From our CCL event held on 27/05/2020. Event handout (PDF).
Download and listen to audio from this event
Please note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Karina Brabham: Hi and welcome to our livestream event tonight. So tonight we’re going to be looking at the question of “Is freedom of religion a human right?” My name’s Karina. I’m going to be our MC for the evening. And I’m a student here at Moore Theological College, which is where we are broadcasting to you live from. So we hope that you are enjoying being comfy, maybe at home, and staying safe in this season of COVID-19.
So hopefully you’ll have received an email that’s given you a bit of information—what to do if you’re having any tech issues, including a link to the online handout for tonight. And if you are having issues, the other thing you can do is use the chat box in the livestream.
So here with me right now are our main speakers for tonight: so we have Dr Chase Kuhn and Michael Kellahan. Chase, starting with you, you are, as of this year, the new Director of the Centre for Christian Living.
Chase Kuhn: I am.
KB: Do you want to share with us just a little bit about what the Centre for Christian Living is all about?
CK: Yeah. The Centre for Christian Living is one of four centres at Moore College and the Centre in particular tries to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And so, we’re trying to help people think about what does it look like to live out your faith in this world? And we do that through a regular podcast that you can find through our website, as well as regular evening seminars like these: we try to do about four a year. And we try to tackle issues that are facing us in society nearby here in Australia, but also globally. And so, we try to offer as many resources to Christians as we can.
KB: Thanks Chase. Michael Kellahan, you are the Executive Director at Freedom for Faith.
Michael Kellahan: That’s right.
KB: Do you want to share with us just a little bit about what Freedom for Faith is—what you do?
MK: Sure. Freedom for Faith is a Christian legal think tank, and we just exist for one reason: we want to see freedom of belief better protected and promoted in Australia. And so, that’s an interesting space: it’s kind of the intersection of theology and culture and law and politics, and we’re kind of in the middle of that mess—trying to have a better conversation, trying to nudge legislation in a better direction than it might happen if we weren’t there.
KB: Thanks! So tonight, just to give us a bit of an idea of where we’re heading, the shape of the night is going to be kind of in three parts. So we’re going to start by thinking about what are the issues involved in this question about “Is freedom of religion a human right?” So Michael’s going to talk to us a bit about our Australian context and why religious freedom is such a big topic at the moment. And Chase is going to help us think through some of the biblical foundations that we need to keep in mind when we’re discussing this topic.
And then, as we move into our second section of the night, we’re going to be thinking about what are the practicalities of all this? How does it help us in our everyday living as we think about religious freedom? How does it help us think through current events and situations that relate to religious freedom.
And then finally in our last section, we’re going to have a time of Q&A, where it will be over to you: so you’ll have a chance to be submitting questions that you can put to Chase and Michael, and they’ll have a go at answering as best they can. And so, the way the Q&A is going to work is we’re going be using Slido: so that’s s-l-i-dot-d-o, so you can head there, and the code to use is “cclfreedom”. That’s all one word with no spaces: “cclfreedom”. And once there, you can submit your questions. You can also vote for questions. So if someone else has submitted a question that you think, “That’s a great question”, then vote for it, and that will increase the chances of it being asked tonight.
And all of that information about what to do with submitting questions—so Slido, the code to use—if you’ve already forgotten it, that’s information can be found on the link to the online handout for tonight. So you can find all of that there and I’ll remind us of that information a bit later on in the evening.
But for now, let’s hand over to Michael and get into the night.
The Australian context (Michael Kellahan)
MK: Thanks. I didn’t know we were going to have voting for questions. That’s awesome! I think the value of these kind of nights often is in the Q&A. So give us your best questions and we’ll try and get to that Q&A session quickly.
Let me help us get there by starting with a complete spoiler. Is religious freedom a human right? Absolutely! Absolutely it is. In fact, there’s no contest—there’s no real debate about that. In international law, everyone would recognise that religious freedom is a human right: there’d be almost no one that would oppose that. The ability of someone to act consistently with their thoughts—with their conscience—with their belief—most people would say that actually sits somewhere near the centre of what it means to be human. And law recognises that.
You think of some of the biggest treaties which are around from the last century—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—just after the Second World War, and people were looking at the death camps and the Holocaust, and the world is wanting to say, “Never again!” to that kind of situation. And as it does, it comes up with this Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights, obviously, have a longer, legal political history than that. But if you look there, it’s 1948, and the Universal Declaration, you see that freedom of belief is very much front and centre of what it means to be human, to have rights, and to have rights even against the state that might be purporting to act according to its laws. It says that these things are more important—more basic to what it means to be human.
It’s one thing for lawyers—for politicians—to kind of agree that such a thing exists; it’s another thing, though, to see it in practice. And so, if you look around the world today, serious scholarship on this says that probably 80 per cent of the world’s population don’t enjoy those kind of freedoms—actually don’t have the freedom to live out the faith, to change it, to meet with others—and that’s a global story, which sometimes we can be slow to see, I think. We have enjoyed remarkable freedoms in Australia by any kind of global historical measure. And yet, as a global city, we know that there are a lot of citizens here who have come from places that have not had that freedom. So I’ve met people who’ve fled from oppressive regimes in North Korea, in Iraq, in Syria, in Egypt, where their faith was the thing that brought persecution for them. That’s not the normal experience for most Christians in Australia. I think we need to be very careful not to play victims here—not to use language of persecution against that kind of backdrop.
At the same time, we do want to hold on firmly to that commitment to freedom as a basic kind of human right—as something where you shouldn’t be suffering discrimination because of your beliefs; you should be entitled to equal protection. Citizenship should not be dependent on what beliefs you have or—or what beliefs you don’t have. People of faith communities should be able to take part in civil society, even if they don’t hold the majority belief in that country.
Where there are countries that are committed to that kind of broad vision of freedom of belief, you see that you have peace. You have an ability for different groups within a society to live together well, and you have an ability for a nation to get on well with nations of different beliefs. And where those protections are absent, we find conflict, we find instability, we find terrorism.
So spoiler: big picture answer is yes: religious freedom is a human right.
Interestingly though, when you then kind of drill down to say, “Well, what’s the law like in Australia?”, you see there’s almost no protection of religious freedom—by the lawyers, at least. So if you look at our constitution, Section 116, there’s one provision there that says, “The Commonwealth shan’t make laws that deal with religion in these kind of banned ways”. But there’s nothing that gives rights to individuals, nor is there anything there that would stop a—a state government from acting in ways that would protect people.
You even find places—like, New South Wales has no protection under its anti-discrimination laws for religious belief. New South Wales and South Australia are like that. So when you work your way around the local laws, you don’t see that the great treaties that we’ve signed up for, like Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have local, national kind of expression. Instead, there’s a patchwork of inconsistent, incoherent laws that don’t do much.
And mostly that’s been okay. You know? For the last century of our nation, we’ve got along well with a doctrine of “Live and let live”. You know? With people being able to deal with difference. Yes, there’s been a Catholic/Protestant sectarian history. But even there, there hasn’t been appeal to law to kind of assert the rights of people who feel hard done by. It’s not as though, in Australia, you can appeal to the Constitution to do this. Liberty isn’t kind of in our blood as Australians, you know. Liberty is a Subaru for most Australians: it’s not something that is, you know, your first freedom and the thing that you would die for. It’s—we’re pretty compliant, you know, the—the lockdown at the moment, I think, is showing a lot of that. And so, you might think, “Well, what is there to be concerned about?” You know. Sounds like we’ve got it pretty well.
I want to suggest that there are some reasons why we should be alert, not alarmed—why we should be thinking carefully and not just taking for granted the freedoms that we have. And really they revolve around this: an observation that our society is changing. We have gone through a period of secularisation very quickly, and that would be a night in itself for Moore College to think through. But the church that was once the chaplain to the colony, or the place you’d go to find out what the moral majority thought, now finds itself in a very kind of different space: it’s now an immoral minority. Its views and its beliefs are out of step with a lot of, well, say The Sydney Morning Herald editorial won’t be the same as the church bulletin anymore.
But we’re now moving to the point where the laws of the land might be things that people of faith are out of step with. Why do I say that? ’Cause it is a big claim. I want to suggest that there’s a few reasons: the first is that we’ve seen this exponential growth of rights law that’s happened in Australian state kind of jurisdictions. So anti-discrimination laws have more and more protected attributes—things that if you hold this characteristic, the law will protect them. Not just things like race and gender that you have by birth—not just unchosen states like living with a disability—but things like in Tasmania, there’s a protection for lawful sexual conduct. And so, you have a human right in Tasmania to lawful sexual conduct. You know? Tasmanians, well done! There you go.
