The Church, the Media, and Discrimination: A Reflection

Photo by on

On the 13th February 2011, The Age newspaper in Melbourne ran an article by Melissa Fyfe entitled “Religious Groups to Regain Bias Rights”.  This article reported on moves by the newly elected Coalition government in Victoria to restore to religious organisations the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, single mothers, and persons of different spiritual beliefs, by refusing such persons employment and/or the delivery of services on the grounds that the “lifestyles” of such persons undermines the religious beliefs of the organisation in question.

The following day, the 14th February, The Age ran a long feature piece by David Marr entitled “Faiths Rule on Sex from the Staffroom to the Bedroom”.  This piece featured interviews with noted conservative Christian identities, such as Sydney Anglican Archbishop Robert Forsyth and Brigadier Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby, as well as quoting Catholic Cardinal George Pell, all of whom oppose moves to restrict the right of religious groups to practice discrimination in employment and/or service delivery.  Intertwined through this piece was the story of two gay men in Sydney who fought a long – and, ultimately unsuccessful – battle with the Sydney arm of the Uniting Church’s Wesley Mission to become adoptive parents.  This couple were later able to adopt through another agency, even being described by the judge involved in their case as “unquestionably” suitable parents.

Both articles sickened and angered me.  Not, I hasten to add, because of the discrimination they described.  That discrimination of any sort should occur is something that sickens and angers me in the ordinary course of events.  That some Christian groups should seek to practice such discrimination is something I find utterly abhorrent, and entirely contradictory to Jesus’ message of inclusion and unconditional love.  No, that is not what angered me about these pieces; what made me mad is the way they pronounced guilt by association, implying that because some Christian and other religious groups seek such discrimination, all Christian and religious groups are likewise as bigoted and intolerant.

Take Fyfe’s article, for example.  The only “representative” Christian perspective quoted by Fyfe was a certain Rob Ward from the Australian Christian Lobby.  The ACL, a well-known conservative Christian pressure group, is well-organised and highly vocal in its espousal of a conservative interpretation of Christian life and faith.  But it is not representative; it’s views are not shared or held by many thousands of other Christians.  It is representative only of those people who agree with its conservative interpretation of Scripture and church tradition.  Those who interpret Scripture and church tradition in a different light from the ACL see the issue very differently.  But did Fyfe quote from a Christian holding a view other than that endorsed by the ACL? Did she even acknowledge that the views of the ACL were not necessarily representative of the views of the wider Christian community?  She did not.

Then there was Marr’s piece.  Marr had scarcely warmed to his theme when he asserted that the pro-discrimination Sydney Anglican Archbishop Robert Forsyth spoke “on this issue for the Anglican Church in Australia”. Really? Those thousands of Anglicans around Australia who were appalled by Forsyth’s opinions would be equally horrified to know that it was assumed, because of Marr’s assertion, that Forsyth spoke for them.    Equally injurious were passages such as the following:

…ever since anti-discrimination laws first appeared 30 or 40 years ago, the faiths have fought for exemptions to allow them to employ only the sexually virtuous in their welfare agencies, hospitals and schools.

According to Marr, the churches are vitriolic in their determination to keep the “deviants” out of their places of employment.  Conveniently for Marr’s church-bashing thesis, he neglected to mention that, among other things, the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod of the Uniting Church has passed resolutions opposing harmful discrimination in employment and supporting the “inherent requirements” provisions passed by the previous Labor Government (these are the requirements the Coalition plans to scrap and which prompted these two articles).  In other words, taken at face value, Marr’s words suggest that all, or even a majority, of Christian churches and organisations (never mind those of other faith traditions) have always, and continue now, to seek to discriminate against others.  But this is simply not true.  Marr’s gross over-generalisation is also a gross slander.

In essence, this is sloppy, lazy, prejudicial journalism.  Fyfe simply couldn’t be bothered tapping into the broader stream of Christian opinion; the availability of a loud, even if unrepresentative, pressure group was far too convenient.  Marr, while writing an opinion piece, didn’t make the necessary effort to ensure his piece represented informed opinion.  Granted, he at least did provide some space for alternative Christian voices in his piece (an Anglican archbishop and a Uniting Church minister), but these voices received a scant paragraph of attention each, compared to the column inches given to the “usual suspects” of Sydney Anglicanism, conservative Catholicism, and the always-vocal ACL. 

Indeed, the fact that Marr was able to source alternative Christian voices in itself demonstrated that the implicit theme of his piece – that the Christian churches and other faiths are of one mind and working with one purpose in order to achieve the right to discriminate against others – was complete nonsense.  The mere existence of those voices demonstrates that whole swathes of the Christian church reject the position put forward by Forsyth, Wallace, and others of the pro-discrimination bent.  But do you think that inconvenient piece of logic was going to stop Marr going on his merry “all Christians are homophobes” way? Sadly, no.

