Whom should you be able to employ or not employ in your business? If you run a school, should you be able to hire only those who agree with the stated values of your school? What if your school is a religious school? Should those you employ support your faith position? All of these questions are about discrimination: when, if ever, should someone be excluded from an activity or occupation because of their support for or denial of a faith position?
While these matters involve discrimination, they stand at the forefront of public discussion about religious freedom. It’s in cases where exclusion is seen or felt most is freedoms are being tested.
In this episode of the CCL podcast with Emeritus Professor Patrick Parkinson of the University of Queensland, we look at how religious freedom is gradually being squeezed in Western society. We’ll consider why this is happening, how Christians can prepare for what is coming, and why we have good reason to continue to hope.
Links referred to:
- Freedom for Faith
- Upcoming events:
- “The glory of true humility” (academic lecture) with David VanDrunen (Wed 7 June 5:00pm)
- “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling: Christian character in a characterless society” with David VanDrunen (Wed 7 June 7:30pm)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 29:12 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: Whom should you be able to employ or not employ in your business? If you run a school, should you be able to hire only those who agree with the stated values of your school? What if your school is a religious school? Should those you employ support your faith position? All of these questions are about discrimination: when, if ever, should someone be excluded from an activity or occupation because of their support for or their denial of a faith position?
While these matters involve discrimination, they stand at the forefront of public discussion about religious freedom. It’s in cases where exclusion is seen or felt most is freedoms are being tested.
Today on the podcast, we look at how religious freedom is gradually being squeezed in Western society. We’ll consider why this is happening, how Christians can prepare for what’s coming, and why we have good reason to continue in hope.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living Podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Today on the podcast, I have a very special guest: Professor Patrick Parkinson, who is Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. He’s also on the board of Freedom for Faith and is an Executive Director at a new organisation called Publica.
Patrick, thank you so much for being on today.
Patrick Parkinson: Thank you, Chase.
CK: Because we get into our conversation today about religious freedom, give us a little window into your new initiative with Publica. What’s it about?
PP: Yeah, so most of my career, which has been as a professor of law, has been concerned with families and kids. I wanted to get back into the public square and into work with churches on these issues to have a positive voice around some of the issues that society faces. This is no more so than with regards to the social environment in which our children and young people are growing up. That’s Publica. You can find it at publica.org.au where there are various fact sheets, reports and videos about some of those themes.
CK: That’s excellent. Thank you very much. I want to commend that resource to you. I’ve seen some of the fact sheets and the reports. They’re outstanding—very readable and accessible, and yet well-researched. You’re working with Michael Jensen, who is a friend of mine and a predecessor of mine, teaching Theology here at Moore College. That’s great.
The new morality
CK: Today, I’m glad to have you on the podcast to talk about religious freedom, something you’ve cared about a lot and contended for in the public square in Australia. We realise that many of our listeners won’t be Australian, but I think just, in one sense, a temperature check on where we are culturally and helping Christians appreciate what’s happening in society, especially with legal reform and the kinds of pressures we might be expecting to face in the coming days, might be helpful.
I’d love to explore an illustration you gave at a lunch we’ve just come from: you said, “It’s a little bit like a frog in a pot slowly boiling.” The frog is unaware of the temperature rising around them and that’s, in one sense, the kind of pressures that we’re starting to feel on religious freedom. Can you explore that illustration and tell me why you think that’s a really helpful analogy?
PP: A lot of individuals listening may have had no issues concerning religious freedom in their own lives. That’s great. But in society, we are seeing pressures from all sorts of different angles—not just around lesbian and gay relationships, and transgender issues, but a range of other things as well. If I were to put my finger on it, I would say it’s this: if you think about what is the set of moral values in whatever society you are in—be it Australian or English or American or elsewhere—in the Western world, the key moral code is “Thou shalt not discriminate”.
Look at all the other moralities we have let go and think about that one issue—“Thou shalt not discriminate”—and you’ll see that Christian are in moral opposition to the new morality of the age. There’s been a reversal of our place in society: we used to be the ones who promulgated, taught and emphasised the Christian moral code, which infiltrated the whole society. Now we are in immoral opposition to the new morality of the age. That’s playing out in all sorts of different ways, but no more so than in discrimination law.
