Friday, December 22, 2017

When the Church Loses its Way

In my devotional reading today I was reflecting on the career and fate of the sons of Eli. Hophni and Phinehas were religious leaders who were going very wrong, exploiting their priestly office for material gain and sexual favours. 1 Samuel 2: 25 reports that their hearts had become so hardened, they would not listen to their father's rebuke.  This hardening was the Lord's doing because by this time he had decided to bring judgement upon them.  This reminded me of Isaiah 6:9-10 which speaks of a people who are "ever hearing but never understanding, ever seeing, but never perceiving."

These are difficult times for the church in the West.  There has been widespread exposure of abuses of power, including sexual abuse, and there is growing disbelief in the Christian faith once delivered to the saints, including in church leaders themselves.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

After the SSM Party is Over: Troubles and Opportunities Ahead

This week Australia received the very unsurprising news that a majority of those who voted in the postal-survey supported Same Sex Marriage.  Four out of five people voted, and of those who voted, three out of five voted 'yes'.  No-one could say Australians are united on the SSM marriage issue, but it is clear that parliament must soon modify our marriage laws to degender marriage.  In Australia's political system even 55% support from voters is considered a landslide.  The 61.6% is being hailed as a crushing victory.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Three more thoughts on the Australian Marriage Debate

The marriage survey keeps rolling on – Australians still have more than a month until the survey finished on November 7. I keep pondering the wondering which way Australia will go with marriage, and what difference it will make. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More on the Marriage Plebiscite

In a previous post I offered some thoughts on the plebiscite to change the definition of marriage in Australia's Marriage Act.   Here are some more reflections in the light of responses received to that post.

Anyone who speaks up in favour of retaining the current definition of marriage can expect to be vilified.  Three kinds of vilifying responses I have received are:
  • “You are Hitler. People who are Hitler deserve every abuse they receive.”
    My comment:  It is impossible to reason with such people, and it is reasonable to expect that those who use the “bigot” slur like an axe will attempt to persecute and “re-educate” others using the full force of the law, should they ever gain the power to do so.  This has the potential to be very damaging and hurtful to many people.
  • “People who oppose ‘marriage equality’ hate change and should crawl into their caves and die, while the rest of us evolve.”
    My comment:  this is about as nice as white Australia's 'dying race' theory about Aboriginals.  The worldview it reflects is one of the inevitability of moral evolution, which has us all marching into a brave new world of ever progressing human rights regimes.  This is the view that history progresses, our descendants will be more moral than us, and we should be counted lucky to be on the right side of history.  However I should have thought that the careers of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the 20th century provided sufficient evidence that human moral progress is not inevitable, and also of the dangers of  imposing a particular kind of moral “progress” on a nation as an experiment in social evolution. The reality is that change can be either bad or good. The future should not be worshiped, nor should we idolize the past.  Just because something was “traditional” does not make it good – or bad, and a society can “evolve” in a bad direction just as easily as in a good one.  Moreover a related assumption held by some progressives that religions are inevitably dying out is mistaken.   For example, a recent poll showed that the percentage of Russian atheists dropped from 26% to 13% from 2014 to 2017.  This was after almost a century of atheism being the official policy of the Soviet state.  Yet the percentage of people who report having no religion is rising in Australia.  Patterns of religious belief ebb and flow in the history of nations, and there is nothing inevitable about any of it.  Doctrinaire belief in progress is one of the ideological blind spots of our age.  (See here for my list of bad ideas of our times.)
  • “Marriage Equality  will only affect gay couples, so it is mean and hurtful for anyone else to oppose it.”
    My comment: There is a mountain of evidence from other jurisdictions that the same-sex marriage push forms part of a much more ambitious project to dismantle hetero-normativity — not for every activist, but for enough to ensure that, as the process continues along its trajectory, conscientious objectors will always be prosecuted. 
Two Views of Marriage
The more I think, and the more I listen to advocates of marriage equality, the more I have come to believe that Australians have two quite different understandings of marriage in mind.  One understanding sees marriage as being primarily about intimacy and love between a couple, in which  there is no necessary connection with child-bearing.  The other sees marriage as being about couples forming families by committing exclusively to each other with a view to bearing and raising their own biological children together.  Both views are fervently held, but not by the same people.