Now, what does that look like if you have a youth minister—an assistant minister—in a church who exercises that human right to lawful sexual conduct and commits adultery, which is lawful and sexual and conduct, and does that through the church? In a situation where the church is saying, “Well, that’s out of our step with our beliefs” and he’s saying, “Well, it’s in step with the law of the land’s protection of my fundamental human rights”, who wins? You know, that contest of competing rights there gets you into tricky waters, which the law hasn’t done a really great job of resolving. There’s no obvious way that they can be answered consistently across the land—especially when there are different states giving different answers to it.
Second reason we’ve seen the challenge at law is that one of the ways that religious freedom is protected is by exemptions to otherwise generally applicable laws. So think of a Catholic priest. Right? The requirement there is they have to be male and celibate, and in any other profession, you’d be saying, “There’s discrimination on the basis of gender. There’s discrimination on the basis of marital status”. But the Sex Discrimination [Act] then says, “You know what? Churches can have an exemption to do stuff according to their beliefs.” And the churches didn’t argue for that at the time that the Sex Discrimination Act came in; everyone just assumed that, of course, you’d need to do things like that, otherwise priests would find themselves dragged into court and the Catholic Church would be forced to go into places that are at odds with its doctrine. Well, now, people are saying, “That’s exactly what should happen.”
So the Human Rights Commission are saying, “Well, that kind of discrimination does look at odds with Australian values, and maybe they should just get a temporary permission to do something like that, which we will give or not give. We’ll work it out and we’ll talk with them about it.”
See, that’s a massive change and it really suggests that the state is growing. The state is encroaching into the public square and going into spaces where it wasn’t before. We’re in a different legal universe as that happens.
There are people who are actively campaigning for the removal—not just of those exemptions, but any way of protecting the rights of faith-based groups to operate according to their beliefs. I don’t want to be dramatic in saying that, but it really is where we’re at.
Now, that’s all come to a head over the debate with marriage and the question of whether or not people should be able to have beliefs which are out of step with the law of the land. Is this something that should be banned or something that should be permitted? Is this an evil to—that the law is supposed to remedy. Or is it something that the law is supposed to give freedom to protect? It could do either of those things, but it can’t do both. And the debate since that marriage debate on same-sex marriage has been around those kind of issues. We’ve had three years and many many enquiries, we’re appearing before the State upper house on these questions, again, in a couple of weeks. And as we do, there is a hostility towards religion and its ability to speak into areas which are contested.
Now, I’ve talked a bit about sex tonight. I’ve—I can talk about other things. But obviously there’s areas like relationships with other religions or questions of life and death—euthanasia kind of questions—where people just don’t agree. How does the law deal with that disagreement?
The last thing I’d say in terms of why we’re in a harder spot is to say that there’s actually outright hatred, which is being expressed towards some religions. And I think with this, we look to our neighbours who are Jewish and who are Muslim and who are suffering a lot more from anti-Semitism and from violence against places of worship, and we saw the terrible events of Christchurch, which could just have easily have happened in Australia by an Australian. You know? We are in a world where some people go to a house of prayer and find it—the doors—they’re covered in blood and a pig’s head at the door. You know? That’s not a pretty place to be, and it speaks to a discontent in the Australian soul—one that we need to really think about how we remedy.
So the lawyers have been trying to do that. The lockdown has seen the Religious Discrimination Bill go into hibernation. But that’s had the focus of political attention for the last couple of years. And we’ve had really good opportunities to speak with the Prime Minister, with the Attorney General—with his office—with a bunch of different faith leaders to really put the case for robust protections of freedom. We’re up to the third edition of that bill. We’re not going to see any action on it until this terrible COVID-19 is dealt with more. But when we do, there’s real questions there that need to be resolved that are legal, but at a deeper level, are actually cultural. It’s about how we deal with difference.
So rather than kind of getting drawn into the detail of what that bill does and doesn’t do—that may come with question time and with some of the examples—I think I’ll wrap it up there to say, yeah, we absolutely in talking about freedom of belief, aren’t asserting something which is crazy, but are going to the very heart of what it means to live in Western liberal democracy where differences are tolerated and space is made for the other.
Biblical and theological foundations (Chase Kuhn)
CK: That’s Michael. My hope is to really piggyback on what Michael’s been talking about in our society and actually lay out a foundation for us that is grounded in what the Bible tells us about humanity. In some of the ways we were talking—Michael and I went to dinner this evening—we were talking about the protections and provisions that do or don’t exist in society here—and there is no foundational Bill of Rights, per se; there is this “live and let live” mentality. And because of that, there’s actually challenges to when we want to reason about what is actually foundational to what a human being is and what should be protected or permitted, etcetera.
And so, I’ll give you an anecdote from this: I was giving a talk in a particular setting and there was one man who said out loud in a question, “We would all be right if we’d never let Muslims in Australia—if we could just go back and stop the Muslims.” And I—I paused for a second, ’cause all of us were a bit shocked and offended, I think, because our conscience and our—our political correctness was all, you know, around. I tried to turn the temperature down a little bit and I said, “Let’s think about what you’re actually saying here: let’s reason about what you’re saying here. You’re saying there must have been an Australia that was purely Christian at one point in time. You’re saying that what would be best is if everybody believes just like you, and I’m assuming you think that your position is the best one. Now, the only way to actually get there would be to get everybody on side with your position exactly, or to embrace a totalitarian state. But what if actually God’s design for the world was something of a plurality—a plurality of nations and expressions and beliefs in terms of a—an inherent freedom that people actually choose to believe according to what they want to believe and actually live according to their conscience?”
Early in the Christian church, there was a lot of persecution around, and one of the early church fathers was a—a man named Tertullian. And Tertullian was trying to address the persecution that was coming, because the emperors didn’t like that Christians wouldn’t worship the emperor. That is, in order to give allegiance to the emperor, they were meant to deify the emperor and Christians said, “Look, we’re not against the emperor; in fact, we’re prayerful for the emperor, but we cannot bow down in good conscience. We believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, and he is the one that we will obey and serve.
Now, what Tertullian did was lay out for us a foundational statement really about the human right of belief, and this is what he said: I’ll read you a quote here.
It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no service
to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice.1
In other words, if you’re really wanting true allegiance, you cannot coerce it. There was no way to actually bring about real worship by coercion. It has to be something freely entered into. And he’s trying to say, “We can worship our God and still give due respect to you as an authority” and, in fact, Tertullian in his letter goes on later to quote, basically, Bible passages that support this very fact.
And so, my hope tonight is just in the next sort of eight minutes or so to give you about three theological principles. There’s no one biblical text that we can turn to that says, “Every Christian should be able to worship as they choose.” The Bible doesn’t do that for us. But what we can do is make an argument for it theologically as we draw conclusions from what the Bible teaches us, and I’ll give you three quick points that I think will help make this case.
1. God made human beings with agency and dignity
The first is that God made human beings with agency and dignity. Now, those are pretty loaded words: agency and dignity. What I mean by “agency” is that we have an opportunity to make a decision and act. We can decide something and we can act upon it. And so, we’re agents in the fact that we can think and then act accordingly.
And likewise, that God actually made every single human being with dignity. Now, part of this was that God gave every human being a task in the beginning. In Genesis 1 verses 26-28, he gave humanity dominion over the earth and he gave us capacity for expressing that dominion. He gave us the ability for relationships. He gave us a discerning mind—a rationality. He helped us to understand rules and a sense of righteousness. And he helped us to be able to even procreate so that we can keep filling the earth.
Now, of course all that man was imbued with—humanity—man and woman—were given these gifts—these capacities—were meant to be used in service to the Lord. But that was not coerced. That was asked of them and they were meant to use those those unto God freely. Now, humanity, of course, failed miserably and they believed a lie, and everything went awry because of that—because of that falseness that they lived according to.
But one thing that God didn’t do is remove dignity from humanity: God actually upheld so many of these faculties that humanity enjoyed and he allowed them to continue on living even in a modified kind of task in the world, and he gives us this in Genesis 9 verses 1-17, really: he spells out a whole second wave, if you will, of what humanity is supposed to be doing in the world.
But what happened even though humanity had fallen is that ongoing accountability to God was never taken away, and in fact, our ever-accountable nature—that is, the fact that we will always be accountable to God—is, in fact, the mark of dignity: God counts us worthy of his judgement. We are his creatures and he is our creator.
