Australian Christian Lobby seeks to empower its grassroots

Martyn Iles is taking the group in a new direction

It’s Martyn Iles’ first federal election at the helm of the Australian Christian Lobby and he’s doing things a little differently from his predecessor.

When Iles took up the post of managing director of ACL in early 2018, he says the political landscape was changing.

“It used to be that our ACL leaders doing the lobbying could do a great deal. But these days, that’s not so much the case. Politicians want to know what difference their decisions will make in the electorate. They want to know where the votes are and whether there are ‘activated’ people who are going to do something about the issue,” Iles tells Eternity.

I’d love to see a grassroots movement of people empowered, equipped and inspired to stand up for truth. – Martyn Iles

“It’s a change away from conviction politics to pragmatism.”

Iles doesn’t see himself and other ACL leaders as the only ones who should be speaking to politicians. Instead, Iles envisages a “grassroots movement” of Christians who “are willing to speak up themselves”.

“I’d love to see a grassroots movement of people empowered, equipped and inspired to stand up for truth. [Politicians] will respond to numbers. They will respond to the louder voices. If we’re silent, we will be silenced. If we speak up, I believe we can make a big difference.”

The change of thinking from traditional lobby group to a “movement” is reflected in the new ACL branding launched this year. Its slogan “truth made public” comes alongside Iles’ focus on speaking directly to ACL members via blogs and video pieces, offering what he hopes is a way for people to “think biblically and Christianly about a whole range of issues.”

“It’s really just a recovery of the idea that our faith is wholly relevant to all of life. Scripture teaches us much about the fundamentals of what we believe in relation to the world.”

Iles says his plan is to equip Christians, inspire them from the Bible and then offer a platform to “put feet to their faith”.

“Religious freedom is one of those issues that fundamentally affects the whole of society for good or bad.” – Martyn Iles

ACL is certainly not the only “Christian grassroots movement”. Micah Australia is a long-running grassroots movement raising up Christian advocates for the global poor. Common Grace is another movement of Australian Christians focusing on justice issues including the environment, domestic violence, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues and the plight of asylum-seekers.

But it’s what Iles calls “moral issues” that he believes are the real political issues of our time that need a louder Christian voice. In that regard for ACL, not much has changed at all.

The biggest issue right now, says Iles, is religious freedom. Just as the last leader of ACL, Lyle Shelton, found himself a key voice in the big issue of the day – same-sex marriage – Iles says it is the current environment that has “served up” the next issue for his organisation to focus on.

“Religious freedom is one of those issues that fundamentally affects the whole of society for good or bad.”

“Anywhere that life has been taken or extinguished or given low treatment, I think that’s moral injustice.” – Martyn Iles

Iles quotes 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul urges prayer for “kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. The passage goes on to say that such things please God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

“It sounds a little like a prayer for religious freedom,” says Iles. For him, religious freedom is important to ensure Christians and the church remain free to “proclaim the truth”.

“I do think we live in times when religious freedom is gradually shrinking and there are real threats to it. And I think ACL is equipped to stand in that space and advocate for greater rather than less religious freedom. Or, at the least, if religious freedom should continue to shrink in God’s providence, that we might equip a church to take a stand for truth come what may.”

Iles is disappointed, though not surprised, that religious freedom has not made a dent in the current federal election campaign.

“It’s one of those issues that has been a little swept under the carpet. The major parties are pursuing the things they think are going to win them the most votes.”

That being said, Iles says the differences between the major parties on religious freedom are “strong”. His hope is that Christians will make religious freedom a priority as they go to the polls.

Issues of “life” are also on Iles mind this election. “How we treat life itself – particularly the lives of the elderly and the lives of the unborn – these are questions of profound moral gravity in our time.”

“Anywhere that life has been taken or extinguished or given low treatment, I think that’s moral injustice.”

Iles has spoken previously to Eternity on his desire to increase ACL’s action on asylum-seekers held on Manus Island and Nauru, saying Australia’s offshore detention situation “must be solved”, to find those held on Manus Island and Nauru a home and “give them freedom and hope.”

“It’s not right. It’s too long,” Iles said. It’s an issue on which ACL had previously been noticeably silent.

In December, ACL welcomed the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 should it win this month’s election. It’s one of the few issues ACL agrees with the Labor Party on. Iles tells Eternity that should the next government decide to cut the humanitarian intake, it would be something ACL would push back against. (Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced this week that his government would freeze the humanitarian intake at 18,750.)

But the issue does not appear on the ACL’s federal election policy analysis of “Christian values”, launched this week. This federal election, ACL has raised up thousands of volunteers to conduct pre-polling, letterbox drops and door-knocking, talking to people in key electorates about the ACL’s Christian values checklist.

“ACL is under new leadership and we’re pursuing an evolving direction.” – Martyn Iles

“That framework is what we think is the really important, central issue right now. And that is, for us, the religious freedom question. It doesn’t mean that other issues aren’t important. But we have to make a call on what is the most important issue to address.”

Iles’ predecessor, Lyle Shelton, is running for office as the Australian Conservatives lead Senate candidate in Queensland. Iles told The Australian last year that the major parties had abandoned Christians, but Iles says ACL isn’t telling people who to vote for.

“I think Lyle Shelton is a great man and his faith is sincere,” Iles says. “I wish him well. But ACL is not connected with Lyle in any way these days. It was a clean break and ACL is under new leadership and we’re pursuing an evolving direction.”

ACL’s values checklist looks at keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament, opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide, abortion funding and “radical” gender programmes in schools, and supporting faith-based schools’ ability to uphold their values. It gives full marks to Australian Conservatives, and high marks to One Nation. It also scores the Liberal Party far in front of Labor.

After the election, a big campaign running over three years is planned to raise religious freedom to the main stage of Australia’s public square.

“We need to educate the Australian public. Most people don’t know what religious freedom really means. They need to see tangible evidence of what happens when things go wrong to understand how big an issue this is and to decide that it might affect their vote. But that’s not something that you can achieve in two months in one election campaign. We’ve had to accept that this is a longer-term thing.”