“We’ve got to build the biggest army we’ve ever seen” to argue for marriage: ACL head

Eternity’s Kaley Payne sat down with Lyle Shelton, the national director of the Australian Christian Lobby to talk about politics and priorities for 2016.

What are the priorities for Australian Christian Lobby is 2016?

The big priority is going to be the marriage plebiscite, which is forecast to be after the [federal] election. If the election is held between August and October – that is, if the government goes full term, the plebiscite will likely be in early 2017. But the big priority will be making sure we prepare the ground for the plebiscite, which will either be this year or early 2017.

When you say ‘prepare the ground’, how hard are you going to be tilling?

Very hard. It means we’ve got to build the biggest army we’ve ever seen to really persuade our fellow Australians that marriage between a man and a woman is worth preserving in our culture for the obvious social justice reasons for children, so we don’t lose that from our culture, from our society and from our legal framework.

Marriage has been the focus for ACL for many years now. Is it taking a lot of energy and resources away from other issues?

Yes, it has. It has taken huge resources away from other issues that we’d like to be involved in. We are fortunate that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. You asked about priorities, but it doesn’t mean we’re not doing other things. We are. We’re engaged in the gambling campaign on poker machines, working with the Alliance For Gambling Reform. I’ve written a chapter for a book on Indigenous recognition [in the constitution] that will be launched in March and we’re involved in that cause as well. Our state directors are involved in numerous issues at a state level.

But our biggest priority is still marriage.

This is not of our doing, you know. We’re not the ones who are driving this debate. This was kick started in December 2010 by the Greens Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, and the debate has been going in earnest ever since. This plebiscite actually gives us, finally, an end point, and I’m very thankful for that. But because we can now see that end point, we need to make sure we make every post a winner and I’d urge every person in Australia who cares that marriage is between a man and a woman … to make sure we don’t lose that in our culture … [I’d urge] everyone to get activated in that this year.

This is not of our doing, you know. We’re not the ones who are driving this debate.

Is there a danger though – especially as the plebiscite will come after the federal election – that the impression will be that all Christians care about for this election is same-sex marriage?

There’s always that danger, yes. But the alternative is to be silent and to then not care about whether children are forced to be in a situation where they’re denied the love of their mother or father. That’s what is at stake in the marriage debate.

Also freedom of speech and freedom of religion, because if marriage is redefined in law, it will not be possible to say out loud that one believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, let alone teach it in a school or a church without falling foul of anti-discrimination legislation.

Do you think the major parties will be after the Christian vote in this election, and what sorts of things might they offer?

Obviously [ACL] will be engaged in those conversations, as we always are. We will have election guides and questionnaires and we’ll be holding ‘Meet your candidate’ forums and of course those forums will canvass a wide range of issues.

We’ve always pressed the major parties on what they have to say about overseas aid, gambling reform, surrogacy issues, the crisis in child wellbeing and of course indigenous issues. We’ll certainly be engaging with [politicians] on those issues and making sure they put forward policies that are attractive to the Christian constituency and meet those wider concerns of Christians as well.

There does seem to be a polarisation in the Christian community between concern for social justice vs moral issues – is that something you’ve seen?

What’s the difference between the two? I think if you take the marriage issue … if you look at social justice – is it ‘just’ for a child to be denied the love of their mother or their father? To me that’s a fundamental social justice issue. If you redefine marriage, you can’t say ‘no’ then to commercial surrogacy, and further reforms in assisted reproductive technology, all of which exploit women particularly. That’s social justice.

[Marriage], to me, is as big a social justice issue as is our welcoming and being open to refugees, particularly those fleeing religious persecution.

That, to me, is as big a social justice issue as is our welcoming and being open to refugees, particularly those fleeing religious persecution. Justice is justice, whether it’s a child being denied the love of its mother, or whether it’s people coming from overseas, or whether it’s the generosity we show with our overseas aid budget.

