in control of whether this reform will ever proceed.
LGBTI issues — in particular same-sex marriage — loom large in the contemporary Australian psyche. Effective engagement with contemporary Australia is a core part of the Bible Society's mission, so it's strange they blundered into this discussion unprepared.
Still, the Bible Society should be applauded for being willing to try constructive engagement with an issue many other Christian churches and groups shy away from. An array of Christian perspectives are important to Australian public discourse because Christians are part of the Australian public. Nuance and goodwill in our political conversation are also sorely needed. The Bible Society understands all this, and the idea behind 'Keeping it Light' is a good one, even if its execution didn't achieve these lofty goals.
The Bible Society should continue with the series, but angering the people you're talking to, even by accident, isn't going to result in constructive discussion. That's why resources like this video, about these kinds of conversations, need to include all the affected communities from the very first day of planning. If you thought a Bible/beer partnership was weird, wait until you hear my idea:
A Bible Society/Australian Marriage Equality resource. Or, if they aren't interested, a partnership with an LGBTI community centre or mental health advocacy group. Or if none of those want to be involved, contact the Gay Christian Network, or Equal Voices, which exist to bridge the gap between churches and the LGBTI community.
The point of 'Keeping it Light' is sensitive, moderated, civil discussion between disagreeing parties, right? Why not be upfront about it? Better engagement from the Bible Society with LGBTI groups would facilitate a much more fruitful and respectful discussion. Perhaps in the process they might even learn something from each other.
Rohan Salmond is a freelance journalist. He tweets at @RJSalmond and is the producer of Godbeat, a podcast about religion journalism.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
17 March 2017
There are thousands of very different voices in the LGBTQIA community, and a 7 minute video can't have all of them, but Tim Wilson's is certainly one that should be heard. The fact is, if the Liberal Party ever changes its mind, it will be because of him. One other thing you should know - about the hosting by Bible Society – they have no view on marriage equality or any other political matter, nor do they have any doctrinal position, they want people to engage with the Bible.
17 March 2017
Some good thoughts here, Rohan. While the clip does sound a little contrived, that doesn't detract from the key point - that we can disagree with civility; and we can learn to articulate the other party's position without being snide or condescending. While it is true the Centre for Public Christianity promotes its point of view for traditional marriage, the Bible Society's role is to not hold to one position or another on a heap of issues. That is because of its place as a charity that works with churches and individuals who have differing points of view. BSA's role is to promote the Bible and the Bibles' place in these debates rather than promote a position. We can't expect everyone to understand this, hence the howls of outrage from certain groups in the community are predictable. Lastly, I believe all Aussies of voting age ought to be consulted on the decision about changing the definition of marriage. So may I point out that, if 70% of Aussies agree with the change to include same sex couples, it is the Labor Party and Greens that stand in the way of the change taking place because they have blocked the plebiscite.
17 March 2017
Terrific article, Rohan; not just because we (Equal Voices) got a mention! It was very sensible, and sensitive to the varying perspectives/emotions involved. We have any number of LGBTIQ+ Christians who I'm sure would be happy to consult and even participate in a respectful discussion about marriage equality. Re the Bible Society not having a position on marriage equality (Matti) I don't think that is true - except perhaps officially. However, the idea of wanting people to engage the Bible is good one. Here again, Christians of good conscience and good scholarship have quite different views about marriage equality - with a commitment to give an equal voice to all lying at the heart of what we at EVs are attempting as an organisation. For more info, go to: https://equalvoices.org.au/ Rohan, we'd love to have you (or someone from Eureka Street) cover the official launch of the movement by Hon. Michael Kirby on April 3. All are welcome.
18 March 2017
There's an old technique you often see - setting up a situation where one side is meant to be represented by a person who is hand-picked for a result, Tim Wilson is gay, but he's not recognised as a representative of the LGBTIQ* community. He hasn't been useful or effective as a gay man in parliament, or as a gay man employed as a commissioner of the Human Rights Commission. If (say) Rodney Croome was a participant instead, at least it would be someone we've seen stand up effectively for LGBTIQ* people. And Andrew Hastie is some distance from a recognised voice who has been advocating against marriage equality. Instead, it looked like the Liberal Party and the Bible Society trying to sell Coopers beer. A bit of time and effort picking the right participants, and less fetishising of the beer bottles (Freud would have had a field day!), and it might have been worthwhile. Instead, it was a wasted opportunity.