I believe the provisions of our existing Marriage Act evolved to serve the second definition of marriage, and to restructure marriage laws towards the first definition will require a longer and more far-reaching process than just the introduction of same-sex marriage.  Concern about the outcome of this longer process is the essence of many people’s objection to same-sex marriage, but to those who hold the first view, this objection seems to be without merit.

Of course long-established changes in society, including the ready availability of contraception, abortion and divorce, have weakened the view of marriage as being about raising biological families.  Some people will say ”good riddance” to this understanding of marriage.  However the view is far from dead in the community, and it is not so easily discarded.  I see evidence of this in the trend among couples living together to decide to get married when they choose to bear children and raise them together.  I have observed this link many times in couples getting married. 

Child-Bearing and Attitudes to Marriage
Something I have long pondered is why Australia has been so slow to introduce same-sex marriage in comparison to some other nations.  One clue might be that Australia has comparatively low illegitimacy rates. Around one third of children are born outside of a marriage relationship in Australia, compared to at least 50% in most countries which have introduced same-sex marriage, such as New Zealand (50%),  Iceland (67%) or Columbia (74%).  There are a few exceptions: countries which have high illegitimacy rates, but without same-sex marriage, such as Costa Rica (70%) and Bulgaria (59%); but most countries with same-sex marriage have higher illegitimacy rates, and countries with low illegitimacy rates are much less likely to introduce same-sex marriage.  Ireland is the nation with the lowest illegitimacy rate to introduce same-sex marriage to date. It has also been one of the more recent countries to make the change.  Examples of nations with lower illegitimacy rates than Australia, and which do not have same-sex marriage are Switzerland (20%) and Poland (25%).  No EU countries with illegitimacy rates under 30% have introduced same-sex marriage.   What Scandinavian and South American countries have in common, in addition to being pathbreakers for same-sex marriage, is illegitimacy rates of over 60%: these are places where it is more normal for children NOT to be born to a married mother.

The factors which influence illegitimacy rates in a nation are complex.  Variables include the age at which young people become sexually active (earlier sexual activity is associated with higher rates of child-bearing outside of marriage), and the age at which people tend to get married.  However, whatever the complex factors determining the association between child-bearing and marriage,  these observations suggest that, where the association between child-bearing and marriage is weak, there will be easier acceptance of same-sex marriage.  This is because marriage will be seen to be less about bearing children and forming biological families, and more about intimacy between a couple, which reinfores the case for same-sex marriage.  Given Australia’s comparatively low illegitimacy rate, the struggle to introduce same-sex marriage may be won or lost on how strong the link is in people’s minds between marriage and child-bearing, not on their attitudes to gays per se.

What About Heterosexual Marriages Without Children?
One of the objections made to those who say marriage is about child-bearing, is: “Why aren’t infertile couples banned from marrying?”  Here is an (edited) repsonse I gave in one of the Facebook conversations of the past few days.

Marriage functions to regulate unions which involves “couples having a sexual relationship of a kind which results in the bearing and raising of children as a life-long project.” That 'kind' is taken to be heterosexual relationships in general, because, in general, this is the kind of sexual relationship that bears children. Even if a marriage involves a one person who is unable to conceive a child, there is still a need for a guarantee that the other partner not have a child outside the marriage relationship, because that would create competition for family resources. Marriage not only functions to protect children born inside the marriage: it is also there to stop a partner to a marriage conceiving a child outside the marriage, with all the emotional and financial ties that involves.  The issue is not only the potential fertility of the couple as a couple: it is also the potential fertility of a spouse outside the marriage.

Some same-sex couples do make arrangements for a child to be conceived in which just one of them is a biological parent, and the other biological parent is outside the marriage — e.g. a lesbian couple using a sperm donor, or a male same-sex couple using a surrogate mother — but this is exactly what marriage as we have known it was designed to prevent: having a biological parent outside the marriage. This is why there is a whole section in the marriage act concerned with defining the legitimacy of children.  My point here is not that the definition of marriage can't be changed, but that changing it to include same-sex couples significantly re-orients the purpose of marriage.

