After years of prayerful consideration, I decided to ‘go public’ with my support for same sex marriage just over twelve months ago, after attending an inspiring panel discussion entitled, Equality, Discrimination & Faith run by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. I knew that many of my Christian friends would disagree with me, and some may even question the genuineness of my faith. But I felt it was important to speak out.
At the time there were relatively few Christian leaders, bloggers and public figures vocally supporting same sex marriage, giving the impression that there was only one valid Christian view, and that view was one of unconditional opposition. I wanted to challenge that assumption.
Since that time I have been vocal in my support, especially on social media. I have also published two previous articles on this topic: Why I oppose a postal vote and Can a Christian support same sex marriage? However, this is my first attempt to address in detail why I support same sex marriage, and how I got here. It doesn’t cover absolutely everything, and it’s more of an opinion piece than an essay or manifesto, but I wanted to keep it as conversational as possible and didn’t want to replicate what had been done elsewhere (including the list of Useful Links at the end of this post).
Who I am
For any readers I don’t know personally, I should specify that who I am is central to why I am writing this, and what I will write. I am a straight, married, Gen Y, Christian woman who has a number of LGBTIQ friends, family members and colleagues, many of whom are (or were) Christians. The LGBTIQ people in my life are a key reason for my taking this topic so seriously, and my Christian faith compels me to pursue truth and justice with compassion.
If labels are important to you, my ‘flavour’ of protestant Christianity could be summarised as evangelical and charismatic in equal measure, with a strong interest in the social justice application of Scripture, a heart for seeing the gospel of grace lived out in everyday life, and a firm belief in the separation of church and state. Hopefully that gives some context to my arguments.
Why I am writing this
It may be obvious already that I am writing predominantly for a Christian audience. This is essentially because I wish to demonstrate that Christian faith and support of same sex marriage do not have to be mutually exclusive.
I write with three main goals in mind: first, to offer my thoughts to Christian friends who are undecided on the issue and want to thoroughly think it through. Second, to explain my view to open minded Christian friends who disagree with my view but have expressed interest in understanding it. And finally, to communicate to my LGBTIQ friends that they can be heard and supported by Christians, even – and especially – if that has not been their experience.
My intention is NOT to either convince or to criticise resolute opponents (or supporters, for that matter) of same sex marriage. Many of those will have voted already anyway. My primary aim is to express my personal view for those who are interested, and I ask that any comments or conversation be reasoned and respectful.
International readers, while this article contains a lot of general points, it is primarily geared toward the current discourse in Australia surrounding a national postal vote on whether to change the law to allow same sex marriage.
Why it took me so long to write this
As I have already mentioned, my view on same sex marriage has been years in the making; it is not something I have taken lightly. It has taken me until now to publish my detailed position for a number of reasons. Being busy with work, life and travel accounts for a few of them. However, I also delayed because so many great articles expressing various aspects of my position have begun to be published in the lead up to the postal vote (links to all of these are included at the end of this article), and I wondered whether my voice would add anything meaningful.
Plus, I wanted to read up more on the key arguments for both sides, and gauge just how vitriolic this debate was going to get. It is difficult to express a view on this topic at the moment without drawing personal insults and aggressive opposition from either side. We are in the midst of a veritable war of identities and the emotional stakes are high. My goal is not to offend, so if I do, I am sorry.
Perhaps the main reason, though, that it took me so long to write this is that it’s such a massive, complicated topic, and has only become bigger and more complicated since the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns really took off. The thought of where to start and what to cover was, simply put, intimidating. So I won’t address absolutely every aspect of the debate, just what I see as the key points behind my support.
The power of stories
I have always been a lover of stories. Not just made-up ones, but real-life stories about people’s adventures, struggles and experiences. Nothing is more powerful than a personal story to convey an idea. We are wired for stories.
Listening to the voices of LGBTIQ individuals and communities has been absolutely central in shaping my view regarding same sex marriage. It is easy for heterosexual Christians to make assumptions about what same sex couples need or want, what marriage may or may not mean to them, and how Christian opposition should be received. But it is only by hearing the hearts of LGBTIQ people on this issue that we can truly begin understand how much this whole discussion affects them personally. I strongly encourage any Christians who have not sought an LGBTIQ perspective with an open mind to do so before casting their vote.
What I have heard resoundingly from LGBTIQ Australians is a longing for recognition and acceptance. I cannot hear that cry, knowing the self-hatred, rejection and discrimination so many of them have suffered, especially in the name of my God, and not be moved.