2. God gives grace to all who live in his world
And this brings us to the second point: that God actually gives grace to all to live in his world. Now, the way that we have to think about this is, again, from Genesis 8:21-9:17 if you want to look it up later: every living being is given a structure for relationships even in a fallen world. And one of the great provisions there is for the basic right to life: that is, that there is a protection for human life. And if life is taken, life is required. And so, God is upholding the goodness of human life.
Common grace is given for every single creature in the world there. And we see this all throughout Scripture—ways that God is giving grace freely to every one of his creatures for life in this world. Psalm 145, I think, captures this beautifully—especially in verses 14-16, where the Lord shows kind care to all flesh, and he grants a basic satisfaction to all creatures. Everyone can live and, in one sense, enjoy their life—that rain comes on both the just and the unjust, because God is a giver that is kind. He provides graciously.
But also the Lord gives particular grace to his chosen people, and these people are satisfied in a different kind of way: they know God in an eternal relationship, and they find everlasting satisfaction as they know him nearly. This, of course, comes through salvation that God brings to his people—delivering them from humanity’s plight and leading them into that ultimate satisfaction of knowing him forever.
3. God gives the gift of government to uphold good order for all
And the third thing that God gives us is the gift of government to uphold good order for all. Now, this good order actually corresponds with this common and particular, and I believe there’s a diagram that I use often in different contexts: it’s a diagram in your handout that has some bubbles for you.
There is God that rules over all creation and you’ll see the big big bubble is a common bubble. But then there’s a small bubble in there that’s the particular bubble. We have all of the creatures living in God’s world commonly, and then we have God’s particular people—his chosen people—living even amongst that common realm, but in a different kind of relationship with God. They’re never removed, though, from that common domain.
And so, we think about government in both common and particular ways. And what I mean by that is we have a civil government that is good: God actually gifts us state leaders. He gives us powers over us that are actually meant to administer justice. It doesn’t mean that every single ruler always administers justice perfectly; that’s not the case. The point is that there are leaders over us so that justice will be upheld. Romans 13 makes this very clear in verses 1-7: it talks about the ways that actually they keep in line, they approve good things and they bring down evil things. That’s the rule of the state. That’s a good gift to us commonly in civil society.
And then, of course, we know that there’s a particular kind of governance that’s good for God’s people amongst the church. We have elected officials, if you will. We have people that have been ordained to this task to serve over spiritual affairs of growing us up into Christ and helping us live accordingly. Structure is good for us. Structure is good and even necessary for society. People have asked whether or not there will be government if there was never a Fall, and the answer is, “Yes, I think so”, because actually as part of our relationships in the world and even our dominion over the earth, there is a natural way for us to be relating in structural ways. This is good for common order.
Well, recognising these divisions that I’ve mentioned to you of both the common and the particular is very important for us as we think about expectations that we have of different authority structures in the world. Christians should not expect that the civil government would become an extension of the church. Nor should we expect that the church should become part of the civil government. In other words, we don’t want to confuse these categories. This should be—really amount to coercion or oppression—that is, if the state takes control of the church, they will coerce us. And if the church takes control of the state, they will oppress anybody, or maybe the other way around, I guess.
And what we’re trying to say is this is wrong: we shouldn’t expect these things. There’s actually a nice separation that happens, and Jesus himself honours this: he says, when he’s challenged by the scribes, you know, whether or not Christians should pay allegiance to the emperor—he says, “Give me the coin. Let me see whose face is on it.” And he says, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give what—to God what is God’s.” There is actually a division there, and actually right authority that Caesar would have over us and that we should be doing our civil duties, if you will, to be good participants in society.
This is also reaffirmed there in other passages where, in 1 Peter chapter 2, for example, verses 13 down to verse 17, we are told that we should be subject to every authority—that it’s actually very good for us to be living our lives out peaceably—being good civic citizens, and in fact, we testify in ways to God’s goodness and even testify to the grace that we’ve received in the ways that we do live: we are not people out wreaking havoc in society, but we’re living freely, and not abusing that freedom as we live out our lives.
I think the caution I would give to us is that we respect both authorities—civil and church—and that we want to make sure that we don’t over-extend authority in either direction. It’s important that we remain right perspective—that there is one King who rules over all and he will reign forever in truth and with justice. But for now, he actually appoints different kinds of leaders for our good. And as we await this king and his kingdom, it’s important that we recognise the good provision that God has made for a pluralistic society—one in which each human agent is upheld in their God-given dignity. That is, people are still allowed the free exercise of believing what they believe in their hearts and acting according to their conscience. That’s what God has given for us.
Freedom, of course, must be maintained as a basic human right, because it’s only in a truly free environment that genuine worship is possible. So even as we want people so badly to know the Lord Jesus Christ, they will only truly know him and worship him when they are freely given that chance. They cannot be coerced. It is only when one is free from coercion that they may truly repent and believe, and it’s only when one is not oppressed that they can truly give expression to their worship.
And so, we ask that the Lord, of course, would long grant freedom for all to worship and believe as they choose, recognising this gift of agency is a mark of dignity—one in which we will all be ultimately held to account.
Part 2: Thinking through the practicalities
KB: Thanks, Chase—thanks, Michael—for that. So we’ve oriented ourselves with some of the key issues in thinking about religious freedom. Particularly thanks for helping us think through the context that we’re in, Michael—to Chase for some of the biblical principles that need to shape our thinking.
KB: But let’s talk practicalities. So maybe just to start with, I think when we’re thinking about religious freedom, hate speech—that’s something that comes up a lot. So one man’s religious opinion is another man’s hate speech. I guess, when does speech cross over from merely being a disagreement to actually being hateful—to being hate speech?
CK: Great question.
MK: I can feel you flicking it! [Laughter]
CK: Yeah, no, no, no, no! I think it’s a good one. I think … I mean, we could—we could easily go straight away to the Israel Folau case , and I think maybe we should go there in a moment.
But I think we should be careful here: everyone is a victim today. I guess that—
CK: —one of the things that we were going to tell you is that Michael and I have not rehearsed anything we’re going to say right now. We wanted it to be a genuine conversation, and so if we’re fumbling about who’s going to answer what, it’s because of that. We wanted to actually be a free engagement about these things.
But Israel Folau is something we should talk about in a moment and I would love to hear from you about that, Michael. But I guess, one of the things I’m cautious about is anything that disagrees with me becomes an offence to me and therefore hatred.
CK: And I think as we even talk maybe in a few minutes about something like persecution, what is real persecution versus disagreement and dislike? And how does that actually play out?
But why don’t we go right to the hot topic of Folau. You’ve been involved with that.
MK: Yeah, well, from the sidelines, if I can use that pun. But it’s interesting seeing the way that Rugby Australia mismanaged that whole episode. So I think the kind of speech that Folau came up with comes up in all sorts of different contexts for all kinds of different organisations, and plenty of other organisations have managed to deal with it in a way that kind of separated the employee from the corporate position, and didn’t want to have the corporation saying to its employees, “We own your soul and you’ll only speak in ways that fit with our corporate mission statement.” Any kind of sporting code or company that wants to do that is going to find themselves in these really really tricky situations. And I think particularly because, you’re right: we do live in a society which, more and more, people are holding onto, kind of, their rights, and we get a lot of victim language, and hate speech there can become just “speech I hate”. And that bar is far too low.
CK: What do you mean by that? Give us some examples.
MK: Well, you know. We see it online all the time. So, you know, if you—don’t switch across to Twitter, but were you to do that, then you see people making claims that, you know, a mere disagreement—even one that may cause offence—is hate speech.
MK: The law has never gone that far. The law has been pretty careful to say it’s actually about incitement to violence. It’s actually—even if there are difficulties in drawing that line, that’s the kind of territory we’re in, rather than kind of mere offence.
Once you have mere offence, then—and it becomes subjective—then who knows where to stop? So one of the things that this Commonwealth Bill on Religious Discrimination does is picks up the kind of worst of those acts around the country—in Tasmania, where offence alone is enough—and it says, “Well, no: the bar is going to be higher than that.”
CK: And, really, I mean, you—you’ve made a really helpful point. I mean, something so objective as offence—I mean, who knows what’s going to offend somebody and what offence actually looks like, whereas hate speech that is inciting violence is of a very different nature, isn’t it. It’s almost a Westboro Baptist, for example, which is a very different—
CK: —kind of language than disagreement.