Seeking a Definition of Marriage from the Marriage Equality Movement
I am convinced that the essential nature and purpose of marriage is the key issue in the same-sex marriage debate. One of my disappointments with the marriage equality lobby is that it has offered no coherent definition of marriage, apart from the idea that people who love each other should be treated equally.  Marriage is about more than this. The ME movement has no coherent, systematic explanation to offer of why the whole definition of marriage should be what it is.  Instead the existing definition is taken as a given, and one feature, taking in isolation, is said to be discriminatory.  Marriage as a validation of couple intimacy is assumed, but without any serious analysis of whether the Marriage Act is designed to achieve this purpose, or whether it is an efficient instrument for it.  But if marriage is to be changed, why stop at gender?  Why monogamy?  Why for life? Why exclusivity?  Why include a whole section of the act on legitimacy of children? These are not questions the marriage equality movement offers answers for, and the only explanation of this silence that makes any sense at all, is that it would weaken their case to do so. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Postal Vote and Marriage

It seems Australia is making its way to a postal vote on whether we should change our marriage laws to remove reference to gender, i.e. to make same-sex marriage lawful.

Whatever the outcome of the postal vote, the parliament will still have to decide, and our representatives won't necessarily be bound to make the same decision as the people.  Even if most people vote 'no', some parliamentarians would vote 'yes' to a bill, and vice versa. 

If you have doubts about whether changing our marriage laws are a good idea, or if you disagree with it, what should you say to friends or colleagues who support the 'yes' vote?  I offer some thoughts here.

The 'yes' position may seem simple and  easy to understand. It says that everyone should be treated equally, so it's wrong to deny marriage to same-sex attracted people because it's wrong to make marriage available to some people and not to others.  This position sees marriage as an entitlement, a service provided to people by the state, like the right to an education or to Medicare, or to ride on a bus.  It sees 'granting' marriage as a form of respect. But is it?

The 'no' position is a more complex one.  It means thinking through what marriage is or should be, and why the state should be in the marriage game.  It also means thinking through what should happen to dissenters: those people whose beliefs don't align with same-sex marriage. 

I believe that marriage is a natural institution found in cultures all over the world. The features differ, but the heart of the arrangement is a man and woman who cohabit, have sex, and bear children together, and raise their biological children together.  The intended outcome of this process is the formation of families, which are intergenerational associations of biologically related people who also share a strong social connection. The process of joining together in this way is a long and difficult one, offering rewards, but also bringing significant risks. One risk for a woman is that her husband might father children with other women, creating competing calls on the family's resources.  A risk for a man is that his wife might bear a child by another man, and the husband could be end up devoting his life to support the raising of a child not his own.  There is also the risk for either party of being abandoned, and being left to raise children solo. 

Cultures and societies regulate how people marry.  At best this regulation works to maximize human flourishing, by minimizing the risks involved, and encouraging the formation of stable, strong families.  (It must be acknowledged that cultures and societies can also regulate marriage to serve other, less noble purposes, such as supporting male dominance over women.  Not all aspects of the traditional regulation of marriage have been positive.)

The regulation of marriage is complex in our society. It influences inheritance laws: for example, in our legal tradition a child born into a marriage is considered, by default, to be the child of the husband and his legal heir.  Divorce law, and principles affecting custody for children, and paying maintenance, are all aspects of the regulation of marriage.

In the English legal tradition, which Australia inherited, marriage was first regulated by the state in a signficant way in 1753. The law was called "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage", and the state got involved in marriage to stop men taking advantage of women through unregistered, secret marriages, which they might later deny ever took place. There were some notorioius cases of men doing exactly this.  This possibility greatly increased the risk of marriage for women.  Most of the limitations which the 1753 act placed on marriage continue to this day, such as the requirement that advance notice be given, that the marriage be witnessed, and that the marriage be publicly registered.  The point here is that the state got into the marriage business because of the risks for women associated with bearing children to 'secret' husbands. 