From what I have heard and read, expanding the definition of marriage is as much a symbolic gesture legitimising LGBTIQ identities and relationships as it is a matter of legal rights and entitlements. However, legal rights and entitlements are also central, and claims from the ‘No’ campaign that de facto arrangements are equivalent to marriage in this sense are questionable.
The importance of this change to so many LGBTIQ Australians, in light of the legacy of inequity they carry, is enough for me to want to give it to them.
As we have moved closer and closer to the dreaded postal vote, the public discourse regarding same sex marriage has become more polarised and emphatic (not to be confused with empathic – quite the opposite!). There is much finger pointing going on about who the biggest bullies are, but I for one have seen inexcusable vitriol and ignorance from both sides of the debate. We knew this would happen, but it’s still unpleasant to see such divisive rhetoric threatening Australians off differing opinions.
I am convinced that the discourse on this issue has become so heightened because the emotional stakes are high. It has become a battle of identities; conservative Christians vs. homosexuals. Sexual orientation and religious affiliation are so integral to so many people’s identities that it is understandable that some are feeling threatened and acting out.
Disappointingly, I observe many Christians leaning towards ‘No’ primarily out of fear. Fear of ‘what ifs’, fear of what the legalisation of same sex marriage will lead to in schools, in churches, in courts, in the workplace. I think what is behind this fear response is the sinking feeling, and overdue realisation, that Christians are no longer a moral majority in Australia. For hundreds of years Christianity has sat firmly at the centre of Western culture, with the church being protected and privileged by the State. Christian views have been considered mainstream and respectable, and people holding Christian views have had power and influence. This is ironic, given that the early church were heavily persecuted, and in the rest of the world that is more akin to the contemporary Christian experience.
It’s never nice being relegated to the margins; as the LGBTIQ community thoroughly understand. But perhaps it’s something we Christians need to get used to. Australian society is getting more diverse and less religious overall, decreasing the influence of the church. The 2016 Census reported that Christian affiliation had fallen to a record 52%, down from 74% in 1991 and 88% in 1966. Of the Australian population identifying as Christian, research indicates only a small proportion actually practise their faith, which suggests that not all Christians would hold to church teaching. In 2016, nearly one third (30%) of all Australians selected indicated ‘no religion’ on their Census form.
With such changes occurring, a biblical worldview is becoming less and less relevant to the broader population, regardless of what Christians think. We live in a secular representative democracy, so increasing derision of any distinctly Christian position in the public sphere should be expected.
Who owns marriage?
A person’s view about same sex marriage essentially comes down to what they believe marriage to be. Christians generally view marriage primarily through a biblical lens, as a sacred institution created by God at the beginning of time. The union of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis – one male, one female – is considered to fundamentally define the marriage relationship, and is frequently cited as the basis for opposing same sex marriage. However, in insisting that a biblical definition of marriage govern national law, many Christians neglect to acknowledge that marriage in Australia is no longer distinctly Christian in nature.
As a result of the decline of religious affiliation in Australian society, outlined above, the proportion of Australians opting for religious marriage ceremonies has markedly decreased. In 2015 75% of marriages were overseen by a civil celebrant rather than a religious one, with civil celebrants having overseen the majority of marriages since 1999. To seek to impose a biblical definition of marriage on a population which, for the most part, intentionally chooses not to align their marriage with the church, seems strange to me.
Cultural and historical factors
Many Christians refer to maintaining ‘traditional marriage’ when opposing same sex marriage, however marriage – including Christian or biblical marriage practices – has changed markedly over time, and has, in the past, exhibited features that today would cause us to cringe.
While it is important to note that marriage has, as far as I am aware, been universally the domain of a opposite sex couples throughout history and culture, more recent changes in gender roles and technology mean that, for the first time in history, same sex marriage makes sense. I agree that traditional marriage has been defined in large part by its capacity to produce children; but the fact is that today children can be successfully conceived, nurtured and raised without necessarily having both male and female parents present.
In Western societies for much of history, women were not really meant to work outside the home and were charged with full time care of children and ageing relatives. There was no state subsidised child care, no comprehensive welfare state, and no equal pay for women, so a male breadwinner was absolutely necessary to survival. At the same time, the only way to get pregnant was to have sex with a man, and staying with that man was pretty central to social acceptance.
Today, women work for (nearly) equal pay, access child care and can get welfare if they need. They therefore do not need a man to live. Men and women can also have children in a number of socially acceptable ways, including IVF, foster care and surrogacy. The opposite sex is not actually needed for this part either. With more flexible gender roles, both men and women can fulfil all the requirements for conceiving, nurturing and raising children without need of the opposite sex.
