Penny Wong’s Unfounded Attack on Religion and Politics

South Australian senator Penny Wong takes a swipe at the supposed fundamentalists who are holding back same-sex marriage.

The SMH reports that Senator Wong has blasted purported religious fundamentalists who are supposedly limiting the freedom of those who do not conform to their narrow view of marriage.

Senator Wong told a NSW Labor Lawyers gathering on Tuesday night that “Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs. It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else” and “it most emphatically does not mean deploying the power of the state to enforce one set of religious beliefs. One’s own views should not determine the rights of others.”

According to Wong,  “The problem in all of this is the application of religious belief to the framing of law in a secular society.” Adding that, “Liberal democracy is not compatible with fundamentalism of any description, whether ideological or spiritual.”

Senator Wong’s remarks rest on several questionable premises.

First, opposition to same-sex marriage is not fundamentalism. All of the major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have historically affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of other relationships. Believing what your faith has always taught about marriage and family does not make you a fundamentalist, it makes you a faithful adherent of your religion. Executing LGBTI men and women by throwing them off the tops of buildings as ISIS does, now that is religious fundamentalism.

Second, we should differentiate between religiously motivated beliefs and religion as content of belief. The belief that marriage should be between a man and woman is not a religious belief in itself, even though people might have religious reasons for holding such a belief. I know this because there are gay atheists who hold the same position. Whereas mandating compulsory prayer in schools or requiring women to wear certain clothing like a burka, that is a religious belief in content, and if legislated it would comprise a religious practice or a religious doctrine being forced onto people. Religiously motivated beliefs do not infringe on church-state separation, whereas requiring adherence to religious doctrines and to religious practices does infringe on personal freedoms. If you don’t believe me consider this: one could make the case that some people are religiously motivated in wanting to shut down the Manus Island and Nauru detention centers – after all, Jesus was a refugee, but does that mean they are trying impose their religious beliefs about immigration onto others? I think not!

Third, we are not actually living in a theocracy. If I did not know better, I would swear that Senator Wong thinks that we live in some kind of theocracy ruled by clerics who are conspiring to infringe on people’s personal freedoms. Alas, no, we have no Pope, no Ayatollah, and no council of rabbis calling the shots. There is no conspiracy of faith leaders to undermine personal rights and freedoms and impose some kind of shariah law on all and sundry.

Fourth, the real problem is the democratic processes that lead to people of faith getting elected to parliament. Here we come to the heart of Wong’s problem. Wong objects to people of faith being in a position to make laws that she does not like. Now, one can legitimately oppose the beliefs of these people on legal, philosophical, and moral grounds, and try to carry the day. But she is tacitly implying that these people should not be in a position to pass laws based on their beliefs and values – especially if those beliefs and values are religious – and such is an attack on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Fifth, religion has a place in civil debate. Exercising your democratic right to vote based on your values, arguing for a certain policy based on your values, and even legislating law based on your values is not an infringement of anybody’s rights. It is simply how democracy works. The fact is that the Judeo-Christian worldview has informed much of our social fabric in Australia which is why we have laws about not murdering, not exploiting the weak and vulnerable, and why we generally try care for the poor and marginalized. Religion does inform many people’s values, vision, and worldview. That is not fundamentalism, it is a result of a pluralistic democracy.

Sixth, there is the problem of hypocrisy. Let us not forget that prior to 2013, Senator Wong supported PM Julia Gillard in her opposition to same-sex marriage. I distinctly remember Wong telling a QandA audience that marriage was not for the LGBTI community. Was Senator Wong a fundamentalist back then? Was she trying to impose her views on others? By the logic of her argument the answer would be yes. Now I suspect that Senator Wong might retort that her former position was not personal, it was merely political, it was expedient rather than ethical. But I personally consider that duplicity far more affronting than a Muslim MP or a Catholic Senator who sincerely believes that marriage should between a man and a woman, and who votes accordingly.

My advice for Senator Wong: Read up on some civics about how democracy works, because people of all faiths and none can vote and legislate according to their values, whether that pertains to budgets, refugees, or marriage.

  • Interesting that you say gay atheists don’t think much of marriage equality to support your contention that it’s not a religious view. What do you make of churches and clergy that do support marriage between two people regardless of gender? Does that make it a religious view?

    Religion has shown its ability to adapt to the times over the course of our history. How churches behaved in the 1000s is very different to now. I’m pretty sure you can see your way clear to support equality for all, regardless of gender.

  • J

    “Some” gay atheists Gregory. If you search engine “gays against legalisation of SSM” it will appear.

    This is very logical piece, IMHO.

  • Tex

    Point 1… questionable that because a faith is monotheistic it has the ‘inside running’ on religion… questionable that any type of ‘faith’ can make a reasoned decision.
    Point 2… Nope. Not convinced about you arbitrary definitions of motivational vs content beliefs, in fact I think your schism is ‘convenient’ more than ‘definitive’ though I defend your right to create any arbitrary distinction you like, just don’t expect that anyone else will agree to where the line should be marked.
    Point 3… the basis of law; those which govern us, arein fact… I say fact… based upon the 10 commandments initially, if you want I’ll google the Scottish case where this was proven. So we DO in fact live in a theocracy. As these are the laws that govern us… but do we really want that as a society now, Penny makes the point.

  • Tex

    Point 4… No your deliberately misinterpreting Wong’s point. If her first premise that we’re living in a theocracy is right and therefore we are having theocratic laws made because people of faith, cannot put their faith aside when in a position to make laws; then we are indeed having a bias entered into our legal system that is religious. How the as you say, can we protest those same laws legally? Your argument becomes hopelessly circular. To protest them philosophically may be something we can do but you know, as do I that philosophical protest can only work if intelligent people are on the opposite side of the table to hear it… we’ve already established these people believe in a cloud fairy, not evolution, biology, cells, DNA, neutrons, protons, electrons and dark matter.
    Point 5… you are right, this is a democracy and even stupid people get to vote. In the immediate aftermath of a massive disaster; if I survived the initial onslaught of whatever it was, I think I’d take the dictatorial leadership of someone who knew what they were doing in a crisis and actually could offer salvation over a vote that included a majority of people who wanted to kneel down and pray for a salvation but only from the right quarter. Extreme scenario but I think you get my point.
    Point 6… are not the religious guilty of the same hypocrisy and duplicity of which you accuse senator Wong. “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. This is the lie, that the religious tell each other as they kick in the teeth of a human beings right to be equal amongst their peers. If this were not the case, then a fairer system of compensation would be in place for GLBTIQ* people to live in this unequal society. We’d pay less tax relatively than those with the right to marry, not more. We’d have even greater access to welfare than our marriageable counterparts, not equal or even less really. If we were truely loved (and only our sin hated) we wouldn’t lose our estates built in lifelong relationships to vastly removed relatives, nor would we lose control of the death rites of our nearest, dearest loved ones to their estranged families, whilst we remained unincluded. So in short… I say all your points are horse dung and a pox on you for attempting to distinguish them.

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