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We need civil conversations about religion and marriage equality



Earlier this week, the Bible Society posted a web video featuring Liberal Party MPs Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie having a conversation about their opposing views on marriage equality. Both share their viewpoints, and are then asked to put forward the other's views to prove they'd been listening.

Scene from Bible Society Keeping It Light adTitled 'Keeping it Light', the idea was to show that a civil conversation on the issue of marriage equality is possible.

The response, however, proved otherwise. The video prompted a backlash from marriage equality advocates. Coopers' apparent sponsorship of the video prompted many to call for the company to be boycotted. The company — after a series of earlier statements that tried to distance themselves from any stance on the issue — eventually issued an apology and made a statement publicly endorsing same-sex marriage.

Marriage equality advocates argue that civil conversations on the issue are impossible, just as civil conversations on racial or gender issues would be impossible if one party refused to acknowledge that black people or women had equal rights and dignity.

The issue is an intensely personal one for LGBTI people who have had to overcome homophobia and marginalisation for their entire lives. Their responses to opponents of marriage equality are easily understandable in this context. With high suicide rates among LGBTI people, the question about whether and how conversations like this can be conducted is anything but a 'light' issue.

When advocates first began widely adopting the term 'marriage equality' to define the debate it was placed in the same category as racial and gender equality. Since then, the onus has been on advocates of traditional marriage to find a way to engage in the debate that doesn't impinge on the dignity of same-sex attracted people.

The fact that most people who oppose marriage equality do so on religious grounds makes this particularly difficult. Biblical, or theological, arguments are easily dismissed in a society that usually defines 'secular' as 'religiously neutral'.

Forced to conduct the debate entirely on secular terms, the arguments of traditional marriage advocates usually fall flat. People like Hastie make a valiant effort, but they fail to evoke the same intellectual and emotional resonance of civil rights arguments.


"People who hold biblical or theological views on marriage aren't going to be convinced by arguments that don't respect those views."


Our world has changed, and there's little evidence that children raised by same-sex couples are any less well off than those raised by a mother and a father. As a result, mainstream Australians, who aren't going to churches and increasingly aren't convinced by, or even aware of, biblical and theological arguments, have become mostly pro-marriage equality.

The problem with this approach is that it ends up creating the same disaffection and social isolation that it seeks to overcome. People who hold biblical or theological views on marriage aren't going to be convinced by arguments that don't respect those views. Even if marriage equality legislation is passed, same-sex attracted people will still face marginalisation, and even homophobia, within religious communities.

The alternative isn't to give homophobia and hatred a voice. No conversation on marriage equality should begin from any place other than that same-sex attracted people are equal in dignity, and worthy of the same respect and aspirations, as heterosexual people. However a conversation has to happen, and religion has to be included in it. Marriage equality isn't just a civil rights issue, it's also a biblical and theological one. Religious people need to be won over, too.

In opening up spaces for religious voices, advocates will find they have allies among believers. There are many who question the biblical and theological underpinnings of Christian opposition to marriage equality. The religious debate isn't as cut and dried as the civil rights debate, but there's a conversation to be had. And whether or not churches change their teachings, religious people can still be convinced to follow their own religious teachings on loving their neighbours when it comes to same-sex couples and their families.

The Bible Society video showed that there are Christian communities that are open to having a conversation about marriage equality, and to conduct that conversation in a way that respects the dignity of same-sex attracted people. While it may be painful for many marriage equality advocates to even admit that a conversation is needed, for the sake of building a more harmonious society they need to be willing to give space to that conversation.


Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Coopers, marriage equality, Bible Society



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Existing comments

The discussion about 'marriage equality' fails to take into account a legislated change that a child will go without either a mother or a father depending on which same sex relationship they wind up being brought up in. Currently, children being brought up by same sex couples generally find themselves in that situation through life events rather than a piece of legislation that actually denies and cuts them off from their biological history. The rights of children needs to be part of the debate about 'marriage equality'. Advocates for SSM snort at the idea of children's rights and just concentrate on adult wants. Whilst recognising SSM as a social justice issue for same sex attracted people, I feel that the legislation to give these people what they want would create a new stolen generation and a new group of kids who underwent forced adoption as part of government policy some decades ago. And these are the uncomfortable issues that need to be part of the whole discussion that comes under the question, 'what are the real consequences of changing the marriage act to include same sex couples?' I applaud the Bible Society's attempt to promote the idea of civil discussion!
David Martin | 17 March 2017

The issue is not that civil conversations are impossible but that never the twain shall meet even over beer, or scotch or coffee. Even Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie could articulate each other's position yet neither would move from their own on that basis...or any other basis. I was recently told I wasn't respecting another point of view yet all I did was disagree and disagreeing isn't the same as disrespect which was accepted once I articulated this but it's as if disagreeing was equated with not accepting and that equated with not respecting ie to challenge was not accepting (letting stand) but that is different to not hearing which would be disrespectful.
Gordana Martinovich | 18 March 2017

Why exactly do we need a conversation on Marriage Equality? This is a basic civil right of equal treatment for people who want to marry but don’t fit the traditional heterosexual picture. We don’t have a community conversation when a man wants to marry a woman. Discussion should not come into it because it is a matter for the couple concerned who want to make a public recognition of their love. GLBTI love is as genuine as the love of any heterosexual couple. There is a TV program called “Married at First Sight” which I understand (I haven’t actually watched it) is about a man and woman getting married at their first meeting. This gimmicky premise surely trivialises and undermines the sanctity and importance of marriage far more than Marriage Equality does; yet the critics of Marriage Equality have not called for a conversation about any of that. Funny also that many critics of Marriage Equality also support toughening the language of Section 18C of the RDA but they don’t call for a conversation on that either, they just want to do it. How about we stop trying to interfere in other people’s relationships and just live and let live?
Brett | 22 March 2017

Biologically, non-parent-ally.
Kathleen Cudmore | 24 March 2017

For me, the problem is not about the right to marry, but the definition of marriage. In our modern, individualistic society, marriage has become essentially just a personal relationship. In this context, of course gay couples should have the same access to marriage as heterosexuals. But I'm convinced that marriage is more than just a personal matter, that it has implications for society as a whole. In particular, I think we need to honour the male-female union as being something that is unique and special, because of its potential to produce a new human being. This male-female reproduction also exists throughout nearly all the natural world, so it is something that links us in with the natural ecosystem. As we now know, ignoring the fact that we are part of the natural world is not a good idea! Whether or not any given hetero couple actually has children is irrelevant, because we're talking here about a general principle. General principles are not necessarily true in every individual case. This is so hard to explain because it goes against our current assumptions about marriage - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong!
Cathy Taggart | 31 March 2017

Cathy Taggart, I do agree with you to a certain extent - but the problem with a purely biological perspective is that it still doesn't necessarily take into account the welfare of children. We all know cases of abusive biological parents, and I'm sure no-one would deny that same sex or single parent families can be just as loving and nurturing as the ideal biological parent family. By the same token, if I were ever to enter into a gay marriage, I would not presume that my marriage is automatically the same as a heterosexual marriage - because I do believe adoption, fostering , surrogacy and IVF laws etc need to be made with the welfare of chidren first - not the married couple (but in my mind this should be the same for hetero as well as same sex couples). Basically - the horse has already bolted on controlling traditional marriage according to the 'eco' principles you've outlined - and it's hetero couples that have led this and the laws are already in place that allow heterosexual couples to create families the same way you seem fearful SS marriages will.
AURELIUS | 10 April 2017

What exactly is the 'biblical and theological' view of marriage? Not, presumably, the one that once prevailed in which a wife was a chattel, 'given away' by her father to her husband. Religious communities in many instances have adapted to and followed social trends that improved the lot of various downtrodden groups, rather than leading them.
Maxine Barry | 10 April 2017


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