Tony Abbott and the right to dissent from the new morality

Tony Abbott
Ironically, the reaction to Tony Abbott’s decision to speak to the Alliance Defending Freedom proves that group right when it claims that our religious freedoms are under threat as never before, writes Michael Jensen.

Freedom of religion?

It has to be written with a question mark these days, because there is no guarantee that in a Western democracy in the 21st century you will be able to exercise it.

A new censorship has arisen which threatens the right of individuals and groups to dissent from the new morality. Oppose abortion? Unthinkable. Suggest that people who aren’t born with wombs but who want to call themselves ‘women’ aren’t actually women? Disgusting. Argue dispassionately that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman? You should be ashamed of yourself.

And so we have former PM Tony Abbott being invited to speak to America’s Alliance Defending Freedom, which is, to describe it in its own terms, “an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith”, or, to describe it in the terms of the Australian media, a “gay-hate group” – and copping a barrage of outrage.

I have found nothing in the ADF literature which could be fairly characterised as “gay hate”. What you have to remember is that the American habit of fighting ideological battles through the courts isn’t what we do here in Australia. The ADF is (as I understand it) about fighting legal battles in which claims for religious rights and freedoms are pitted against other claims for rights. For example, it defends the right of private groups and societies to decide what their criteria for membership are, over against the claim that such groups should not be allowed to discriminate – and defends it doughtily. Or, it defends the right of students to express their faith on university campuses.

It stands against the encroachment of a secularising liberalism in the USA, a form of liberalism which is anything but liberal, since it actively seeks to eradicate religion from public life entirely.

That ideology is becoming more and more active in Australia, it has to be said, particularly in Victoria. It uses political, legal, and bureaucratic instruments, such as the heavy-handed new guidelines for Special Religious Instruction introduced by the Andrews Government in Victoria.

The castigation of Mr Abbott for accepting the invitation to speak at an ADF dinner is telling. Most of all, it reveals that Australian media pundits hold their ethical positions on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage as self-evidently true – which is to say, abortion (for example) is held to be beyond argument, and a person or group who opposes it beyond the pale.

And so, the only possible response to Abbot’s move is sneering derision. If the ADF opposes abortion rights, or takes a different view of the family, it must be a ‘far-right’ group – that is, not worth taking seriously at the level of argument.

Now, as it happens, I don’t agree with everything that the ADF says, or with its approach to church-state relations. But these are serious people who make sustained legal and intellectual arguments for their positions, and use legitimate tactics to pursue them. Even a passionate pro-choice advocate should surely recognise that the issue of abortion is extremely morally complex. It deserves argument, whatever your position. The place and shape of the family is likewise a matter for serious debate, whatever one’s views.

We seem to have lost the vision of a genuine pluralism, in which competing points of view on serious moral issues are both allowed to coexist so that the arguments for each may be put. Rather, we resort to tweeting and shouting. Thankfully, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has injected a sensible note in the discussion, noting that people in his own party hold different views and that it is actually unsurprising. It may even be a good thing.

Ironically, the treatment of Mr Abbott rather proves the ADF right when it claims that our religious freedoms are under threat as never before. The ADF website states that “we will prayerfully enter every battle expecting to win while always demonstrating respect toward those who oppose us”.

That respect seems to be in short supply.

OPINIONTHE DRUM
AAP: PAUL MILLER

Dr Michael Jensen is the rector at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, NSW.

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