MK: And it—we got to be careful, too, that I’m talking about what should the law of the land be in terms of what speech is allowed. It’s not necessarily saying, you know, you’re at Moore College: how you’re training or—
MK: —preachers that—
CK: It’s not speech that’s encouraged.
MK: So we want to have—like, Christians actually want to model good speech and be miles away from, kind of, hate speech. The question, though, becomes whether you’re allowed to have any kind of differences on matters which are controversial. And the fact is, in a multicultural society where offence is not going to be read the same way—even across this city, you know: different cultures—different places—are going to think differently about what causes offence and what doesn’t, and where that line should kind of be drawn.
CK: Yeah. And I guess what I’m thinking about in terms of our context as Christians is we’re very clear that there is judgement in God’s word for certain kinds of actions—certain ways of life—certain rejection of truth, etcetera. Being clear about that is not necessarily something that’s ever done hatefully, because in one sense, we are not the ones that administer justice. Justice is something that we wait for and judgement is something we wait for. We are not the judges of the world in that sense.
MK: Yeah, and in—but in the Folau case, you actually had, if the leaked cross-examination is to be believed—you’ve got Rugby Australia saying that a photocopy of a page of the Bible could potentially be a sackable offence—you know, speaking those kinds of words—because they could just be an expression of bigotry. You know, at that point, Christians have no choice, I think—
CK: You’re not allowed to be a Christian. Yeah.
MK: —but to stand up and say, “No, no. Christian faith has always been public.”
MK: You know, we’re going to speak this. But not with an expectation that everyone will disagree. But to use the law to start policing belief like that is something we need to be very wary of.
CK: Yeah, very helpful.
Public faith and causing offence
KB: So for Christians, then, how public should we be with our beliefs? Do we want to try to avoid causing offence? Or should we be the people out there boldly proclaiming what we believe, even if it is offensive?
CK: Yeah, what Michael said is really helpful in the sense that we want to be miles away from any kind of speech that’s going to be perceived as hateful. In fact, even if we speak the truth and the truth about everyone’s circumstances that are common to humanity, the standard that we’re holding all humanity to, because it’s what God has spelled out for us, we’re speaking that truth in love and we’re speaking that truth in love in a way that is gracious as one that has already received grace themselves. So—and never in a place of superiority or, again, bringing upon his judgement immediately. So if we say something is a “damnable offence” or something, it’s not because we’re trying to send somebody to hell. It’s actually usually quite the opposite.
I don’t know if you would like to say anything else.
MK: Yeah, if there’s going to be offence, let it be the offence of the gospel and not the offence of you just being an idiot. You know? Or being offensive for its—
MK: You know? Like some people are just awful.
MK: And don’t be that person.
MK: But your first question, though, was about how public should we be.
MK: And I think that a really sharp question, because that, for me, is the—the very first question that the church needed to work out. You know, before Pentecost, the disciples say to Jesus, “Are you going to restore the kingdom?” (Acts 1:6). You know. “Is that going to happen to Jerusalem? Do we start ruling now?” So you—they’re ready for the kingdom to kind of happen.
By the time you get to the end of Acts, you see that Paul is under house arrest, but the gospel has gone to Rome. Why has that happened? Well, because it hasn’t been—they’ve said no to a private faith at every step. So when the Sanhedrin dragged them in and say, “Well, you—you know. Go back to your upper room. Don’t speak publicly in his name,” they say, “Well, he’s told us to. We’ve got a message to proclaim” (Acts 4:18-19).
And so, the Christian faith is only and ever always been—you know, it’s been public. With that has come persecution and a lack of power and things like that. But that’s okay. That’s situation normal, I think.
CK: Yeah, there’s never supposed to be a compartmentalising of the Christian life—that this is just my private set of beliefs that somehow I can check at the door and then I go live my life 9 to 5 and then come back and, you know, put my Christian game back on. It’s actually who we are. It’s part of our constitution, if you will. And I think that has to be done respectfully.
I think one thing we have to be clear about is that a public faith isn’t necessarily trying to seek to make a state faith. So in other words, just because I live out my faith freely and I want the most people around the world to join me in the faith, I only believe they can do that when it’s freely a choice for them. And so, I’m never actually hoping for the state to be the one that is bringing this religion to bear. So even though it’s as public as it can go and I—I hope and pray that all of Australia is glad to publicly be Christian—I wouldn’t necessarily then want the government to be Christian.
Dealing with differing beliefs
KB: I guess trying to, I guess, hone in a bit more there. So we’ve talked about how we want to be faithful as Christians in how we live, and that we’re living in a society where we’ve got people with very different views to us, and so perhaps their morals are very different to what we think is right. We’ve got kind of ideas about what does that mean in terms of the legal aspect. But in a more general day-to-day as we interact with people, how do we respect people who have very different morals to us?
CK: Do you want to say anything about disagreements?
MK: Yeah, look, I think we start by acknowledging the diversity which is there—that, yeah, people do—just generally do have different beliefs. And we’re to love neighbours with different beliefs. You know? That has to be the starting point, and I think relationship comes with that—that if you’re loving your neighbour, then you’re getting to know what makes them tick and they’re getting to know what makes you tick, and there will be questions and answers and it goes back and forwards. And you don’t see that diversity—that difference—as a threat, but as a given, and as an opportunity for you to kind of live out your faith and for them to share their faith with you.
And so, having patterns of law and government that allow for that, rather than having a state which kind of says, “Here’s the set of beliefs that are acceptable”, it’s a much better place to be.
CK: Yeah. There’s minimal interference that way, so that there’s more freedom for choice and how you live these things out, but less interference that way.
I—I think it’s very important for us to recognise that disagreement doesn’t mean necessarily shutting someone down. So being able to have an open disagreement with somebody is a very powerful thing, and I think what we’ve lost so much today is the art of dialogue and reasoned expression about why we believe what we believe. And so, we’ve gone down to just the shouting match of “This is kind of what I want and I’m going to shout at you and call you names unless you take what I say” and it just silences the conversation, rather than opens it up. But actually trying to have a—a robust discussion about these disagreements is a really healthy thing for society.
MK: Yeah, and it’s more than just kind of legal permission to structure things that way. It’s more than a philosophical commitment to engage on that. It’s about hospitality—
MK: —at that point, isn’t it? Like, it’s actually about getting to know the other and understanding who they are and what their hopes and dreams are.
CK: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we could take a very—
MK: —[inaudible] we’re starting to talk about mission.
CK: Yeah, well, we are. I guess we are, in some ways, because how do we live amongst a society that’s not like us in our fundamental values? Well, there are many fundamental values, first of all, that I think we need to tap into. I think that’s actually a very good starting point. And I think, actually, what the Bible affords us is a picture of a common good for all, irrespective, in one sense, of the belief. And so, God has actually framed up the world in a way that we can tap into—I think, in many ways, with conversations around natural law and quite a bit that’s recognised across faiths, in some ways. It gets us some basic building blocks for structuring our society and again, and one of those, I think, is what we’re coming back with freedom of religion and living according to our conscience. And part of that is, then, being able to have discussions so that we could freely agree or disagree—that somebody could truly opt in or out of belief—that’s a fundamental right, I think, according to what the UN was saying 70 years ago.
Our children and other faiths
KB: So you both in what you’ve kind of just talked about—there’s a good in being curious about other people’s views. When it comes to, say, our children, is it good and is it something that we should encourage for them to be learning about other faiths?
CK: I had this discussion, actually, with Akos Balogh from The Gospel Coalition a couple of weeks ago on our podcast, because I was saying, you know, I remember talking to a family at the school where my children go, and they said, “Look, we really want our children to be free” and they really were trying to kind of embrace the modern sort of zeitgeist, and they said, “We’re going to give them exposure to every major religion in the world and just let them make up their mind.” And so, their seven or eight-year-old kind of gets to go through the buffet of world philosophies and then gets to just commit themselves somewhere down the line. And the parents are just going to completely bless that, whatever it is.
You kind of think, “Oh, that seems really lovely, doesn’t it.” It’s actually very unloving, I think. What I would love to see is them taking a stand that “I have the right to tell my children what they should believe in this house, and yet they’re free to disagree with me robustly as they learn.” But because I actually love the truth and want them to know the truth, the most loving I can do is give that to them.
Again, I think we’re so afraid of actually giving somebody a position that we’re saying, “They have to be able to have anything they want and I can’t tell them that they should take something or not.” Which is a counter-intuitive to a freedom of religion discussion.
