I was chastised some time ago when I questioned whether Australians could have a civil and constructive debate about SSM. People assured me that we are capable of debating the issue without allowing the discussion to become hateful or deceptive or aggressive.

Then these despicable posters started appearing telling us that 92% of children raised by gay parents are abused, 51% have depression, and 72% are obese. The poster cites a study that has been thoroughly discredited.

The hateful tone of the image needs no explanation. It’s clear for all to see.

While the Australian Christian Lobby has distanced itself from the posters (I readily acknowledge the ACL had nothing to do with their production), earlier in the campaign they hosted a series of lectures by Millie Fontana, in which she explains how negative her experience of being raised by a same sex couple has been. I’ve seen a number of other sites explaining how detrimental being raised in a non-traditional household is.

Not as repulsive, but still in poor taste, some No advocates have been posting a 20 year old quote by Paul Keating, taken completely out of context from his election debate with John Howard in 1996, reframed to make it look like he is campaigning against SSM today (presumably to appeal to lefty ALP Yes voters).

I’ve also seen sites claiming that Canadian society has almost collapsed in light of the legalisation of SSM over a decade ago. I’ve seen quotes explaining that SSM will put us on the slippery slope to the normalisation of “genderlessness”, incest, polyamorous marriages, and even pedophilia and bestiality.

All this leads those voting Yes to assume the No campaign is just desperate.

Of course, some Christian commentators have tried to make a more respectful and cogent, less bigoted, case for keeping traditional marriage.

Some argue that same sex marriage, if legalised, won’t be marriage as we know it. It won’t be “marriage equality”: it will be an entirely new thing.

This argument goes, marriage is a word used to describe a life-long union between a man and a woman, so to allow people to marry someone of the same sex monkeys with the nomenclature. It will lead to a fundamental change in the definition of the term.

This line of reasoning is often made in grave tones as though it is a real killer argument. “No, seriously, it will lead to a fundamental change in the definition of the term.”

But I can just hear millions of Australians shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Meh.”

Most people know that the meanings of words evolve over time. We use terms today that don’t mean what they once did. Who cares if a word’s definition is evolving, they say. It’s evolved in other Western democracies. It can evolve in ours.

I know words mean a lot to Christians, particularly to Protestants. Evangelical ministers spend a lot of their week interpreting and parsing words, defining concepts, explaining ideas. We place a high premium on clarity and fidelity in language. But, and I hate to break it to you, most Australians aren’t so precious about nomenclature. I can’t see anyone being convinced that we can’t modify the meaning of the word, marriage.

A second plank in the case made by more moderate voices in the No campaign argue that marriage should remain a life-long union between two people who exemplify the biological duality of the human race, with the openness to welcoming children into the world.

The argument is that because only a man and a woman can produce children and because marriage is a binding institution in which children can be raised, then traditional marriage should be preserved. In other words, marriage and children are expressions of the “sexed twoness” of humankind.

It’s a complicated argument for the average voter to whom it is intended to appeal. Most people will retort that the church happily marries heterosexual couples who have no intention or no ability to conceive children. They also know full well that same sex relationships were legalised long ago, and that with this came the right for same sex couples to adopt children and raise them in stable families.

One of the more respectful people making this case, Michael Jensen argues, “To remove the sexual specificity from the notion of marriage makes marriage not a realisation of the bodily difference between male and female that protects and dignifies each, but simply a matter of choice.”

But what practical sense does that make to the average voter? I suspect not much.

Is this what the No vote comes down to? Hatefulness or esoterica? Is the No campaign reduced to either repulsing voters or leaving them largely nonplussed?

 

Because No advocates are required to construct their arguments for broad public consumption in a contest about human flourishing and the common good in a secular society, the Christians among them know they can’t resort to biblical interpretations or appeals to religious tradition. And once you knock out those two arguments, what’s left for the Christian case against SSM? Phrases like “sexed twoness” and grave warnings about changing nomenclature? Anecdotes from the unhappy adult children of gay couples?

My prediction is that the Yes vote will win the postal plebiscite and that SSM will be passed by the parliament. Even if that doesn’t happen, the ALP will pass such legislation as soon as they’re elected to government anyway. And then the Christian community really will be left with their biblical interpretations and religious tradition.

In the future there will be a variety of types of marriage, from secular marriage that includes same sex couples to Catholic and Islamic marriage that doesn’t. The Protestant denominations will have to make up their minds what their various stances will be and some of them might be torn apart by this, especially the larger, more diverse groups like the Anglicans.

As in England, the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada, the church in Australia will need to get used to this very different social terrain and will need to figure out what loving their neighbour looks like in that new landscape.

 

 

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