It is because of the purpose of marriage — that it involves sex and child-rearing – that the state intervened with marriage and placed restrictions upon it in the first place.   For example, marriage is, by default in our tradition, a life-long institution, because forming and maintaining families is a life-long process.  It is exclusive (i.e. monogamous) to minimise the risks involved to each party. These features derive from the basic function of marriage.

To put this another way, marriage has a purpose, and that purpose includes couples having a sexual relationship of a kind which results in the bearing and raising of children as a life-long project.  The state regulated marriage, and gave it the features it has, not because it wanted to award marriage as an entitlement to dignify heterosexual pairing, but because it wanted to regulate the bearing and raising of children, to make it safer and to help produce better outcomes.

What does the research show?  This is where it gets messy.  Study after study has shown that, on average, children have the best outcomes when they are raised by their own married biological parents.  Professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University wrote:
... if there is one major demographic change in western societies that can be linked to a large range of adverse consequences for many children and young people, it is the growth in the numbers of children who experience life in a family other than living with their two biological parents, at some point before the age of 15.
However, there is disagreement in social science literature about the impact of same-sex parenting.  This is a highly politicized area of research, and at least some of studies which have reported 'no difference' or a positive outcome of same-sex parenting are advocacy research, with flawed research design.  Another complication is that a high percentage of social science research is non-replicable.  Each side in the debate tends to favour the studies that align with their views.

What are the religious freedom implications of introducing same-sex marriage?  Paul Kelly, writing for the Australian, reported on findings by an Australian Senate committee on potential impacts of same-sex marriage:
There was the closure of all Catholic adoption agencies in England and Wales or the transfer of their operations to secular entities because their charitable status was removed due to their position and practices on same-sex marriage.
There was the intimidation of Trinity Western University in British Columbia, a Canadian Christian university, in which the province’s teachers board refused accreditation to its graduates on grounds they might discriminate against LGBTI students, a decision reversed by the Supreme Court of Canada after years of litigation.
But when Trinity Western applied to open a law school, Canadian legal institutions including the Canadian Bar Association and a number of provincial law societies voted not to accredit its graduates because they had signed a required university covenant to abstain from sex unless it was between a husband and wife.
The attitude of large corporates is a major concern. Last year ­numerous US companies threatened to boycott the state of Georgia after legislation was tabled seeking to expand religious freedom exceptions in relation to same-sex marriage. The companies included Disney, Intel, Coca-Cola and Unilever. Disney said: “We will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law.”
Given the support Australian companies have offered same-sex marriage, any idea they would not pursue this cause against religious freedom seems forlorn. Indeed, it is hard to find any statement of meaningful support for religious freedom and belief from a senior Australian corporate executive on this issue, a telling omission.
At home there was huge pressure for the sacking by IBM of Mark Allaby and by Macquarie University of Steven Chavura unless they resigned from other bodies perceived to oppose same-sex marriage. A boycott was imposed by hotels against Coopers Brewing because it sponsored the Bible Society, which ran a video not against same-sex marriage but one that put both sides of the debate.
In the US, Chick-fil-A, a sandwich franchise, was subject to consumer boycotts and government and commercial retaliation when a senior executive supported traditional marriage. Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla Corporation, known for its browser Firefox, triggered a consumer boycott because he had supported an anti-gay marriage position. He was forced to step down.
In Sydney the Mercure Hotel, which was hosting an event of various Christian groups to form a strategy against same-sex marriage, was threatened with violent protests such that staff safety could not be guaranteed. It had to cancel the event, an example of how easily the technique of intimidation can deliver. The most celebrated domestic case is the decision by Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner that the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, had a case to answer for distributing a book in schools defending traditional marriage.
Big Business has come out strongly in support of same-sex marriage, and is increasingly willing to boycott organisations or suppress individuals who think differently.  For example Google offers its business apps free to charities which do not discriminate unlawfully (i.e. in violation of the laws of the land in which the charity is located) for example on the grounds of race or physically disability, but where gender and sexual preferences are concerned, Google's absolute requirements trump national laws.  No Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church, monastery or convent could qualify for Google's support for charities because these denominations do not ordain women to the priesthood.