MK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, “Let me give you the three rules of how you should be a Christian and, you know, raise your children.” [Laughter] Who’d be game to do that, wouldn’t you? [Laughter]
Like, I think it’s one of those things where people are going to differ, and part of is how you view that school space. Like, is it something where it’s a shared space that you have in common that’s not the home, and it’s not just kind of out there; it’s somewhere where life is shared between families with different beliefs? Is there something that is—and a lot of Christians have gone there, where, you know, it’s—it’s so—the raising of children and the knowledge of the world is so foundational that Christians just start schools. You know? And so, we actually want you to understand, kind of, how the world’s been understood and therefore we kind of bring that in. So it’s a complex question.
But I think we’ve got to do it without fear. I think that’s got to be one of the starting points—that the, you know, truth wins out. That we shouldn’t be a—
MK: —we shouldn’t be afraid of people and we should be open to be surprised. We got a sponsor kid in Indonesia and was able to visit him and see the school that he was in. It was fascinating going to a place that’s majority Muslim. And the school, run by Christians there—run by Compassion—is there just for the poorest. Absolutely no discrimination between the different faiths; they just stand in the middle of the slum, which is there, and just say, “As Christians, we want to serve our neighbours” and everyone comes. And as they do that, they actually get a picture of what Christians are on about.
MK: That was the biggest challenge I think that I’ve ever had to thinking through how do you think through raising, you know, your children and school—
MK: —and those kind of issues.
CK: Well, again, and what I was saying a moment ago about how I want to be teaching my children robust faith in my home, equally I want them to be going into school and encountering other positions so that they have a realistic expectation of what it means to live in this world and to love people that are different than them. How to actually begin to listen to others and what’s framing up the ways that they’re thinking about life and what makes them tick. And so, yeah.
MK: And kids are at the coalface of some of this. So we’ve had a number of parents ringing Freedom for Faith and they’d say, in tears, saying, “Our kid is subject to bullying because they’re wanting to take a stand for Jesus”. And say things which, you know, kids are great at being cruel—figuring out, you know, how to make someone a victim—you know, three years ago, we had eight-year-olds being put on the spot: “Where do you stand on gay marriage?” You know?
CK: Oh yeah!
MK: Eight! You know? And—and it was the Shibboleth of secular orthodoxy: you know, “Where do you stand on this?” Give the wrong answer and you’ll be beaten to a pulp—
MK: —in the playground. Which—I shouldn’t be joking about. But—
MK: And it was terrible for these kids. And what an awful way for the school to kind of introduce them to civics—
MK: —and to say, “Hey, this is how we negotiate difference. We actually bully people into submission”.
CK: Well, it’s all under the guise of anti-bullying. So the whole agenda is we—we don’t want bullying, so we’re going to tell you the way that you should embrace every single position, and yet, if you don’t, you’re going to be ostracised. Yeah.
So how do you advise people with wis—what—what kind of wisdom do you give to parents on a “Wear purple” day or something?
MK: I listen a lot and I—look, I—I think it’s, again, like I start, saying, “Here are the three rules.” You can’t do that. Like, I think, it’s hard work, trying to work out what it means to be Christian in an increasingly secular post-Christian world, and kids are just, as I say, at the coalface of that. And we’ve got to help each other.
MK: We’ve got to think it through.
CK: Yeah. We faced this at our school and we’re really grateful for a lovely principal that listened well to us. We tried to show that we would listen to others—value others—value difference of opinion—and we actually appealed on the basis of rationality and difference of belief. So we said, “Look, our children are too young to be exposed to an agenda that is highly sexual and is going to introduce them to sexualised themes far too young than they’re ready for. And second of all, it goes against some of our core beliefs. Now, we very much want them to love different people; we want to be loving all people, in fact. But there are certain things that we would like to be introducing them to in time, and we feel like it’s inappropriate to introduce them in this way.” And I tell you, that was so well received and the school accommodated in the most wonderful ways. And again, that’s actually a demonstration of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and it opened dialogue about these things that actually takes the sting out of it and opens it up.
MK: Yeah, if it’s set up as, “I want to win and here’s what I want and this is what the other person wants and it’s irreconcilable”, no one wins. But if you go into the—that most difficult of conversations, saying, “Look, it doesn’t have to be zero sum game and, you know, we are concerned for this community and for the wrong that they’ve, you know, suffered, and—”
MK: “—for the hand that we’ve had in it—”
MK: —you know, like, I think, that has to be owned, you know? That has to be part of the conversation.
CK: That’s helpful. You were telling me something over dinner, actually, Michael: I think one of the things you’ve just said in that tactic is that we can actually affirm the other that are different than us, and—in terms of a care and a respect. And—and one of the things I was impressed with with Freedom for Faith is that you’ve actually not just lobbied for the Christian position and the Christian right, but there have been times when you’ve been able to advocate for the religious minorities, like, as you’ve said, those that are suffering anti-Semitism or those that are against Islam and especially the kind of demonisation of Islam on the whole. Just can you tell briefly to the whole audience why that’s been effective for you all and how it’s worked out.
MK: Well, we do it ’cause it’s the right thing to do. So we do it out of principle—
MK: —but it—the opportunities for it come up all the time too. So even just in the last few weeks, we’ve had a situation where every—I don’t know—charity looking after people in poverty at the moment are massively stretched. And we’ve had ongoing contact with some Muslim leaders in Western Sydney I’m honoured to call friends. One of them runs a charity that suddenly found itself trying to feed thousands of people—families that were homeless, who’d never been homeless, and so on. And the government—New South Wales government—has a scheme where they give food to charities to hand on to homeless. They use the charities as an efficient means of getting food out.
But for a long time, they’ve had this rule that kind of says, “To avoid proselytisation, we’re going to make sure it doesn’t go to religious groups.” And there’s an argument for that and that’s fair enough. But what it meant for my Muslim friend was he said to me, “Look, we’ve got all these people—middle of Ramadam—wanting to fast and eat in certain ways, and the only food which has been offered to them is unclean. And they can’t eat it.” And so, you’ve got a government there that’s got a duty to care for the poor, and some of the most poor and marginalised and vulnerable people can’t access the thing, and the thing’s that getting in the way is this lack of freedom of religion. And so, we were able, with other Christians, to go to government and to say, “Look, for the purposes of—of at least lifting the problem that’s facing these people right here, right now, please get rid of this thing.” And for Christians and Jews to be able to stand together and plead that for the sake of Muslims, it allows the government to say, “Well, that’s okay. We’re not going to have these groups competing against each other. So we can see if we can lift this. It kind of makes sense.”
MK: And it would only be the most kind of hard-hearted secularist that would say, “Don’t give those people food!” or “Make them eat food which is going to go against their conscience.”
MK: So, you know, that—that’s an example. But those—
MK: —those kinds of things come up all the time.
CK: Or to take it on the other end, only to make it about proselytisation.
CK: So in other words, the church would only give it to them if they received Jesus or something, where you see that strong coercion, then, against somebody to try to bring them onside. What you—what you did in that moment was you honoured the agency that they had to keep the freedom of belief that they had and recognised a fundamental dignity, and the dignity itself is that they will be accountable, ultimately, to God. So right now, we can honour them as common humanity and leave the final judgement, if you will, to the Lord Jesus—that’s—at that day. Yeah. Very, very helpful. Thank you.
KB: I want to go back a little bit. So you were talking a bit before about in the school space—so, particularly things related to the same-sex marriage debate. As we think about LGBTI and kind of, I guess, rights around sexuality, what do we do in situations where there are competing rights? So we want to talk about religious freedom as a human right; how do you kind of figure it out in, I guess, the complex nature of real life where there might be situations where there are competing rights?
MK: Yeah. That problem isn’t a new one—I think would be the first thing I’d say. And so, that kind of dilemma that, you know, you will have situations of competing rights—that shouldn’t scare us off. And rights never just exist in isolation: if you’re committed to “You have this freedom because you’re a human”, that finds expression in all kinds of different ways. It’s not that you therefore have one lobby group for this human right and one lobby group for that human right, and it’s just a power grab and a power struggle between the two; it’s more “This is a way of understanding what it means to be human. We actually want to live in a society which is like that.” So it’s really wanting to shift the conversation away from “me” and “my rights” to “we” and “our society”. Like, how do you do life together when there is that tension? So I’ve avoided kind of answering it directly, but it’s to say that that is the most important place where you say, “It can’t be zero sum game. It can’t be I win everything, you lose everything.”
CK: Yeah, I mean, this happens in the home, doesn’t it? I mean, you get the dinner table with children and everybody’s competing for their right, aren’t they: they’re fighting over food [Laughter], they’re fighting over who gets what and when, or screen time or who gets the remote. It’s a—
MK: It’s been a long lockdown, hasn’t it.
CK: It’s been a long lockdown, man! [Laughter] Yeah. We’re glad they’re back at school. We love them, but we’re glad they’re back.
But this is it. I mean, this is—this is living with other people. And in some ways, there’s always that need to give as much as there is to receive, and to recognise something in the other that needs to be appreciated. Because that’s about community. And it’s that ultra-individualism that makes that the real tough space. And I think that’s why we’re having so many hard times right now, not just in my home. We’re actually a pretty happy home.
KB: I guess as well the danger is that when it feels like our rights aren’t the ones that are upheld as the primary ones, we feel like a victim, and I think we often, perhaps, as Christians, we can kind of feel like, “Am I being persecuted?” And you touched a bit on this in what you said before, talking about Tertullian, Chase, how would you describe persecution and are Australian Christians really persecuted?
CK: I would say I would not think that Australian Christians are persecuted. I wouldn’t want to use that language at all. I think that we have difficulties sometimes in expressing ourselves—partly because of an increasing hostility in society. But I don’t think it’s persecution like normal—actually, I brought in a helpful quote just as—in case I got asked about persecution. There’s just one quote that I wanted to read and that comes from Russell Moore’s book, Onward, and he just says this:
Religious liberty is genuinely imperiled, perhaps more than at any other time since the revolutionary era, but we will not be able to articulate our commitments in this arena if we don’t know the difference between state persecution and cultural marginalisation, between public oppression and personal offense.2
And I think it’s very very helpful for us, because we’re fighting in a space for something that is actually imperiled. I mean, I think Michael’s made a very good case about ways that we are seeing freedoms threatened and even diminished in society in very key places that we need to keep contending for—pushing out. But that’s not tantamount to persecution in our context as many others in the world know. There are many nations where people cannot actually freely live out their faith. And someday, maybe, that might be a future for us, but I don’t think it’s where we are now, and I think what we have to recognise is what Russell Moore has said—that actually feeling cultural pressure is different to actual state oppression. And also, I think, being clearer about that will actually help us get further in the conversation.
But you’ve been very cautious about the way that you—you speak in this space with Freedom for Faith.
MK: Yeah, we just don’t use the word “persecution” to describe anything Christians are facing in Australia. Certainly from the state, we don’t think it fits. I remember sitting down with a Iraqi bishop of an Eastern Orthodox church who’d been, you know, kidnapped by an ISIS kind of group and lost family members, lost people in his church. When someone’s been bundled up in the boot of a car and driven off in—not knowing if they’re going to live or die, for their faith, that’s, kind of, persecution.
And that’s not say, “Well, the difference is—whatever we face here doesn’t matter.” It’s to say … it’s to say the opposite of that. It’s to say, actually, they’re the people who get why it’s so important here that we don’t take these things for granted—
CK: That’s right.
MK: —and that we are concerned about the freedoms which we do have. There’d be some exceptional cases. So I can think of women who are fleeing families where they’ve converted and they’ve seen their life threatened. Yeah. But generally I think we need to be very hesitant to use that language of persecution or to want to play a victim card here.
And I think if we, in that context, can get good laws for the common good of all, it then puts our government in a much better place to be sitting down and talking to China—
MK: —to be talking to Indonesia and to be saying, “Look, this is how we deal with people who hold different beliefs within our society.” If we can’t get our house in order here, we’ve got no moral authority at all to speak to anyone else.
CK: Yeah. That’s very very helpful. I think it, as well, it’s kind of like thinking about sickness in some ways: you don’t call everything “terminal” in illness. But it doesn’t mean that you neglect the onset of other illnesses as if they’re not a problem. So you still deal with the problem, even in—in the right scale. So if not, it can become a very very terminal illness down the track if you don’t address it immediately.
And so I think that’s the same way here: we don’t want to call it “terminal”, as if it’s persecution and it’s going to be fatal to us or something like it is in many other contexts. And yet, we see the seeds already sown, if you will, of what could compromise so much that we enjoy. And we have an opportunity now to be fighting for the good of society. And that is for everyone in society: we really believe that.
The limits of religious freedom
KB: So tonight we’ve been talking a lot about the importance of protecting religious freedom. Just, I guess, one final question to kind of finish up this second part where we’re having a bit of a conversation about the practicalities: is there ever a time—or when, if ever—is there a time when we should draw the line on freedom?
CK: I think the best place that we can look to in the Scriptures for what God has given to us for the authority of the state in particular comes from that common agreement, if you will, that he made with all of creation in setting out that structure for society after the Fall. So if we look at that account with Noah in Genesis 9, there is a real protection of human life that’s offered there. I mean, that is the boundary line—that we respect the life of the other.
And so I actually think that when the state or someone else starts to threaten the life of someone else, there’s a line that is drawn. And so I think that’s why there’s a helpful delineation there about speech that you mentioned before—about hate speech that would incite violence towards that end—or if there is that kind of an oppressive culture where your life will be at risk, because you don’t believe a certain way—that, I think, is where the state has problems and it overreaches or needs to step in. So that would be my boundary line.
I don’t know if you have something else.
MK: Yeah. We actually had a conference on this theme last year—on the limits of religious freedom. But if you’d told me at the conference or even six months ago that every state government was going to ban Christians gathering together to worship, or limit it to 10 at the moment, I would have thought you were crazy. But why do we see that? Well, because the state’s got an obligation to care for public health of its citizens.
MK: And so, your right to worship is not a right to spread a virus, and so that will be a balance that will be hard to figure out as we go out of lockdown. But there’s a great example of a—a limited freedom.
Likewise, you don’t get to exercise your genuinely held belief that, you know, you should be throwing virgins into a volcano. Like, there are some beliefs which we say are just beyond the pale. Like, we actually don’t want you doing harm to others like that. We can say as a society, we’re not going to go the way of multiple wives, even though other cultures and laws will do that.
There will be places where it’s harder to work out kind of what that limit is. So should sheikhs have to wear motorcycle helmets or hard hats on construction sites if that’s against their, you know, genuinely held belief that their hair must be combed and so on? So, you know, there are always going to be cases at the margin. But we can clearly say that the state has an absolute duty to protect religious freedom, but that that protection isn’t absolute.
Part 3: Q&A
KB: Thanks, Chase and Michael, for your insights on what is really a wide variety of issues that we’ve talked over. So we’re about to head into our time of question and answer—Q&A. So just a reminder of what to do if you want to ask a question: so if you head to the Slido website—so s-l-i-dot-d-o—and you put in the code “cclfreedom” as one word with no spaces, that’s how you can submit questions for Chase and Michael to answer, and you can also vote for other questions.
So I’m going to give you a moment to do that now. So maybe you want to go to the website and do it now, and maybe while you’re doing it or maybe you’re just keen to hear what other people have asked, I’m going to share a little bit about Moore College and their PTC—so their Preliminary Theological Certificate , which are, so, online courses that you can do through Moore College. So at the moment, Moore College is offering a special deal, where you can do an online course for $25, which is a reduced price. And so, these courses, they’re—they’re very flexible, so they’re great for, you know, if you’re spending a lot of time at home and maybe have a bit of extra time on your hands at the moment with what’s happening with coronavirus. And these units are great, because they really help you to grow in your understanding of the Bible and, I guess, get a bit clearer and stronger on what are the foundations of the Christian faith? So I highly recommend the PTC courses to you.
But let’s think about some of the questions that you’ve got. And I’m going to get out my phone so that I can actually see what some of the questions that you’ve been asking are.
CK: —talking to a journalist earlier that declined how many questions in a row? I think—
MK: Oh, no, no, no: our Attorney General.
CK: Oh, our Attorney General! Excuse me.
MK: I need to have a kind of watching brief on the things he’s saying and was watching with admiration at his ability to go for about ten minutes without answering a single question from a panel of journalists.
CK: Is that one of our rights, this evening—that’s the question. Yeah.
Religion and religious belief
KB: All right. To start with, “What constitutes religion and why does religious belief or opinion need to be singled out?”
CK: You probably have a specific answer for this. I would call this a—a genuinely held belief that’s kind of orienting your life, and that is actually leading you towards particular kinds of actions. So it could be held up in a moral framework, but it’s definitely tied closely to being able to act according to your conscience.
How would you specify this?
MK: The High Court’s looked at this.
MK: Because religious freedom is dealt with in the Constitution, they needed to figure out what religion is and so they looked at it with—examining Scientology. And interestingly, around the world, most other jurisdictions have got the leading tax case or “What is a religion?” case is on Scientology [Laughter], because most people recognise that’s kind of at the margins. Like, where you do draw the line between kind of a religion and a cult? But generally that kind of belief in the afterlife and things which bind, the conscience of the individual, a commitment to things beyond materialism—they’re the kind of things that the court has looked at. So, you know, in Australia, Scientology is on the religion side; other jurisdictions, it’s not.
Why, though, draw those out? I think there’s a recognition that it is different from just any other kind of belief. There is something about religion which you can find in every culture and society that we’ve ever seen, that sociologists will agree this is the kind of thing which people are prepared to give their life for and commit themselves to, and critically, I think, it goes to a sense that there’s a higher duty owed to this set of beliefs, even than loyalty to the state.
And so, in that kind of situation, it makes sense for the state to kind of smooth the way a bit for religion to try and avoid the conflicts, which would otherwise arise. I think that’s, well, a reasonable—
CK: Yes, something I would live by and die for.
Religious freedom and the government
KB: So I’ve got a question from Emily: “What wise actions would you recommend for individuals to bring the importance of religious freedom to our government’s attention?”
CK: That’s your space. Yeah.
MK: Well, I’ll send to you our website and ask for you to sign up: freedomforfaith.org.au.
Look, I think the Scriptures themselves give us some really good guidelines. So 1 Timothy 2, we’re to pray for our rulers. And why do we pray for them? In order that we might live a quiet and godly life—a religious life. That is—so I think for every Christian, there’s a command there—to be praying for rulers for them to have wisdom in order that there might be freedom to be enjoyed and that that’s a good thing. So that would be the first wise thing to do.
I think the second thing is just to be informed and to do that as an engaged citizen. You know? This isn’t necessarily going to be the thing that everyone gets into. Like, I’m not saying it—you must do this. But if you’re interested enough to be tuned in tonight, maybe you should. Right? And how do you do that? Well, you know, have a look at the kind of resources which we’re putting out there: that’s the way we want to help that conversation get better.
And then I think the third way would be, you know, we actually need some people to give themselves to this—to actually jump in and do this—and maybe that means you put your hand up to be on the Human Resources committee in your corporation so that you can care for people with different beliefs within it. Maybe it means you stand for local council or, you know, make a run at being the next PM. You know? But some kind of engagement. Joining the local P&C at the school: brilliant place to do it.
So that’d be three suggestions: pray, get informed and get engaged.
CK: That’s very helpful. Yeah. I think information is crucial to this, isn’t it, because so often we’re living in a world where what’s dictating how we’re going is based on what we’re hearing in social media, or just the media generally, which is often quite emotive and it just makes you feel like you’re going against the tide, if you’re not careful. And so the more we actually know and can be reasoned about how we’re living, the better off we’re going to be in and the better contribution we’re going to be able to make to the society as a whole.
MK: One—one of the throwaway lines in Greg Sheridan’s great book, God is Good for You, is that in media, people of faith are underrepresented, compared to general population. But in politics, they’re over overrepresented. So you’ve kind of got this weird thing going on where your awareness of politics is being mediated by a group of people who hold quite a different set of beliefs than the people who are actually engaged in this space.
CK: Yeah. And yet the media often controls so much of the political agenda. Yeah. Interesting.
Christians and the Australian Religious Discrimination Bill
KB: I think this question kind of relates to—or takes things a bit more specific. So there is the Religious Discrimination Bill that has kind of been going around for the last year or so. As Christians, how do we proceed? Should we be submitting our own submissions to it and how do we deal with the number of opposing submissions?
MK: I’ll jump in on this one. The—
CK: I think you should.
MK: We were almost ready to get that bill into the parliament as everything went into hibernation. And so, you know, it was in its third version and lots of early submissions by lots and lots of people have been very helpful in nudging it in the right direction.
You know, it’s, you know, it’s in a good shape. There are things that still need fixing kind of at the margins. But the government, to its credit, I think, has done a good job of engaging with everyone who’s shown an interest in this area, and we’ve certainly had excellent access to the Prime Minister and Attorney General and opportunities to speak about the kind of concerns.
It rightly is parked for the moment and will—none of that work is wasted; we’ll come to it post-hibernation. But at the moment, the Attorney General’s Office is writing, you know, enormous industrial relations law with an incredible pressure under them. I mean, everyone’s saying this, but it’s true—that we’ve never seen government function the way it is at the moment. The closest parallel is war. And so, things like the Religious Discrimination Bill have just been parked for the moment. And we accept that and we’ll get back to it.
Twelve months after that bill gets through, if it gets through, we’ll then see the next stage, which is the Law Reform Commission’s enquiry into the Sex Discrimination Act. So the last few years have seen a whole series of those enquiries. As I said before, in two weeks, we’ve got a New South Wales enquiry into an independent members bill on religious freedom. So there’s always stuff to be done in the space. It’s really important that people rally behind good Christian submissions on this stuff, and it’s important—the place we have in the process, I think, is trying to give better policy and legislative options than the government and its—the minister’s staffers might have thought of. So being able to do that across a wide range of churches and then across other faiths means they’re able to deal with huge stack of people by talking to us. And we’re able to get some really well-networked Christian lawyers giving the best possible advice into the space.
CK: Yeah. I was just going to say a plug for your website: freedomforfaith.org.au. There are some great digests of what’s happening in the political space, where you can get quite detailed legalese about what’s going on. But you can also get, as I’ve said, more digested versions that are quite concise in showing some of the tensions that remain in the proposal and why the proposals are necessary, and I’ve been grateful—it’s been very informative for me. So I would recommend you looking at that website.
Hiring and firing on the basis of faith
KB: So I’m going to go to a question from Austin: “So we defend Christian organisations not hiring or firing due to employee beliefs or lifestyles; should we defend secular organisations doing so due to an employee’s Christian faith?” So I guess the question’s kind of getting at “What’s the difference?”
MK: Yes. So the argument often is, well, if Christian schools can say they want to have Christian teachers, why can’t Rugby Australia say it can sack Folau? Isn’t that hypocritical? That’s the—I think, what the question—
CK: Think that’s the answer to the question.
MK: I think it’s a question about what kind of organisation it is. Like, Rugby Australia exists to play rugby and to beat the All Blacks. And they keep failing to do that. And they need to concentrate on that mission and be better at it, and figure out how to get crowds once the doors are open again. You know? In doing that, they’re going to need to have all the players they can doing it—people with all kinds of different beliefs—and a whole stack of them are going to be Polynesian Christians who have strong beliefs that are at odds with some of the sponsors. They need to be able to negotiate that difference.
But that, I think, is a mile away from a faith-based school which comes into being because of a set of beliefs: we hold these beliefs, therefore we create the school. So it’s what constitutes the organisation.
The closer parallel might be a political party: so I think a political party should be able to say, “We exist because of this set of beliefs, therefore we should be able to employ on the basis of these beliefs and sack people who don’t hold them.” So the Greens shouldn’t have to have IPA staffers working for them or, you know, vice versa.
The thing which is sometimes missed in that kind of analysis is the place of freedom of association—the ability not just to hold a belief individually, but to gather with others who hold that belief and just do things like start a school, start a charity, start a church—like, that association of people who hold those beliefs brings this thing into being that wouldn’t exist but for that. So, you know, Moore College exists because people hold this set of beliefs and therefore set this thing up. So if someone was to act in a way which is completely at odds with those set of beliefs, then the principal should be able to call that out and say, “Well, that doesn’t fit who we are as a group.”
Gender discrimination and church leadership
KB: We’ll go now to a question from Amelia: “So in Christian advocacy for religious freedom, should we press for the right to gender discriminate? So for example, a right to prevent women becoming senior ministers.”
CK: I’ll just build on this. I—I think this goes along with a lot of what Michael’s been saying, actually—that if you’re actually establishing something on a set of core beliefs that you’ve been laying out, it’s one thing to actually make claims based on those beliefs, rather than try to change the whole constitution of the organisation. And so this is a very important and delicate topic, I recognise, but how have you dealt with this?
MK: Yes. So it gets again to that question of is the individual belief [or] the belief of the association—like, people together? And your rights against that association that holds, say, a different belief to you, the court can’t allow both those things: one of them needs to trump. So your right is actually a right to leave and to start another association which has a different set of beliefs.
MK: And so, if you believe that thing differently, reform the church internally, create a new church—I mean—
MK: —Reformation choices is kind of what you have at that point. But don’t go to the state and make the state the arbiter of what Christian doctrine should be when it comes to gender and leadership in church. That would be the worst thing.
CK: Yeah. And the gender issue is such a heated issue, I know. But we see this in call kinds of church issues. So as people come into churches, they are often want it to match what they feel is right, rather than what the church already has committed itself to. And so, they always are trying to reform from their own individual position, rather than the other.
I’ve seen this in a friend’s church in America, recently, where there was a group of people that came from one faith tradition that had a particular view of baptism and they really want it to be embraced and wanted the whole church to embrace their position on baptism, and he was actually driven out as a minister, because he didn’t agree, but that was because his church was constituted differently. That’s a very problematic way of going. There are other churches that have those beliefs that you could easily slot into, rather than kind of create this tension, and I think it’s about understanding that.
MK: The thing is, I mean, you’ve got to keep open a place for reform within the church.
CK: Of course!
MK: Churches will change. Beliefs will change, and so on. But I think that’s different from an appeal to a law to do that for you on the basis of my religious freedom over and against the beliefs of others.
Western Christians and persecution
KB: So we talked a little bit about persecution earlier. Do you think that evangelical Christians in the West have a persecution complex and are there ways in which we are wasting our resources, fighting against frivolous injustices?
CK: Oh, I would be very cautious about saying “frivolous injustices”. I think what we’ve tried to express before is whilst there is a—a scale of kind of intense persecution to disagreements and pressures that we feel culturally, I don’t think that—just because these are minor in comparison doesn’t meant that they’re insignificant. And so I think I’d be very cautious about calling then “frivolous”.
What I do think is difficult for us as Christians is a few things. First of all, one, you read the Bible and you read about persecution, and we want to identify with the texts that we read. And so, we often try to read that text into our experience and vice versa. And so, when I read a text about persecution, I feel like I must somehow associate it with what I know in my life—pardon me—and because I associate it with something that I know in my life now, whatever it is that’s an inconvenience or a hindrance or a difficulty for me in my life, that then is persecution, because that’s the way I’ve been able to relate to the text. I think that’s a very difficult thing that we have to be cautious about in the ways that we’re reading the Scriptures and relating them to our context.
Second, though, I think there’s a cultural problem where, again, everyone’s a victim, and we start identifying ways that we are ourselves are victims, because everybody else around us is feeling the victim. And so, we allow this kind of culture creep into where we feel, “Oh, we really are down and out, aren’t we”, and, again, I don’t want to minimise in any ways the inconveniences and the pressures that Christians feel today. I mean, I feel them with you: I live in the same world you do, and we live in one of the most progressive suburbs in Australia and we feel it every day. And yet, I wouldn’t want to call that “persecution” on the same scale as so many others that are facing this in the world.
MK: Yeah, look, I drove here tonight over the bridge past Barangaroo, and the awful Crown Casino’s almost built. It’s surrounded by, you know, all the leading banks and corporate in this city, which is, you know, the global city for the country—sorry Melbourne. And there’s no space that was left for a church in all that building. You know? And so, what drives us? You know, greed, corruption, making a buck—that’s the—and it’s kind of squeezed out a place for church—at least in the sense of a building. Justin Moffat and others are doing great work in the middle of Barangaroo in other ways.
But there’s a cultural marginalisation which is not persecution. There’s a recognition of that that kind of says, “Look, we need to be faithful in this space and at this time” and not just have a nostalgia for the past, where the Christians kind of got the best hill in town. You know? So yes, there is a danger of a persecution complex, where we just read everything as persecution, where sometimes it’s marginalisation. But I think sometimes we can be too slow to call out stuff which is wrong. So just today we had some churches in Western Sydney tell us that their local council is changing the zoning laws so that churches won’t be allowed to meet in anything but basically industrial land. You know—to build new places.
So if Barangaroo shows cultural marginalisation, then Western Sydney and that council is showing—I don’t want to call it “persecution”, but there is a—there is an exclusion of people of faith—there’s a tightening up of freedoms which we shouldn’t just roll over on and we should actually be engaged as citizens and say, “Look, it’s actually important for people of faith to love their neighbours and to be good to the whole community, and you will miss out if you squeeze us out to the places of factories.”
Turning the other cheek
KB: So this will be our final question for the night: there’s a few questions that are referring to how Jesus said to turn the other cheek. How do we make sense of this passage of Scripture as well as the idea of—as we campaign for religious freedom? So is it sometimes that Christians, as we campaign for religious freedom, that we’re not actually turning the other cheek?
CK: I would say that we have to keep a—a realistic perspective of what we’re actually going to be achieving in society—not that we just kind of roll over and become apathetic or indifferent or even defeated, but actually recognising the way that the kingdom comes. And the kingdom comes through the proclamation of the gospel, and it is the Lord Jesus who will build his church, and he is the one that will advance his kingdom in the power of his Spirit.
So we commit to that mission and we trust him in that. And we also recognise, though, too that the majority of the world are not going to like it: they’re not going to like the message and they’re not going to like what we’re doing. And so, I think we have to be realistic about some pushback that we’re going to receive, and in some sense, receiving that pushback is an act of faith—that we commit ourselves to the message and we commit ourselves to the Lord Jesus, knowing that it’s worth it and that we have promises for life forever with him. And, in fact, that actually provides a real comfort to us in the discomfort of the life that we will live as hard and as awkward as it is to keep preaching the gospel. So I think that’s at least part of the answer to turning the other cheek.
I don’t think it necessarily means just laying down and getting walked on either. I think actually pushing into the civic space is actually for the common good, and therefore the more we push for religious freedom—even for our freedom—but for freedom for all: we want it for the Muslim, we want it for the Jew, we want it for the Mormon, even, we want it for other people—to be able to really live their lives out freely—that’s actually for a common good. And as we do that, we’re actually pursuing what God has given to the world as a good thing for all society.
MK: You might also look to the example of Paul, reading through Acts, where, you know, sometimes he takes the beating and sometimes he appeals to his rights as a citizen.
MK: But there’s always a concern for it to be done out of faithfulness to Jesus, and loyalty.
The other thing is the first century world didn’t have freedom of belief—just did not exist. And so, the quote you gave earlier from Tertullian is the first time you get language of religious freedom. It’s a very Christian way of viewing reality, which I think we can miss just how distinctively Christian it is, ’cause it’s obvious to us that you might have a loyalty to Caesar and a loyalty to God. And once you get that tension, kind of, in place, which Jesus sets up, then politics can’t be the same; it’s going to look different. Life in this world can’t be played out in the same way.
So, yep, turn the other cheek is part of that.
KB: Well, thanks, Chase and Michael, for all you’ve shared tonight, and thanks to everyone at home for the great questions that you asked. We’re just about to hit 9:30, which is the end of our event for tonight. But as we finish up, there’s a few more thanks that we want to make.
So we want to especially thank Karen Beilharz from the Centre for Christian Living and Andrea Jansen from Freedom for Faith, who did a lot of work coordinating this event and making it happen. We also want to thank Moore College for their support. And if you do want to find out more about Freedom for Faith or the Centre for Christian Living, you can head to their websites and find out more information there, and you should be able to sign up for their enewsletters if you want to be hearing more about them and the things that they’re involved in, and especially with Centre for Christian Living, any of the podcasts or articles that go up on the website.
Something exciting to let you know about is the next event that the Centre for Christian Living will be holding, and that’s happening in August—so Wednesday 19 August—and we’re going to be having Dani Treweek and Chris Thomson sharing with us on the topic of singleness and how we can think about this as Christians. So there’s a bit of information that you would have seen in the online handout that you received the link to, so hopefully you can join us for that event.
But thank you for joining us tonight. We hope you’ve enjoyed it. We hope that it’s been good food for thought in thinking about religious freedom and the idea of it as a human right, and, yeah, have a good night.
1 Tertullian, “To Scapula,” in Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, Latin Christianity: Its Founder Tertullian (I, II,III), eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Hendrickson: Peabody) 1994, 105.
2 Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the culture without losing the gospel (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group) 2015, 150.