Think of the children
Many would argue that the male-female parent combination provides benefits beyond simply the fulfilment of traditional gender roles regarding provision and nurture; a key argument against same sex marriage is that it will hold negative psycho-social impacts for children. However, what this argument presupposes is that a male-female parent combination is always both possible and preferable. Indeed, cohabiting biological parents are few and far between anyway as a result of divorce, recoupling, abandonment and death. Cohabiting opposite sex parents in general are more common, but single parent families are widespread, as, now, are same sex couples families, regardless of whether or not they can marry.
To argue that a change to marriage law would be harmful to children not only neglects to account for the raising of many happy, healthy children in diverse family situations, but also ignores the fact that many opposite-sex pairings result in adverse outcomes for their children, whether through domestic violence or abuse, or through emotional absence, lack of discipline or poor example. It also assumes that a same-sex pairing is essentially unable to provide the kind of environment children need to thrive. Not only does this assumption defy anecdotal examples in my life and considerable existing evidence, but it also neglects to understand the diversity and complexity of family and upbringing.
I agree that it is important for children to, where possible, know their biological roots, and that having positive role models of both sexes is important to developing a health self-perception and interpersonal skills. However, as an only child of divorced parents, I am very aware that this can be achieved outside of a traditional nuclear family environment. I was predominantly raised by my father, but was able to spend quality time with my mother, and had a range of male and female adults in my life who supported and nurtured me.
Same sex couples can just as easily ensure their children are in touch with both their biological parents, where possible, and that they have a range of positive role models in their lives of both sexes. The two same sex couples I know with children value and implement both of these principles. Indeed, marriage encourages stable relationships which can only be positive for children. A healthy, balanced upbringing depends only on the willingness of the parents to make it so, not on the specific structure of the family.
The important matter of religious freedom
In addition to uninformed and vitriolic commentary from both sides of the debate, genuine concerns regarding religious freedom have emerged. Indeed, in recent weeks, religious freedom appears to have become the main gist of the ‘No’ cause. Overseas and local examples certainly highlight the importance of treading carefully as the legislation is changed and implemented. While positions in the ‘Yes’ camp vary, I am certainly of the opinion that religious groups, adherents and celebrants should have their right to disagree for religious reasons protected.
However, the most recent Bill proposed for same sex marriage was, in my opinion, comprehensive in its protection of religious freedom. Given the strength of the ‘No’ vote both in the public and within Parliament, it is highly unlikely that religious communities will be thrown under the bus. Indeed, there will be pressure to expand provisions to apply to religious communities, but I think that this is a different question to whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed under the law. Unlike many Christians, I do not believe a ‘No’ vote on same sex marriage will in any way address these risks. If anything, it gives more radical components of the ‘Yes’ movement more cause to disregard religious freedoms.
Separation of church and state
A frequent response from Christians when I indicate my support of same sex marriage is ‘show me the Scriptures that support your argument’, sometimes said defensively or facetiously, sometimes asked simply out of genuine interest and concern. For me, that is not the right question. The starting point for my position is, however, Scriptural; that is, the New Testament principle of the separation of church and state. This Scriptural starting point then enables me to look at same sex marriage from a faith perspective, but in the context of historical and cultural realities that affect our society beyond any biblical interpreteation,
I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state, based on Jesus’ refusal to challenge the state or start any political movement. Jesus was on about personal transformation and instructed believers to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’.
Furthermore, when I look at history, some of the worst atrocities and injustices took place when church and state were too closely connected. History teaches me that the best scenario for both religious freedom and social justice is a healthy separation of church and state, where church is free to determine the parameters for its constituents, without interference from the state, and state is free to make laws and policies without having to please the church.
This does not mean that I think Christians have no place in the public square; quite the contrary. I think Christian politicians and constituents should allow, and be allowed to, let their faith inform their political views. I think a balanced and respectful national conversation regarding same sex marriage is important, and I have no problem with my brothers and sisters exercising their democratic right to vote ‘No’ in the upcoming postal plebiscite. However, I will be voting yes, because I believe, as do many other Christians, that an essentially religiously framed view should not be able to dictate legislation regarding the rights of a social group that does not fall within the jurisdiction of the church.
The last word
I have voted ‘Yes’ today. If you have not done the same, or you plan to vote ‘No’, I refuse to judge or criticise you for it. I hope you will extend me the same courtesy. If you plan to abstain, let me encourage you to reconsider, and to exercise your democratic right thoughtfully and with conviction. This ‘vote’ is not binding, nor is it necessary or appropriate in my opinion. But the power lies with each one of us to make it as accurate a reflection of the status quo as possible, given the circumstances. We have until 27th October at the latest; let’s make the most of it.