Australia has very poor protections for religious freedom, very little appetite to develop protections, and Australian leaders are generally ignorant of how religions work.  This makes it highly likely that people of faith will be hurt by the introduction of same-sex marriage.  It seems likely there will be little or no tolerance for those who do not accept same-sex marriage.  There will certainly be professions that people with such religious beliefs will need to avoid.

The suggestion that clergy will come under pressure by the introduction of same-sex marriage seems to be of little relevance.  Christian photographers and cake bakers are more likely to get into trouble than clergy. In any case, clergy can just get out of marrying people altogether by surrendering their state marriage license.  Marrying people for the state is not a necessary part of a Christian pastor's work.  Christians who want to have a church wedding could just go to the registry office and get their marriage blessed in church afterwards.

It is also important to grasp that the same-sex campaign is also about demolishing heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexual relationships are the norm.   The same-sex marriage struggle is not just about marriage; it is a staging post along a much larger and more far-reaching program of overthrowing the dominance of hetero perspectives, of pushing heteronormativity aside.

Underpinning the push for same-sex marriage is a view about sex. This is the view that people must have the freedom to do whatever they wish, especially in the area of sex.  This consumerist outlook aligns ideologically with the interests of big business, because consumption is all about personal choice.  This alliance of gender and sexual rights with Big Business gives the same-sex marriage push a particular compelling appeal in our times.  It is also not a coincidence that large corporations are pushing same-sex marriage.

What then might you say to someone who is advocating for same-sex marriage, if you have a different view?  First of all, you need to accept that if you disagree with others on this issue, neither you nor your beliefs may be respected.  There may be no way to communicate in a way that will win the other person's respect.  It may be just about holding on to your beliefs.

Here are some points you could make, if you wish to defend the status quo:
  • Marriage is not a human right. It exists for a purpose, and that purpose is all about people raising their own biological children to adulthood.  This is why marriage has always been for heterosexual couples. This change will alter the fundamental purpose of marriage. 
  • If we are to redefine marriage, and it is really a personal entitlement, why retain other legal limitation such as 'to the exclusion of all others' or 'for life'? What sense do these principles make?  Why not bring in temporary marriages, or open marriages, or poly marriages? If marriage is just an entitlement, a kind of personal freedom, why doesn't the state allow groups of three or more people to marry? What is the sense in that? If marriage is just a personal entitlement, why should such groupings be refused respect and treated like second class citizens by denying them the right to marry in whatever way they like?
  • Australia has almost no protections for freedom of religion, and it seems crystal clear, based on many outcomes in other jurisdictions, and even here in Australia, that dissenters will be punished and hurt, some severely, involving heavy financial penalties, for not agreeing with the state, if same-sex marriage comes in. Australia is not ready for this, and the journey to try to resolve these issues will divide us even more.  This change will not bring harmony or increase tolerance.
  • Some years ago Australia removed all forms of legal difference which applied to same-sex couples (except the label 'marriage').  So the plebiscite is not about legal standing or actual rights that affect people's ability to form relationships, own property, exercise legal rights etc.
  • A Christian view of sex is profoundly different from the dominant secular view.  It's not about self-expression or personal freedom.   From a Christian perspective, our identity is not about our sexual preferences or gender.  The assumption that opponents of same-sex marriage are  rejecting people because of their identity is fundamentally mistaken.  This is not a Christian understanding of identity.
  • Whatever the state or the culture decides to do with marriage, many Christians will continue to form and nurture marriages in ways which align with Biblical teachings, and not the dominant ideology of society around them.  And the Bible's teaching is clear, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chinese Whispers: More on Julia Baird on Christianity and Domestic Abuse

As a follow-on to my previous post on Julia Baird's article on Christianity and Domestic Abuse, I note a vigorous response by Dr Steven Tracy, whose work Baird cited.

I agree with many things Steven Tracy says about Baird's work, but I don't agree that she cited his research appropriately, nor that his own work appropriately cited the work of others. 

There are two problems here. One is the way Tracy cited his own work and the work of others The second is the way Baird's article relied on Tracy’s work, without checking his references.