Do you think one organisation can adequately reflect the breadth of Christian views in Australia, and is that what ACL aims to do?

I’ve been with ACL almost nine years now, and we’ve always sought to reflect a wide breadth of issues. Can any one organisation cover everything? No. But we have always consistently worked on a wide range. We’ve been active in the recognition of Indigenous Australians, in gambling reform, in overseas aid (which we’ve lost, badly, because both sides of politics have walked away from the Millennium Development Goals).

Of course we’re concerned about human rights for the unborn, and pro-life issues. Or course we’re concerned about marriage and family, because if a society’s families fall apart, that has impacts on the budget bottom line; it has impact on human flourishing and human relations and the common good.

Yes, there’s a wide range of issues that we’re concerned about. I would love to get this marriage issue behind us, because I think there are broader issues in the culture which need addressing. But I think they’ll be harder to address if we lose the marriage issue.

If you put aside that ‘marriage issue’, what are the things you wish you could get back to?  

It’s not that we can’t or aren’t involved in those other issues…

But presumably those issues might get more attention if you weren’t saying we needed to build a ‘huge army’ this year over same-sex marriage…  

Sure, yes. But if we don’t build a huge army and engage on this issue, we’ve got to think about the consequences. We’re not driving this. Others are trying to change the definition of marriage. I think we’ve got to stand up and be strong, be gracious, and be persuasive because I think our fellow Australians can be convinced.

The sexual revolution has been a terrible failure.

If we lose this, it will make many of the other issues much harder. You can’t address the crisis in fatherlessness in Australia and western civilization in general, if marriage becomes a genderless institution. You can’t talk about the good of a father to a child if marriage is genderless. That simply
won’t be allowed.

I think there’s a fundamental issue in the breakdown of marriage and family in society in general, which is the fault of heterosexuals, not the fault of the gay community at all. That to me is a systemic issue that we need to rebuild.

The sexual revolution has been a terrible failure. It’s brought heart-ache and pain, particularly to young people; particularly to the 30,000 young people who find themselves in out-of-home care as a result of parental breakdown. Where we’ve gone with our sexual ethics has yielded bitter fruit, and we’ve got to find ways to rediscover the truth and beauty or marriage in particular for the wellbeing of children so that we can again build a strong and healthy society. That I think is really important. And that project will be made much harder if we lose the definition of marriage at law, and we’re no longer able to talk about the truth of what marriage is and what it means for the flourishing of children.

As the leader of ACL, is it difficult for you to consistently be at the forefront of such a divisive issue as same-sex marriage?

I’m not sure it’s as divisive as people think. There are certainly sections of the elite, and large sections of the media, that are very committed to it [changing the definition of marriage]. But we’ve been involved in polling on this. It’s not something that’s front-of-mind for the average Australian. Even Get Up, in their surveying of their membership, showed that marriage is somewhere around 12 or 13 in order of priority. Australians are thinking about other things when they think about politics. So I’m not sure it’s that divisive. I think the campaign is being driven by a very small, committed minority, and they’re doing a very good job. But I think most Australians haven’t heard the alternative arguments and if there could be a fair process where the other side of the debate could be heard, I think many people could be persuaded to say, “what a minute, we don’t need to define marriage.”

What do you think influences the Christian vote?

Christians are concerned about the future, they’re concerned about the sort of world their kids will grow up in, the sorts of values that our society espouses.

I think Christians, like a lot of Australians, want to see integrity in public life. They want to see politicians keep their word, keep their promises. So I think there’s a lot of cynicism in the electorate. I think Christians who hold to the Bible are concerned about marriage and family. They really are.

They’re concerned about the future, they’re concerned about the sort of world their kids will grow up in, the sorts of values that our society espouses. And we’ve seen a rapid deterioration of values, and that’s one of the reasons ACL was started, to speak into the values deficit there is in the political discourse. And also Christians are very much concerned about issues of compassion, no doubt. So it’s a broad range of issues: we want to see a just and compassionate society.