20 March 2017
If we're going to be respectful, then speaking of legalized same sex marriage as "reform" is not exactly respectful of the opponents of this move-which they by no means view as a "reform"- either.
20 March 2017
To me, as an old Methodist, the debate should be whether or not Christians should be drinking beer (or alcohol) at all - considering the damage it's mis-use does to our society.
20 March 2017
From my own knowledge and experience there are many diverse views among Christians on the issue of same sex marriage with many not agreeing with church statements opposing change to the Marriage Act. Leadership in the debate has not been encouraged by main stream church leaders other than those who hold the view no change. Likewise there are also differing views on the matter among members of the LBGTI
20 March 2017
Susan, I wondered too, when I read that Thomas Cooper, the founder of Coopers, was a devout Methodist. Apparently he refused to sell to public houses and, according to Wiki, he used no sugar in his beer, which made it medicinally attractive!
20 March 2017
It would appear that LNP backbenches along with the PM are putting LNP unity above justice for this community. Why do we not have politicians willing to exercise a conscience vote against the wishes of colleagues?
Dr Michael Furtado
20 March 2017
Exegists, among whom Rohan Salmon and some officially-appointed others appear to claim a kind of epistemic privilege (especially in terms of publicising the Bible) have, at the eleventh hour, little or no entitlement to a place in this debate, given the extent to which the Scriptures are associated in the public (and even in a certain kind of Catholic cultural) mindset, with literalist Protestant objections, mainly drawn from Old Testament sources, to homosexual practice. This discussion further ignores, and arguably seeks to exclude the obviously outraged reaction of the public to the fact that Christian discourse on this matter and in this country, except for a handful of Anglican and Uniting Church notables, has misread or else objected to the just claims of homosexual people to an equal human rights share of the social and economic benefits that a state-recognised civil marriage confers. The intellectual and moral argument against marriage equality has in this sense long been lost by Christians, whether biblical or otherwise. Yet another nail, I'm profoundly saddened to conclude, in the coffin of a by now inexorably moribund and recalcitrant Church!
20 March 2017
It is long past time that the Bible should be re-written. This may initially seem confronting, given the almost divine status it once held. But it has been done before, and it IS being done again. The first chapter of Genesis is a more intelligent re-writing of the crude, almost blasphemous account it superseded. But instead of replacing it, it was allowed to remain tacked on as an alternative view. Marriage in the Old Testament was nothing like Marriage in later Christian Societies, and was formed when building up the Jewish Tribes was considered paramount. Today with over-population of the World, a new perspective is urgently needed. The fantasy that represents Genesis is being replaced by Science, as imagination is replaced by scientific evidence, and much of the evil consequences of taking a literal meaning of Genesis are being washed away. These are considerations that need to be included in the debate about marriage at present.
20 March 2017
I find it hard to accept the premise of The Bible Society's video - that there are "good arguments" on both sides of the marriage equality issue. This is a matter of equality under the law and basic human rights. It's like saying there are "good arguments" on both sides of racism or sexism. e.g. "You may feel that men and women are equal. With great respect, I must disagree with you. I strongly believe that women are inferior to men and therefore should wait upon men. That is my sincere belief." Some opinions, no matter how sincerely held, or how courteously expressed, are simply wrong, offensive and harmful to society. As for Coopers, I never liked the stuff much, and certainly won't be buying it again.
Roy Chen Yee
20 March 2017
“It is long past time that the Bible should be re-written.” Why? It makes no sense to do so if you’re a deist and it makes no sense to do so if you’re an atheist. If you’re a deist, unless you rather oddly believe in an imperfect God, you must believe that a perfect God willed the Bible in its present form – as a closed canon - to exist in perpetuity. It’s possible that this perfect God might have intended someone someday to revise the document but there would need to be evidence for that. Where is this evidence? If you’re an atheist, a flawed Bible is useless as a foundational cultural document and deserves to be binned. A secular document either has the qualities to be a foundational cultural document or it doesn’t. Either it’s discarded from or it’s preserved in cultural memory. It’s not meant to be rewritten centuries later. Are you proposing to rewrite the Iliad or the Odyssey or the works of Shakespeare? On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop someone from writing a new foundational document. Authors, filmmakers and composers are always trying to produce something that will live long after them.
21 March 2017
Another aspect I find surprising and has not been much commented upon, is the "product placement". I find it quite bizarre that this 'forum' should have doubled as an ad for a particular beer. Credibility undermined right there.
22 March 2017
I am still puzzled as to why any of the parties to the video would produce it let alone fail to understand the huge elephants in the room they so naively entered. This puzzlement is at the base I suspect of the suspicion in the minds of so many who responded negatively.
22 March 2017
Rohan, you appear to be saying that the arguments used are not as important as the people who use them. I'm old-fashioned, and I still think it's important to play the ball, not the man. When did we resile from the duty to engage with the argument, and judge it by the standards of rationality? The Bible Society clearly hasn't kept up with the play, because it still clings to the old-time ways!
The Revd John Bunyan
23 March 2017
I admire the Bible Society for the way it seeks to connect with society today. "Public reaction" to its video in fact included much support for it. What is wrong with being "painted with the same brush" as supporters of marriage ? And the Bible Society surely not only "probably" but certainly does support marriage as the union of a man and woman, as do most people in the world (and a plebiscite would show whether this is the case in Australia - the supporters of "gay marriage" don't seem very confident in the result). I am theologically a very liberal (though culturally conservative) Sydney Anglican, supporting legal civil unions and I guess therefore also their blessing, but strongly also supporting marriage as currently defined.
Whatever a parliament decides will not alter my view or my discrimination (a neutral word in itself) between civil unions and marriage.
Needless to say, I deplore any instance of what is called "homophobia" though I also deplore the increasing intolerance shown to those who share my views, the labelling of them all as "homophobic", and the appalling attempts to silence them.
24 March 2017
Where I think the problem lies is in two places.
First I think the Bible Society's premise is contrived. If they're asking for "respectful discussion" the implication is someone in the debate is making it not respectful. And that plays to the general right wing narrative around this debate has been to portray LGBT people and marriage equality supports as an aggressive and powerful lobby while painting opponents as the oppressed. The discourse has shifted from the outright homophobia and religiosity you see from Pat Robertson like figures, to the more subtle "it's complicated" messaging of groups like "Marriage Alliance." For that reason I'm skeptical of the the Bible Societies motives.
Secondly I feel debate on this issue is useless. Debate isn't going to move the issue along. That will come from Grassroots political lobbying and activism. For that reason I criticise Tim Wilson's misguided decision to appear in the ad - there are so many other things he could do with his platform for LGBT people. Appearing in a debate with a fellow liberal on the Bible Society's terms is fine as a contrived academic exercise, but it won't help achieve legislation.
24 March 2017
"LGBTI issues - in particular same sex marriage - loom large in the contemporary Australian psyche." Really? Where's the proof to back that statement?
30 March 2017
It keeps getting reported in the media that 70+% of Australians support SSM Margaret. Does that equate with - loom large in the contemporary Australian psyche? Add to that businesses are boycotted for supporting Marriage as it is and others are jumping up to support SSM with public statements, flags lights at Canberra airport greeting politicians and lobbying politicians with letters. I also agree Julia that it is next to impossible to have debate...when people utter promoted lines at each other often without engaging in deeper reflection on the implications.
11 April 2017
The other oddity about this story that seems to have flown under the radar, is that a group calling itself the Bible Society is partnering with a company that produces and distributes alcohol. Given the mixed and negative attitudes towards alcohol consumption that exist within the spectrum of Christian Worldview and certainly biblical condemnations of drunkeness at the very least it's a bizarre alliance. Prohibition in the United States gained grassroots support through the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and was largely supported by rural protestants. King O'Malley, perhaps Australia's most influential if relatively unknown evangelical figure, was himself a teetotaller, whose most popular platform among conservatives was so rid Australia of barmaids "hired for their physical attributes rather than their prowess in drawing ale," who called hotels "drunkeries," alcohol "stagger juice" and was responsible for Canberra's unpopular Alcohol ban.