Incensed by the injustice of these articles – ironic, given their loud bleating about the injustices supposedly being perpetrated by bigoted Christians – I wrote a letter (sent as an email) to The Age.  I reproduce it below:

The Editor
The Age

Dear Sir/Madam:

Sadly, but predictably, The Age has once again sought to (mis)represent Christian opinion by linking it to the views of the Australian Christian Lobby (“Religious groups to regain bias rights” Age 13/2).

I am a Christian, and the ACL do not represent me.  Nor do they represent the thousands of Christians who regard the ACL as neither particularly Christian nor in keeping with the Gospel’s message of hope, inclusion, and grace for all – including, and especially, with regard to the right of individuals not to be discriminated against in their employment.

When will journalists stop taking the lazy option of quoting the nearest conveniently available pressure group, and actually make the effort to source the variety of opinion that exists within the Christian community? If they did so, they and their readers might discover that Christian opinion is far more diverse and nuanced than it is often reported to be. 

And isn’t that, afterall, what journalism is supposed to be about – presenting the public with an accurate overview of any given situation?  For so long as The Age and other media outlets fail to do so, the public is getting less than half the story.

Yours sincerely,

Brendan Byrne

Having sent my missive, I sat back and waited.  On Monday 14th February – the day Marr’s piece appeared – The Age published four letters (or parts thereof), all of which were critical of the churches and/or the Coalition government for undermining equal opportunity, some of which called for public funding of faith-based organisations to be with withdrawn, and others which drew attention to the implications (such as suicide among same-sex youth) of such discriminatory practices.  No letters by anyone pointing out that many Christians don’t share the conservative views touted by the ACL in Fyfe’s piece, or that many Christian organisations actually operate on a non-discriminatory basis, regardless of the law.

On Wednesday 16th February, The Age published three more letters putting the boot into the churches, two of which called for the withdrawal of public funding for church organisations, and one of which likened the alleged universal bigotry of Christians to the Ugandan sexuality laws that have made homosexuality an offence punishable by death.  No sign of the letter from Yours Truly, or any other non-discriminatory Christians (one wonders whether The Age would have published a letter by a Christian supporting the discriminatory practices!).

Later that same day, much to my surprise, I received a phone call from The Age offices to say that my letter had been “shortlisted” for publication in their forthcoming Sunday edition; the newspaper were ringing to confirm my authorship.  I confirmed authorship and waited.

Finally, on Thursday 17th February, The Age published a letter, written by an Anglican minister who is also a well-known media personality, pointing out that many Christian denominations were perfectly happy with the existing anti-discrimination laws, practiced non-discrimination in employment and other related matters, and did, in fact, have a long and honourable history of fighting to decriminalize homosexuality and end discrimination.  Given the delay since the publication of Fyfe’s and Marr’s pieces, one wonders if The Age was worried that if they failed to publish the letter, the author being a media personality would find some other way of publicising their views  – and criticising The Age in the process!

Eventually, Sunday 20th February arrived – with the result that three more letters were published, all again attacking the church.  No letter from Yours Truly.  And the only other letter published on the subject was by the same Anglican minister and media identity whose letter was published on Thursday! This letter (or extract – it was only a paragraph in length) pointed out that the views attributed to the ACL and Archbishop Forsyth cannot be taken as representative of those of other Christians.  Frankly, I suspect that, for the sake of appearances, The Age published parts of the same letter on different days!

So that was the result for this past week: two articles, both of them implying that Christians are determined en bloc to have the legal right to discriminate against others; nearly a dozen letters lambasting the church and reinforcing the “Christian as unthinking bigot” stereotype; and in all that time, The Age could only find space for one person representative of broader Christian opinion – a person who also happens to be in the media.  If you were a cynic, you’d be deeply suspicious by now.

So what conclusions have I drawn from this week?  The first is that I owe an apology.  My unpublished letter to The Age contained a suggestion that the ACL was not “particularly Christian”.  I now repent of this calumny.  I have no doubt that the members and supporters of the ACL are as sincere in their faith as I am.  I profoundly disagree with their interpretation of what it means to be a Christian – but that doesn’t give me the right to unleash the “un-Christian” label on them; I know I would resent and resist any attempt by them to do that to me.  And so I unreservedly apologise.

The second is that broader Christian opinion needs to be represented.  If the narrow sectional views of loud lobby groups and the “usual suspects” relied upon by the media are to be counter-balanced by alternate Christian voices, then Christians holding different views need to organise, mobilise, grab the media’s attention and hold them responsible for what they say about us.  NOT as “progressives” opposed to “conservatives”.  NOT as “liberals” opposed to “traditionalists”.  Rather, we must be what we are: Christians who do not conform to the same old, sad stereotypes used by the media, Christians whose voices are not those of the supposedly “representative” groups and individuals.  Only by doing so will lazy journalists and editorial processes more concerned with sound bites than accurate representation be held accountable.

I for one am no longer prepared to accept the status quo.  Every time I encounter a media organisation proffering a hackneyed, lazy, or misrepresentative view of Christian faith and life, or one that conflates broader Christian opinion with that of a narrow sectional interest group, that organisation is going to know about it. I hope others will do the same.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.