Lyle Shelton, right-wing men, a drag queen and a split in the Right

Lyle Shelton, Senate candidate for the Australian Conservatives, and formerly head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has tweeted up a storm. On the weekend he posted a selfie with members of the “Proud Boys”.

Shelton is in the front of the picture with four members of the proud boys and David Pellowe, a conservative activist, who was holding a seminar that day. On social media the storm centred on the hand signal two of the men are said to be doing, holding three fingers out to form a “W” and the thumb and forefinger forming a “P”, which is identified as a white power signal.

Famously, the man who massacred 49 people in two Christchurch mosques flashed the sign when he made an appearance in the Christchurch District Court.

It took a lot of effort for me to replicate the sign as posed in the picture posted by Shelton. I had to twist my fingers until they hurt. But it does appear that one of the men holding their fingers in a curious way is making the sign.

“I had never heard of this symbol until some people who are always looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment started going nuts on social media.” – Lyle Shelton

Several prominent Christians responded on Shelton’s Twitter feed. Peace activist Jarrod McKenna responded almost immediately: “I know you don’t like PC nonsense so let me make it plain, repent. When you are proudly taking photos with people making White Supremacist hand gestures, you need a come to Jesus moment, repent.”

Later responses included missionary Arthur Davis “Turn back Lyle, this is the way that leads to destruction”, the Fixing her Eyes women’s blog’s  “PC nonsense? This is deeply disturbing”. Missiologist Graham Hill added: “You are proudly posing with men doing white power hand signals and trying to convince us there’s nothing dangerous or racist about your friends. Have you relinquished your commitment to the ethics and way of Christ – or are you being honest about your true values? Repent, Lyle.”

The local Proud Boys are an offshoot of the US-based group with the same name. They call themselves “pro-Western Chauvinists”, but the FBI classifies it an “extremist group.”

Eternity asked Shelton whether he was aware that the men in the picture were doing white power signals. “No, I was not aware and, quite frankly, I don’t think that is what he was doing,” he responded. “I had never heard of this symbol until some people who are always looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment started going nuts on social media.”

He repeated what he posted in a tweet shortly after the McKenna comment. “I’m skeptical when the Left brand people Nazis, haters etc. So when a group of ‘Proud Boys’ invited me for a drink, I was happy to have a chat. I share their disdain for PC. If there are elements of white supremacy or advocacy of violence in the PBs, I obviously reject this. As a target of violence from the Left (my office was bombed, meetings disrupted, family home address placed on the internet, death threats etc), I abhor violence. I also campaign against eugenics as practiced in Australia against disabled & female unborn babies. I’m no Nazi.”

“Their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed.” – Martyn Iles

The case resurrects the issue of whether there are “deplorables” whom Christians should not be seen to associate with. The issue arose during the recent federal election campaign when an ACL voter information table appeared to favour the Australian Conservatives and One Nation. The issues chosen produced a card that would push Christian voters towards those two parties – with some different minor parties featured in some states.

ACL voter card

Presbyterian blogger Nathan Campbell, from Queensland where One Nation has been a major player, criticised the ACL voter card, which drew this response from ACL’s director, Martyn’s Iles, about One Nation:

“… their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

“I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

“I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation senators over [Clive] Palmer, [Derryn] Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

This is where the drag queen picture enters this story.

This image of a US drag queen doing story time at a library in California was the catalyst for a heated culture war debate. xochi_mochi

In the US, there’s been a strong Christian reaction to transgender activists setting up programs in public libraries but with an unusual twist. Rather than address the library issue, Sohrab Ahmari, Oped editor of the New York Post (proprietor K.R. Murdoch), opened up a broadside on David French, a conservative evangelical Christian writer at the National Review. Ahmari fired at French by using First Things, a conservative Catholic-based magazine but widely respected by a wide range of Christians. (Both magazines have a great history in thoughtful Christian conservatism.)

“There’s no polite David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war,” Ahmari tweeted. French, it should be pointed out, is a lawyer who has ferociously fought many anti-abortion cases – so it seems strange that a passionate recent Catholic convert should use him as a target.

The question is whether Christians should adopt a “classical liberal” approach to society, seeking a civil public square, or whether that battle has been lost and Christians should ally themselves with the nativist and populist Right (aka Donald Trump) and fight hard.

“Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions,” Ahmari wrote. “Conservatives should approach the culture war with similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.”

“Conservatives should approach the culture war with similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.” – Sohrab Ahmari

French responded: “In essence, Ahmari is forsaking classical liberalism – the commitment to neutral principles (such as free speech, religious liberty, and due process) grounded in respect for individual liberty – for a largely undefined version of Christian statism. Classical liberalism (especially polite classical liberalism) is the path to defeat and decay. Only a more robust statist Christian response can meet the challenge of the illiberal secular onslaught.

“Yet in forsaking classical liberalism, Ahmari is essentially forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”

Allan Jacobs, the evangelical cultural critic and Professor of Humanities at Baylor University, writing in The Atlantic, gives a good summary of the dispute which is all over the American media. (Who says Christianity is not news?)

He begins by pointing out that the idea evangelicals stand solidly behind President Donald Trump is a myth and this dispute makes that plain.

In essence, Ahmari is forsaking classical liberalism … for a largely undefined version of Christian statism.” – David French

Jacobs quotes John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things, to establish that Christians are natural liberals writing: It is “the Christian understanding of reason, faith, and how the world is created to be is the best guard against the totalitarianism, whether liberal or religious, that is invited by a monistic view of reality … This gives the Christian confidence that he can enter into conversation with the non-Christian … The Christian therefore tries in various ways to enter into the reason and language of non-Christians in order to help reorder them to truth.”

But he thinks that a modern Neuhaus might agree with Ahmari that a bad liberalism has overtaken the good. (One point that French deploys is the idea that the liberalism envisaged by the US founding fathers was only going to work well within a mostly Christian society.)

Quoting Neuhaus, Jacobs sums up: “The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom is titled Dignitatis Humanae. Respect for the dignity of the other person created in the image of God requires that we not silence or exclude him but try to persuade him.’ Even when people are wrong, he says, ‘we must put up with them or tolerate them or, much better, respect and love them’ – not because that is a politically effective strategy, which it may or may not be, but because we are so instructed by God.”

Australia is a different place, with a different history and certainly no Bill of Rights. So how does that US debate between Christians map out here?

First, with our choice of allies. A significant number of Christians may have voted for One Nation at the last election, particularly in Queensland. Both the Shelton tweet and the ACL voter card may be seen as echoing the Ahmari/First Things side of the US debate.

Other Christians are more focused on seeking a voice in the public square. Perhaps the Centre for Public Christianity, City Bible Forum and Eternity itself might be seen to reflect the David French side. (Declaration of interest, I listen to his podcast Ordered Liberty).

This debate also reflects the discussions going on at this very moment of what exactly a Religious Freedom Act should look like. From what I can tell, the territory being fought over is that of the exact point on the spectrum between a classical liberal position and a law that defends the activities of Christian institutions.