What the plebiscite will teach us about Australia (and it’s more than ‘do we want same-sex marriage’)

Ask a conservative Christian political campaigner if the same-sex marriage plebiscite can be won and the answer is “yes”.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Queensland director, Wendy Francis tells Eternity that a plebiscite with compulsory voting is definitely winnable. But, in her view, a plebiscite with voluntary voting would be lost by the traditional marriage advocates because the middle ground that would lean towards traditional marriage would stay home.

“I believe many everyday Australians are not across the details and would choose not to vote. If a reasonable percentage do not vote, as was the case in Ireland, there is no legitimacy in the outcome, whichever way it goes,” Francis says.

Holding a plebiscite after the next federal election will give clear air to the same-sex marriage debate, and favour the conservative side.

“With a people’s vote, both sides can be heard, and it can be less about politics and more about what changing the definition of marriage will actually mean. The longer this debate has been going on, the more people are emerging with personal stories of why they, as children of same-sex unions, believe in marriage between a man and a woman. This is very powerful.”

The signals from Canberra following Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministerial ascension favour Francis’ preconditions for victory. Government senators on a committee investigating same-sex marriage put in a submission favouring a compulsory plebiscite. And Turnbull has stated that the timing of the plebiscite will indeed be after the next federal election.

Australia certainly does have a middle ground that is sympathetic to Christianity to some extent. In the 2011 Australian census 61.1 per cent of the people who answered the optional question about religion indicated some allegiance to a Christian denomination. By contrast 15 per cent of Australians go to church at least once a month, and 8 per cent weekly. Christianity, or church-going at least, has a hinterland.

But how rusted on is this sympathy to Christianity? While many conservative Christian leaders are confident, like Wendy Francis, that the plebiscite may be winnable, not every Christian leader thinks that way.

Addressing the US situation, mega-church and Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller says he is confident that conservative Christianity is growing but is concerned it is also becoming more isolated in society. He told the US Ethics and Public Policy Centre recently that he was confident of three trends.

“One is that conservative Protestant Christianity is going to be growing moderately in numbers and greatly in cultural diversity and racial diversity in a fragmented culture. Secondly, conservative Protestant Christianity is going to become consciously outside the box politically, but not consciously outside the box theologically. And, thirdly, it is going to get both more and less culturally influential simultaneously, with the end result in doubt,” said Keller.

“Number one: when I say ‘growing moderately,’ I mean that the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion is in the middle. The devout numbers have not actually gone down that much. It depends on how you read them. But basically, they are not in free-fall by any means.

“What I think is fair … that you don’t so much see secularisation as polarisation, and what is really disappearing is the middle.”

In the past, the “devout” had a shelter – a kind of umbrella in society that meant that traditional Christian views were protected, or at least treated with respect.

“I spoke on Friday morning to the American Bible Society’s board” Keller adds.
“American Bible Society does a lot of polling about the Bible … the use of the Bible, reading the Bible, attitudes toward the Bible. They said that actually the number of people who are devout Bible readers is not changing that much.

“What is changing is for the first time in history a growing group of people who think the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s regressive, it’s a bad cultural force, that was just never there. It was very tiny. And that’s because the middle ground has shifted, so it is more identified with the more secular, the less religious, and it’s less identified now with the more devout.”

A missionary who has been back in Australia from the Middle East told my church recently that “what has changed since we left ten years ago, what we have really noticed since we have come back, is how Christianity is on the nose with the public.”

And frontline Christian speakers like John Dickson have said similar things about how Christians are regarded when they make a media appearance, having changed from being seen as mildly annoying to regarded in some cases as evil.

The plebiscite will measure the effect of whether churchgoers, a relatively small group in our society, still have resonance outside our core group. Or whether the Keller thesis is right and the middle ground is disappearing.

One difference between Australia and the US is compulsory voting, so absence through apathy and not finding a sense of engagement with either side of politics is less of a factor. But if there is a plebiscite and same-sex marriage is voted in by the Australian people then the Keller effect will have been tested and found true locally.

If the traditional marriage side wins then we may have found that traditional Christianity still resonates across the wide brown land.