Baird quoted from an article by Tracy published in 2008 which stated that: “It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that …  evangelical men who
sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives”.  To support this claim, Tracy referred readers to an article of his published in 2007 in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. The key reference is found in footnote 44.  Tracy cites five published sources in his footnote, which is attached to the end of a statement that "Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence, though conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives."  Note that there are two parts to his statement, but only the second part was picked up in Tracy's 2008 paper.

Tracy’s sloppiness was twofold.  First, his 2007 article did not actually report that evangelical men are more likely than secular men to beat their wives.  Second, in relation to his assertion regarding ‘numerous studies’, while the five sources he cites in the 2007 article did support the first part of his statement, that the more men attend church, the less likely they are to beat their wives, only one of these five, an article by W. Bradford Wilcox, supported the claim that “conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.”

One might say this is splitting hairs, because if there is a negative correlation between church attendance and domestic violence, then of course irregular church attenders should be more likely to be violent than the regulars.  However one of the sources cited by Tracy in 2007 was a New Zealand study which found that men who never attend church are the worst abusers, at almost double the rate of sporadic church attenders, and five times the rate of regular church attenders.   This appears to  contradict Tracy's 2008 claim that secular men are less likely to abuse than sporadic attenders.

Which leads us to the second problem, that  Baird’s article cited Tracy's research in a way which implied a positive connection between church teaching and violence. For example the section in Baird's article which discussed this issue was headed “The Christian men more likely to assault their wives,” and her article follows up the reference to Tracy by reporting that “Some attribute these findings to the conservative denominations and churches that preach and model male control, with male-only priesthoods and inviolate teachings on male authority.”

In reality, the  reason Tracy cited Wilcox’s research in 2007 was, in his words, to disprove the “feminist hypothesis that patriarchy is the single underlying cause of all abuse against women,” and the other sources Baird cites concluded that men’s involvement in church is protective for women. Christopher Ellison, whom Tracy cited, summarised his findings as “Religious involvement, specifically church attendance, protects against domestic violence,”  and the New Zealand research  reported by Tracy showed that the men who are the most likely to assault their wives are the ones who never go to church.

In summary, a chain of errors in citation has taken place here.  First Tracy makes a sloppy citation in his 2007 paper. Then he distorts this with a further sloppy citation in his 2008 paper.  Then Baird picks up this distorted report and runs with it. In this way multiple research findings which indicatED that church attendance is preventative of domestic violence became a suggestion that “denominations and churches that preach and model male control” are a cause of domestic violence.

It is significant that the research which Tracy cited to support his claim that a certain kind of evangelical men are the worst abusers was by Wilcox, who has severely criticized the way Baird relied on his research (in The Australian).  In essence Wilcox’s objection was that Baird’s article promoted a misleading negative stereotype, implying that there is a causal connection between church involvement and domestic violence, when in fact his research pointed in the opposite direction.

Although I believe it is true that preaching and modeling male control sometimes does make domestic violence worse, what seems clear is that the research Baird referred to does not show this.  Most of the fault lies with Tracy’s sloppy referencing.  Baird should have checked Tracy’s  evidence more carefully. Instead she joined a chain of Chinese whispers which transformed research findings that men’s involvement in Christianity was protective of women, to imply a positive link between church teaching and domestic violence.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Transformed Marriages - On Ephesians 5: 21-23

These notes are from sermon given at Oaktree Anglican on 18 June 2017.  See here for the audio.

The issue of equality between men and women, both inside and outside marriage, it one of the more challenging and significant social and theological issues for Christians in our day.  It is a subject on which Christians do not all agree.

Julia Baird on Christianity and Domestic Abuse

There has been media attention this past week to an article by Julie Baird on the ABC website about links between domestic violence and church teachings. There was also a recent 7.30 report on the same topic by Julia Baird and Paige MacKenzie. These reports document cases where religious claims are used to justify domestic violence. I was interviewed on the Bolt Report for Sky News on Tuesday about this, and my opening response to Andrew Bolt was “To be fair, on this particular issue, I do feel Julia Baird has a point …  I’ve encountered many women with stories like the one she describes, and it is the case that there are churches through their theology and practices that do make the abuse of spouses worse. And we do need to have a public discussion about it.”