Last week an opinion piece was published in ABC Religion and Ethics by Steph Judd titled What Christian constituency? Which burnt bridges? Kevin Rudd, the ACL and same-sex marriage
. ACL's Managing Director Lyle Shelton responded with an opinion piece published called A Christian constituency does exist, and it should have a voice
A copy of his piece is republished below.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a journalist working for Rural Press Limited, I was posted to the company's Canberra bureau in Parliament House for six weeks to fill in for a colleague. I was intrigued at the influence various constituencies had over politics and the media.
My job was to write syndicated articles for the company's rural weeklies reporting on decisions from Canberra impacting the nation's famers. All manner of rural industry lobbyists walked the corridors and had open access to ministers and backbenchers alike.
At the time, rural industry was in decline as farms were being aggregated and families were leaving the land in droves. There were less than 100,000 broadacre farmers in Australia and these were represented by bodies such as the wool, beef and grains councils. Like all media boxes in the gallery, ours was stuffed with releases from a cacophony of organisations seeking influence. None were from Christian groups.
Something was wrong, I thought to myself. If farmers with their dwindling numbers could influence the democratic processes so effectively, why couldn't Christians? Sure, farmers were important to the economy, but their voting numbers were small and they tended not to live in marginal seats. I knew there were far more than 100,000 Christians in Australia, yet at the time there was no organised advocacy group working in the media or with politics putting their point of view to government. Even if only a fraction of the 19% of Australians who attend church once per month supported a Christian voice into public policy, they would still represent one of the largest constituencies walking the halls of power.
Fast-forward to the early-2000s, when Brigadier Jim Wallace, a former commander of the elite SAS and Army's Mechanised Brigade, came on the scene. He retired after a prestigious 32-year military career to take on Australian Christian Lobby. A leader and strategist, Jim gave Christians a rational voice into government.
Over the next 13 years, Jim raised up a formidable team of professional lobbyists working into State and Federal Parliaments. Like other "industry lobbyists," Jim maintained a high media profile, as did his various state directors. For the first time, grassroots Christians holding to orthodox Christian teaching were organised enough to influence public policy in a non-partisan manner through the democratic process.
While we assert that a Christian constituency exists, we have never tried to definitively quantify it. Yes, 19% of Christians attend church once per month. It is these committed Christians who populate the pews and tend to hold to orthodox Christian teachings on justice, marriage, human life, family and the importance of helping the poor - a broad range of policy areas that ACL has always sought to influence.
The relentless push by activists to redefine marriage has caused us to divert precious time and resource to upholding marriage over the past two years, but as important as it is, this issue has never been ACL's sole focus. For us the bigger picture is seeing both sides of politics persuaded to consider policy influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethic that until recently made the West the place that everyone wanted to imitate and still where most want to live.
This is our objective: to see an Australia that is a more just, moral and compassionate society. This can't be achieved by any presumed propriety religious position or argument, but if the ideas have merit, are for the common good and Christians can persuade governments through the democratic processes, why shouldn't they mobilise a constituency to this end?
The University of Sydney's Rodney Smith has said that he researched electorates that ACL had "targeted" and found no difference from the national swing. But unfortunately, he assumes a coincidence of method with other political players that we have long resisted. Until now, we have never even considered targeting electorates (although we are considering it for the upcoming election).
We hold "Meet Your Candidate" forums in some electorates, but this hardly constitutes "targeting electorates." It is a service to the Christian constituency so they have an opportunity to know the people they are being asked to vote for and what motivates them. Surely something any devotee of democracy would applaud.
While ACL cannot accurately say how big the Christian constituency is, others have passed comment on Christians' influence on elections. Writing in the Weekend Australian in 2008, Christopher Pearson referenced the former Labor Senator John Black's organisation, Australian Development Strategies, and its analysis of the 2007 "Rudd-slide" election:
"The most surprising of his findings is that the religious affiliation of swinging voters played a more decisive role in determining the outcome than any other single factor. It will have a markedly restraining influence on government policy."
This brings me to Kevin Rudd and his unfortunate capitulation on marriage this week. After years of being one of the strongest advocates for marriage, he suddenly changed his principles citing bizarre theological interpretations not supported by any of Australia's major Christian denominations, all of whom oppose redefining marriage.
