In the US, a country where God is big business and big business is God, where you buy your chicken sandwiches suddenly says a lot about your politics. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain known for wearing its conservative Christianity as a badge of honour, has sparked the latest manifestation of American political polarisation by speaking against gay marriage:
"I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’. I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about."
Among the protests and counter-protests, the influence of conservative Christianity on US public policymaking is again under examination.
But in Australia, conservative religious groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby have lobbied politicians on the pretense that they wield immense political power. Now more than ever in Tasmania, that pretense is being exposed — thanks to intransigence on the part of the Prime Minister and initiative by one Premier on the issue of gay marriage.
The announcement by Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings that her government would pursue same sex marriage legislation has turned the debate on its head. Giddings has the numbers in the lower house, and is only a few undecided votes from getting the legislation through the Legislative Council.
No matter how you look at it, her government is in need of a circuit breaker after a horror couple of years. Giddings has suffered a fiscal crisis caused by declining GST revenue, a manufacturing crisis caused by the high dollar and a union backlash from public service cuts.
Allowing same-sex couples to marry might be just what is needed to shift the focus from the often grim economic debate to progressive social policy. But given the ramifications for the national debate, the apparent fragility of Tasmania’s minority government and the fact that the vote in the upper house is still far from decided, one might have expected same-sex marriage opponents to have taken Tasmania by storm since the announcement.
Launching a campaign in Tasmania shouldn’t be a bridge too far for religious conservatives. The political power of anti-gay lobbyists kept sodomy laws on the books in Tasmania until as late as 1997, when the state reluctantly repealed them at the Commonwealth’s behest.
Given the formidable power of religious conservatives in Tasmania in the recent past, one would think conservatives would be able to produce a biblical rain of anger against the radical social meddlings of any government, let alone this unpopular Labor/Green one, beset by economic challenges and led by a woman.
But that community anger just hasn’t come. In demonstrations, street rallies, opinion polls, even the conservative leaning letters to the editor, the tide has been flowing in favour of the government’s reform from the day of the announcement.
When The Mercury ran an online poll alongside a live blog on the topic, opinion split 80 per cent for to 19 per cent against same-sex marriage. EMRS Polling, which normally skews far to the right, estimated support in the community at 61 per cent. Public opposition has been thin on the ground and drawn mostly from fringe dwellers (such as one letter writer who defended child pornography as preferable to same-sex marriage) or the usual suspects such as the Australian Christian Lobby’s Tasmanian Director Mark Brown.
The lack of any discernable reaction in Tasmania is interesting given that anti-gay campaigners have always held the threat of a massive community backlash over state and federal governments when deciding issues of "faith". From a relationship registry and adoption laws to marriage equality, religious conservatives have presented themselves time and again as the keepers of a powerful and influential movement who could be mobilised to bring down any government who failed to take them seriously.
No one has traded on this perception more openly than the Australian Christian Lobby. Courting Prime Ministers John Howard and Kevin Rudd, and more recently Julia Gillard (who will deliver the keynote address at their 2012 national conference). Gillard’s decision to speak to the Lobby provoked shock in some quarters, but it shouldn’t have. Gillard and Abbott both made time prior to the 2010 federal election to address the group via exclusive webcast. As did Kristina Keneally and Barry O’Farrell, John Brumby and Ted Baillieu, and Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman.
There is not one leader who has run for the office of Prime Minister or Premier since 2010 who has not addressed the ACL as part of their campaign for election. Now that is some fairly comprehensive access.
Politicians wouldn’t be prostrating themselves in front of the ACL so regularly if they didn’t think the group was influential. But while the ACL and their counterparts might consider themselves to be the ideological siblings of the American religious right, events right now in Tasmania tell us something else.
Far from being a formidable well oiled machine whose reputation is based on a track record of successful campaigning, Australia’s religious right as a group have barely won a fight in 20 years, have seen support for their cause go consistently backwards over the last decade and are now so weakened that they can barely create a ripple, let alone the tsunami of opposition that they promised, in opposition to the same-sex marriage cause.
What is becoming apparent as the same-sex marriage debate moves forward in Tasmania is that half of the current generation of political leaders have been pandering to groups who possess a lot less influence over the community than they claim to.
Given the challenge that any Tasmanian law would almost certainly face in the High Court, same-sex marriage in Tasmania might not be the constitutional endgame, but it will be a PR and morale disaster for those opposed.
Even if the Tasmanian experience achieves nothing else, it has revealed the sweaty hectoring of the Christian Right for what it is: an illusion of influence, an elaborate bluff from a group whose real power over public opinion has been on the wane, and who have become far better at hoodwinking politicians than changing the minds of the punters.
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