The new morality vs Christianity
CK: Fascinating! Now, it’s interesting when you think about that: if the one thing you can’t do is discriminate, it feels odd, then, that we’re starting to feel discrimination for the very thing we hold dear. There’s an impasse here. How do we reconcile that in the public square? Or how does the public expect that to be reconciled?
PP: Two things: first of all, the commandment “Thou shalt not discriminate” applies to everybody except Christians. I don’t say that jokingly; I’ve said that seriously. I’ve lived in the university world for many years—particularly in the United States, more so than anywhere else, but also Canada. You see these diversity equity inclusion codes and staff whose full-time job is to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. But it doesn’t include people of religious faith, typically. I raised this at my own university: I said, “You’ve got this new policy. It doesn’t mention the religious values of so many of these students, were they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etcetera. So there is that hypocrisy, I think, in the whole movement: it really doesn’t want the same liberties for people of faith. But we just live without changing society.
Are other religions exempt?
CK: Do you think that other religions are maybe exempted from this, in one sense? In particular, the Jewish faith: to be anti-Semitic is not publicly permissible these days. In fact, Kanye West has lost a lot of money recently, because of some statements he said, like many other things online. But I just wonder if those subsets of community might be guarded in a way that Christians haven’t been, and is that, perhaps, in some way, our fault as Christians as perpetrators in the past. Why do you think the rising tide against Christianity in particular?
PP: The rising tide against Christianity in particular is because we have occupied the moral heights of our societies. Apart from Israel itself, which is obviously a Jewish state, the Western world has been built upon Christian traditions, Christian beliefs, Christian values. It is those values that are most being opposed now. So it really doesn’t matter what the Baháʼí do and think. [Laughter] But it does matter that we reduce the power and influence of the Christian churches. That’s, I think, their position.
When you talk about the Jews being somewhat protected, I would have to disagree, Chase. I think the level of antisemitism has been rising for a very long time—certainly in Australia, certainly in England and elsewhere in parts of Europe. In 2018, there was a 57 per cent increase in one year in antisemitic hate incidents recorded in Australia. Horrifying things. The Jewish schools in Sydney, where we are sitting now, they have armed guards. So, no, I don’t think the Jewish faith is protected.
Indeed, just a few years ago, the front page of TIME magazine said, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?”
CK: Wow! Terrible stuff.
PP: Terrible stuff. In terms of the Islamic faith, I think they are, to some extent, protected, because, for some odd reason, the progressive values around these things do not apply to new minorities—particularly refugees. Many of them are coming from the Islamic world. But there is an incoherence in the positions that a lot of these progressive groups take on these issues.
Squeezed for our faith
CK: One of the ways I’ve heard you describe the kinds of pressures coming in are ways that we’re being “squeezed”. How do you see us being squeezed now for our faith in the public society?
PP: Anti-discrimination law is the biggest issue. This is so whether you’re looking at Australia, which doesn’t have a constitutional charter of rights of any kinds, or even in countries that do. In Europe, there’s the European Court of Human Rights. There’s the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But even still, the freedom to hold a different view to the morality of the majority is being reduced over time. So I don’t think for one moment that we are under threat in terms of freedom of worship. Nobody cares what I do on Sunday mornings. I could play video games or I could go to church; nobody minds. But it’s what I do and say and think and believe between Monday and Saturday—that’s where we’re being squeezed.
If I hold, for example, that the fact that homo sapiens is a sexually dimorphic species (that is, that we are born male or female, and yes, there are human variations: those who have disorders of sex development, as we call them—yes, but fundamentally we are male or female)—if I hold those beliefs, I’m increasingly under pressure in Western society—no more than in the United States, where that has become almost an illegal belief to hold.
It’s not just Christians, because some of the lesbian and gay community have been caught up with those pressures as well. But these are the sorts of ways in which the beliefs that have been fundamental to us as a society are being challenged and are no longer acceptable to some. We can called bigots and we could be called transphobes and these sorts of things.