In her article, Steph Judd suggested that I sledged Rudd and that this lacked Christian grace. Politics is a tough game, even for Christian lobbyists. We strive for grace and maybe I could have been more gracious. However, I felt it was also important that a clear message was sent that we could no longer justify and defend Kevin Rudd to the constituency.
ACL was heavily criticised by some Coalition members for giving Kevin Rudd a platform along with John Howard at our 2007 Make it Count election webcast. ACL was also criticised by many sceptical Christians who could not reconcile Rudd's behaviour with his claims to be a Christian, yet we defended him publicly as recently as two weeks ago.
While none of us are perfect, ACL was certainly prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and to urge forgiveness for his occasional outbursts, and his commitment to marriage seemed genuine. However his capitulation this week against every clear Christian principle means we can no longer recommend him to Christians and we needed to say this. Rudd burned his bridges and his hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life for his biblical principles, would be turning in his grave.
Judd further claimed that "some cannot but help interpret the ACL's public statements as hateful." But, as always, no examples were given to substantiate this charge. It is disappointing for ACL to be accused of a "sledge" or of unsubstantiated "hateful" comment when we are routinely labelled "bigots" for expressing our view on marriage.
This week the bigotry card was played by none other than the Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Senator Penny Wong. Senator Wong went on to say our views about the need for children, wherever possible, to have a mum and a dad have "no place in a modern Australia." No attempt was made to engage with our argument. Why bother when a slur of Christians will do because, to the shame of large sections of the media, it goes unchallenged. Fairness? Civil discourse? Free speech? It is sad to see our nation losing the capacity to reason from the top down.
Judd wrote, "The ACL has strong working relationships with most denominational leaders across the Christian spectrum, and on that basis it might be fair to claim that the ACL represents orthodox Christian beliefs." That is true but hardly supports the proposition of her article which questioned the existence of a Christian constituency.
While we have this strong working relationship, we are not a peak body for the church. How big is the Christian constituency? No one really knows. We have had over 100,000 Christians watching a single webcast with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, and have raised petitions of more than 100,000 supporting marriage. Not a bad effort when we are fastidious in ensuring the integrity of our petitions, even deleting double ups of email addresses, though we know there will be many occasions of people using a shared address.
I don't believe ACL has ever claimed it represents a constituency comprising 61% of the population, which is the Australian census figure of those who claim Christianity. We do from time to time point out the obvious and that is that a great many Australians resonate with Christian values and understand that our society was built on a Judeo-Christian ethic, something we are rapidly departing from without much thought for what might replace it.
Finally, Judd has claimed that ACL is more aligned to the Coalition than Labor. Sure, there are more Christians in the Coalition but there are many also in Labor. We even work with non-Christians in the Parliament as there are many people of good will who have similar values. ACL has always been non-party partisan and we have irked both sides.
Our relationship with the Coalition is testy over asylum seekers, gambling reform and internet filtering. But on other issues we share common ground fast being eroded in a Labor party widely identified as having lost its way and purpose, as indicated for our constituency by its broken promises on marriage, internet filtering of pornography and gambling.
Both sides are letting us down on the nation's promise to the world's poor to increase aid. And we make no apology for holding both to account on this and the wide range of issues of concern to Christians across the broad spectrum of justice and righteousness that we believe Christians want to see governments honour.
In this election we will do our best with limited resources to let Christians know how their MPs and Senators voted on marriage and where individual candidates stand.
If a shrinking farming constituency in all its diversity can organise its lobby, then why can't a much more substantial Christian constituency? There is a place for an organised Christian voice in the public square and a truly non-party partisan Christian lobby will never please both sides of politics at the same time.
As the voices opposed to Christianity and its values become more and more militant, the task of defending those values and even the very right to speak into the public debate from a Christian perspective become ever more difficult. But we commit ourselves to bringing Christian values into the public square whatever government is in power, trying always for the grace that Christ demands.
And we are forever grateful for the great majority of Christians who support us in that and extend to us the same grace and understanding.
Lyle Shelton is the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby.