Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown outlines that the Christian Right in the United States has been attempting to re-Christianise the public sphere since the 1990s, and this campaign has been gaining traction over the last decade, especially with the coming of Trump.
The argument skews the protection of liberties with the upholding of Christian values – turning once private rights into public freedoms – via the challenging of notions of equality and antidiscrimination law, with aims that included winding back LGBTIQ protections, abortion rights and equal marriage.
A key force behind the movement, Brown explains in 2019’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, a reactionary Christian organisation, which former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott travelled to the US to deliver a speech to back in 2016.
“Both the legal and popular rhetoric of the ADF decries an overreaching state whose mandates threaten the liberties of Christians in public and commercial life,” writes Brown. “Freedom is but the mantle under which it strives to empower Christianity socially and politically.”
But this religious enterprise is no longer something secular Australia can merely consider an American curiosity, as the Morrison government has the re-Christianisation of the local public square as a chief priority, and it’s just on the precipice of securing a major victory in this regard.
The third iteration of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 (RD Bill) is under parliamentary review. And while law experts agree that antidiscrimination protections for those of faith are needed, the legislation – which Morrison has been guiding over his time in the top role – goes much further.
The bill provides the right to make “statements of belief”, which are comments now classed as illegal under current antidiscrimination law. And this measure would override all these laws in all Australian jurisdictions if a statement were made in accordance with a faith doctrine.
Purportedly establishing this freedom to discriminate for all religions – as well as the nonreligious – in a nation where Christianity continues to be the majority faith, the sword-like nature of this law is, therefore, stacked in its direction.
Indeed, in late 2017, just two weeks after same-sex marriage passed, then treasurer Scott Morrison announced his religious liberties crusade, noting that while he was concerned with the erosion of religious freedoms overall, he was particularly worried about the Christian faith.
The current RD Bill also contains a similar provision to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) that permits religious schools to sack staff based on protected attributes, such as LGBTIQ, relationship or pregnancy status. But the new law goes further in overriding state laws that prevent this.
Discrimination none the less
Speaking at a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights hearing into the bill on 21 December, Christian Schools Australia policy director Mark Spencer said, in relation to the proposed laws, that if a teacher underwent a divorce, it could impact their employment, depending on the circumstances.
Morling Theological College’s Reverend Ross Clifford agreed, stating a divorcee who was “living a totally inconsistent lifestyle and the partner left them because of their infidelity” would be treated differently in terms of employment, compared to someone whose marriage simply broke down.
Controversially, the Sex Discrimination Act also permits religious schools to “positively discriminate” against and expel LGBITQ students. And despite a late 2018 promise made by the current PM to remove this law, these religious exemptions still stand.
So, in early December, three Liberal MPs, who have reservations about the implications of the RD Bill, stated that they will support it if Morrison removes the right of religious schools to expel students on the basis of their diverse gender or sexuality.
But as the Herald’s Michael Koziol outlined recently, religious groups, like Christian Schools Australia and the Australian Christian Lobby, have asserted that they’d rather forgo the RD Bill itself, than give up the current rights they have to discriminate against LGBTIQ students in federal law.
The Church and State Summit 2021 took place in Brisbane last February. The annual conference brings together Christian advocates and politicians, who are concerned their faith is being marginalised in the public sphere and see political participation as a means to counter this.
Australian Christian Lobby managing director Martyn Iles told the summit that a key way to push back against the LGBTIQ rights movement was to attack trans people. And he added that in a few years there will be enough of a Christian presence in parliament to send a “shockwave” through it.
While Liberal Nationals MP George Christensen asserted that getting more Christians to join the Coalition would sway its policy towards the religion’s doctrine, and he added that those who become politicians should not reveal their faith until they’re securely elected in parliament.
The SA Liberals terminated 150 Pentecostals from its ranks last June, and asked 450 more members to show cause as to why they shouldn’t be expelled, as it was considered that more than 500 Pentecostals had recently joined en masse with the aim of swaying party policy towards their values.
The rising Christian right
Pentecostal PM Scott Morrison stated during his 2008 maiden speech in parliament that “Australia is not a secular country – it is a free country”. And it would seem that he and other evangelicals are interested in exercising this freedom to see religious liberties enshrined in law.
Veteran journalist Chris Hedges warned in 2007’s American Fascists that grassroots Christian Right proponents were gaining sway in the US, as they push for the dismantling of the secular state. And these forces went on to become a key supporter base for former US president Donald Trump.
Professor Brown points out that the re-Christianisation of the public sphere is part of the neoliberal project to see small government concerned with legislating to support the free market, with traditional values unpinning this system, which negates society, social justice and any public interest.
Trump’s lack of faith, Brown adds, doesn’t concern evangelicals, as they can explain this away as God having “explicitly chosen Donald Trump as his instrument for bringing about a more Christian world”.
The rising Freedom movement in this country has many similarities to early Trumpism, although it hasn’t overtly established itself as being based on any particular religious doctrine.
However, opposition to COVID vaccines is chief amongst its concerns – and at least some of its adherents are anti-abortionists – while there are reports coming out of the US that assert the Christian Right is clearly a prominent force behind the antivaxx movement.