But there are also more subtle ways in which the idea that church and state were separate is being eroded. Let me give you an example from work I do, which is child protection. We’ve had terrible issues in the churches around child sexual abuse, as everybody knows. It’s not just the churches, though; state orphanages and the state schools have some very similar issues. But it has very much affected the church. So there’s been, I think, an entirely legitimate involvement of the state in regulating our childrens ministries to make sure that kids are kept safe. I’ve been very much of in favour of that and involved in that.
But from that permission around child sexual abuse has come a sense that the state can regulate other aspects of what we do as well. You may say, “Well, children are vulnerable because they are gay or lesbian—” (although those identities really don’t emerge until much later in adolescent years) “—and we can regulate what churches do around that as well. We need to protect children not just from sexual abuse or physical abuse or neglect, but from psychological harm—from the teachings that have been traditional in churches. These are the ways we are and will be squeezed—by increasing regulation and an increasing sense that it is okay for governments to determine what we teach, the staff we employ, and so on.
CK: Yeah, fascinating. And amazing, in one way, the way that something that could be used for such good can amount, then, to overreach in other areas.
Being censored and censoring ourselves
CK: I guess what you’re saying there, though, is, “While we might have freedom to worship, we could be in jeopardy, more and more so, of hearing what is and isn’t permissible in that space—even being censored, in one sense, about what can be said or not said in that domain. Is that correct?
PP: It is. But I think a bigger problem is that we censor ourselves.
PP: We talk in law about law having a chilling effect. A professional lawyer who is able to interpret the legislation will tell you, “Well, this is what it means, this is what it’s clearly prohibiting, but this is probably fine.” But that’s not a message that you hear if you’re a pastor or you’re a Bible Study leader, or if you’re just in secular employment without having any legal training. What you hear is a much scarier message of “The law now says you can’t do X.”
Think of it like the edge of a cliff: the lawyer can tell you where the cliff stops and the drop starts. But somebody’s who’s not legally trained wants to stay as far away from the edge of the cliff as possible, because they’re not sure where the boundaries are. That’s the chilling effect, and I think it’s causing a lot of Christians to self-censor. I think a lot of pastors are self-censoring on what they are prepared to talk about from the pulpit and what they are not prepared to talk about.
CK: Yes, I agree with you, and this is so fascinating for our purposes here on this podcast: as we think about Christian discipleship and what it means to live faithfully under Jesus, that kind of censorship of the message, even in the speech we have, should be emboldened by the Spirit of God, not somehow truncated by society. I guess what you mentioned before about how we live out our faith Monday to Saturday being of real public concern, I could see Christians, in one sense, suppressing their own faith in that space, thinking that it’s irrelevant in that context or must be switched off in some way, where they park their values in their home and they go to work, and they live like everybody else and do like everybody else, and then they come home and maybe re-engage with their faith in their home, or maybe not, because at that point, they’re so worn out. It just keeps happening over time, and they don’t get reinforced in their values in church because, like you’ve said, pastors may actually be nervous about that cliff edge and therefore avoid talking about certain things in certain ways, which may be actually part of the good news.
One of the things I’m very passionate about is helping people to see that the vision that God has given us for the good life is something worth speaking about. It’s something worth cherishing and clinging fast to in faith. I don’t know if you have any comments on that, but please.
PP: Let me give you an example. My field, as I explained, was really family law and child protection before I got into religious freedom issues. I am looking at a society that has, in Australia, but also in much of the Western world—all the Western world, really—gone further and further down the track of the sexual revolution. The values that were there in the 60s were probably moderate and mild compared to the values that, eventually, took control of the society. For example, the idea that you could just have a hook-up and maybe date later if the hook-up went well. We’re now seeing that sexual revolution reach its logical endpoint, which is a deep dissatisfaction with relationships. Young people are having less sex now than they did a decade or two ago—quite a lot less sex. People are forming intimate relationships, whether married or de facto, far less in their 20s and 30s than they did 20-30 years ago. Children in Australia: 20 years ago, about 25 per cent of all children born in Australia would experience their parents living apart by the time they were 15. It’s now at least 40 per cent. That’s not marriages breaking up; it’s de facto relationships breaking up. So we’ve gone down this path of saying that sex should be free as long as there’s consent, that marriage doesn’t matter, and we’re reaping the whirlwind of what we have sown.
