Staggering around the Victorian suburb of Coburg one night, I noticed a gigantic house with impractical high ceilings, a gated entrance and the tail end of a Beemer visible through the links of a fence. The roof sloped both ways and the house vibrated importance into the neighbourhood. None of the other houses had been built too close to it and it looked like it owned that corner of the street – like it might have been a place of gathering once. It was a dark and I was a bit drunk. That’s a weird house, I said to my girlfriend. Yeah, she replied, it used to be a church. This astounded me. I never even really considered that this could be possible, that the Church would sell their churches and that people would move into them – these things are institutions and have all sorts of weird vibes; people aren’t meant to live in them. I’d never seen a church-house in Canada. It’s not a particularly religious country compared to, you know, Pakistan, but still – you didn’t live in a church.
Maybe this makes sense here. When I talk to Australians one of the first things to come up is their pride over their secularism, as exemplified by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Religion has a minor influence on the country's social policies and politics, goes the prevailing wisdom, and the rich history of atheists and agnostics in power, including the current Prime Minster, serves as proof.
Then why, I keep wondering, is same-sex marriage not a reality in this country? Why did Gillard recently strike down the idea of introducing a chance to vote in gay marriage in the upcoming election? How come redneck Americans in Delaware, Minnesota and 10 other states allow gay marriage? Catholic Spain allows it and France recently passed legislation to begin the process, yet secular Australia under an atheist Prime Minster has made no progress.
Politicians have “changed their minds” when public perception has shifted on gay marriage – Obama is a good example – and currently, according to the Roy Morgan Research group, 68 percent of Australians support gay marriage. Gillard’s own party has changed its official policy, while Gillard remains unwavering in her support for the Marriage Act. Where does this view come from? Atheists are supposed to be progressive, right? Traditional anti gay marriage positions are rooted in religion, right? Does she hate gay people in a secular way, or does religion have a much stronger role in the vote than we thought?
The Australian Development Strategies research group discovered in a voting profile of Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election win that religious voting played the strongest role in the election since the 1960s. Writer Christopher Pearson quotes lead researcher John Black, stating, “The strongest correlate of the swing to Kevin Rudd's new Labor Party was Pentecostal churchgoers, alongside Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, Salvos, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Uniting Church.”
This accounts for 10 percent of the vote and were located in areas Labour needed to take the election. 12 of the 20 important Pentacostal seats were located in Rudd’s homestate of Queensland and Rudd brought home 5 of them. These were new seats that he needed to win – Black cites the Queensland seat of Forde, with a high rate of former Howard voters, that recorded a pro-Labour vote change of 14.4 percent. This support of Rudd and his faith was new, as Black says, “They believed in Kevin Rudd and voted for him. This is not a common thing to see in this sort of analysis, where faith normally comes a distant second to economic necessity.”
The ADS looked at the 2010 voting results as well and noted that while the new Gillard did receive a bump from atheists and agnostics, the loss of Pro-Church Rudd meant that Labour lost support in marginal seats. A National Forum survey showed that, a month before the election, 30 percent of Christians who had voted for Rudd and the Labour in the previous election, were now undecided. Probably catching wind of this sentiment, two weeks before the election, Gillard attempted to bridge the gap with the Christian community in an unplanned video conversation Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby and renewed her commitment to the Marriage Act. The 68 percent that have progressive social views might not even matter if the Government is salivating after the potential votes of the swinging dicks that helped lock a guy like Rudd in.
Is it all just vote-grabbing? While Abbott is obvious about his Catholic affiliation and reasons for supporting the Marriage Act as it exists, Gillard is evasive about the issue, constantly citing “tradition” as her main motivation. She gladly told the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace, “my values were formed in a strong family, in a family that went to church, and I've brought those values with me.”
It’s hard reconcile the details of Gillard’s own life – a defacto relationship – with statements like, ''My strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation and that should continue unchanged.'' This conviction has never been backed up – she has no religious belief, doesn’t claim homophobia, and so, what then? What’s the point of her atheism, her difference, her anything?
Somehow she comes across as worse than Abbott in the race for power hungry politician with no convictions. True secularism might never be achieved, but it’s impossible to conceive that an atheist Prime Minster in a proudly secular country is not spearheading the movement. France, whose citizens are often proudly Catholic, recently passed same sex marriage legislation, despite having mass protests in support of the traditional definition. Gay couples can get married in more states in the USA than here, and they just got out of the hyper-religious black hole that were the Bush years. On and on it seems like the detractors against same sex marriage are falling away and a country that should have been leading the way is falling behind under the weak spine of their Prime Minister.
Follow Adnan on Twitter: @whotookadnan
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