As Christians, we really do have good news in this area. The evidence is that if you maintain a conservative Christian sexual ethic of not having sex before marriage—I know that sounds very old-fashioned now—but the evidence is if you don’t have multiple sexual partners, chances are, your marital relationship is going to be very much happier than others who have had multiple partners. Your chances of divorce are very much less. In all sorts of other ways, our story around marriage, family and relationships is a better story to tell than the sexual revolution can. It will take a long time for the society to wake up and realise that. But I’m confident in the future that if we maintain confidence in our understanding of what is good in life—the way God wants us to be—in the end, others will see that we have a better life that we can live.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I’d like to bring your attention to a few bits of news from the Centre for Christian Living. First, we’re starting a new initiative in our podcast where we want hear from and interact with listeners like you. Many of you have burning ethical questions or scenarios that you’d like advice about. We’d love to hear from you. Send us your issues and listen out for an answer in our upcoming episodes, where we’re going to begin featuring a short segment on your ethical challenges. You can send them to us through our contact page on our website.
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Of course, while you’re there on the website, you can check out all the resources from the Centre and register for upcoming events.
Now let’s get back to our program.
CK: What do you think it takes for that maintenance—that maintenance of confidence? How do you think we as Christians can continue to build on the good foundation we have and cling fast to it when hostilities rise?
PP: I think it’s going to take enormous courage. If you take teenagers in schools these days, if they hold to a traditional view of sexual morality—particularly on same-sex relationships—they are going to be called bigots and transphobes. They’re going to be on the outer with their social group.
So it’s not ever going to be easy from now on. It hasn’t been easy for a while. We’re going to need to have courage and a quiet confidence in God, and a trust in God that he will see us through these difficult times.
But let me give the caveat here: I’m at the end of my career. I’ve just recently retired from the University of Queensland. I’ve taken some knocks in my career because of my public stand for Christian values, however I haven’t really suffered too much. But there will be opportunities and careers that will become closed to Christians. There will be advances that we are not able to make in our careers because of our faith. The younger you are, the more likely that is to be the case, I’m afraid.
So now is the time to work out, I think, in our hearts and in our prayer to God, are we prepared for that? Are we prepared to pay the price of the promotion we don’t get or the job we apply for, for which we’re superbly qualified, which we don’t get? Are we prepared for a lower standard of living because we’re not prepared to compromise our integrity around our Christian values? These are real questions. They’re not hypothetical questions. It will increasingly affect people in their professional lives. Doctors and nurses might find that there are whole avenues of medicine they are not able to practise in because the challenges and compromises are too great. Lawyers and others will find these issues. So we have to make the decision to be courageous before that decision is tested.
CK: That’s very helpful. I take great courage, thinking about the work of God in our hearts and lives. You see the Apostles being told, at one point, that they’re not allowed to preach anymore, and the Sprit gives them boldness as they pray, and they keep going out courageously, they keep seeing the Lord deliver and keep, and they hold to a greater promise in the face of adversity.
As hard it is, I think there is something wonderful about that clarifying contrast that comes with a culture rising up against us, where the convenience of belief is now challenged and the commitment of belief really comes into view. It makes us ask ourselves, “Do I really hold to this?” When Jesus says to us, “What does it mean to follow me?”, it means “Take up your cross. If you’re going to find your life, you’re going to lose it, and if you lose your life, you’ll find it.” (Luke 9:23-24). That’s something we’re going to be testing: do we believe that in faith? I think you’re right.
CK: How do you prepare for that in advance? How do you think through courage, think through decisiveness, think through cost? Is that an individual journey? Is it a community journey? What ways can we be prepared?
PP: I think it’s essential that it’s a communal journey. It’s very hard to be an isolated Christian and have courage. It’s so much better to be part of a community of faith who all share that journey. For some, it will be a cost. For others, it won’t be. But at least we’re all together in the commitment to that decision.
But let me also balance it out by saying that the threats that we are facing are not from most of the community—not from the values of most of the community. They’re from what we commonly call the “elites” now, who are in government, in academia and often in big business—people who are, maybe, 6 per cent of the population. In the media, from whom these messages—these very strong value messages about “Thou shalt not discriminate” and so on—are particularly strong, I think 94 per cent of the population don’t share these sorts of values and beliefs. They vote. They are our neighbours. They are our friends. What we need to do to get through this time of being increasingly squeezed, I think, is to continue to love, care and support those who are hurting in our communities—to be examples of what living a good life can be. In that way, eventually the tide will turn.
Let me give you an example of this. I spent nine months in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era. The church was under great pressure at that time. A little church in a little town in Slovakia offered to build the first floor of a new children’s home for the local council. The local council needed a children’s home. The churches had this amazing capacity to build: they would all take their summer holidays, go to a place and build a new church. They offered to build the first floor of a new children’s home. The council was delighted, and then they could just finish it off with whatever size they needed. They then gave permission to that Christian community to build a church in that area.
I think what we need to do is to continue to love, continue to care, continue to serve the community in ways that most people don’t, and that witness will eventually prevail with the 94 per cent who aren’t on Twitter [Laughter] and who aren’t studying gender studies at elite American universities.
CK: Yes. Religious freedom is something we must uphold as a societal value, partly because faith is something that will never be coerced. So even with legal reform, for example, you can put certain kinds of fear into people, but if people truly believe something, irrespective of what may be capped by law, they’re still going to hold something deep within them that’s a core belief. If that’s true that so much of the population actually doesn’t share the values or even the beliefs of the elite who are pushing through these messages, that may have some effect of, you said before, chilling. But it may not actually completely freeze that faith. What that will look like as that faith continues to rise up and emerge will be really interesting to see in time. But let’s hope there’s not too much to have to work through in the wreckage of whatever comes in between then.
PP: There will be a lot of wreckage and increasing societal dysfunction. The churches must be there to be welcoming, healing communities for people who have made bad decisions and who’ve had a very rough time. The more that we are a wholesome, together community—the more we have our act together in our relationships, in caring groups within the local church—the more we can be welcoming of outsiders and not make them feel like outsiders, the more the gospel will spread.
CK: That’s very helpful. We don’t have to be ghettoed as Christians; there are ways in which we can continue to engage with those outside of our communities. The ways we can be caring for those beyond us can be with truth, but also matched with love. We can actually engage people with charity—genuine charity—and kindness, and hold to the truth with kindness. That’s quite a winsome characteristic, I think.
PP: I don’t think we even need to be talking about truth in this context. Just to give you an example, divorced men are amongst the loneliest in our society. There’s all sorts of reasons for that. It can come as a shock to them that their marriage has broken up. I’ve been through that myself. There’s so much we can do as a local church. We could offer, for example, DivorceCare workshops to divorced men and women, and then go on providing a place where people can form friendships and do things together. We don’t have to, then, discuss hard issues about the culture war. We just need to love and care for those people going through a difficult time in their lives. Then their openness to what makes us tick will be all the greater than it would otherwise have been.
CK: That’s lovely.
CK: Just as we wrap up this conversation, as people think about the squeeze, what hope do we have in the midst of the squeeze? It’s easy to feel like catastrophe’s coming and that it’s all doom and gloom; how do we keep holding out hope to believers standing in the faith now?
PP: I think it’s so important to find our joy in our relationship with God and the relationships that are close to us. An inner joy can take you through endless external trials. But that means that we listen to the Spirit of God when we pray, and that we are in tune with what God wants for our lives, and are not deliberately walking away from what he wants us to do and how he wants us to live. That joy will be the greatest defence to whatever adversity we may experience—or may not—in the course of our future lives.
CK: Patrick, I can’t thank you enough for coming on today. It’s been a real pleasure to have you.
PP: Thank you, Chase.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
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