Earlier this week, the Bible Society posted a web video featuring Liberal Party MPs Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie having a conversation about their opposing views on marriage equality. Both share their viewpoints, and are then asked to put forward the other's views to prove they'd been listening.
Titled 'Keeping it Light', the idea was to show that a civil conversation on the issue of marriage equality is possible.
The response, however, proved otherwise. The video prompted a backlash from marriage equality advocates. Coopers' apparent sponsorship of the video prompted many to call for the company to be boycotted. The company — after a series of earlier statements that tried to distance themselves from any stance on the issue — eventually issued an apology and made a statement publicly endorsing same-sex marriage.
Marriage equality advocates argue that civil conversations on the issue are impossible, just as civil conversations on racial or gender issues would be impossible if one party refused to acknowledge that black people or women had equal rights and dignity.
The issue is an intensely personal one for LGBTI people who have had to overcome homophobia and marginalisation for their entire lives. Their responses to opponents of marriage equality are easily understandable in this context. With high suicide rates among LGBTI people, the question about whether and how conversations like this can be conducted is anything but a 'light' issue.
When advocates first began widely adopting the term 'marriage equality' to define the debate it was placed in the same category as racial and gender equality. Since then, the onus has been on advocates of traditional marriage to find a way to engage in the debate that doesn't impinge on the dignity of same-sex attracted people.
The fact that most people who oppose marriage equality do so on religious grounds makes this particularly difficult. Biblical, or theological, arguments are easily dismissed in a society that usually defines 'secular' as 'religiously neutral'.
Forced to conduct the debate entirely on secular terms, the arguments of traditional marriage advocates usually fall flat. People like Hastie make a valiant effort, but they fail to evoke the same intellectual and emotional resonance of civil rights arguments.
"People who hold biblical or theological views on marriage aren't going to be convinced by arguments that don't respect those views."
Our world has changed, and there's little evidence that children raised by same-sex couples are any less well off than those raised by a mother and a father. As a result, mainstream Australians, who aren't going to churches and increasingly aren't convinced by, or even aware of, biblical and theological arguments, have become mostly pro-marriage equality.
The problem with this approach is that it ends up creating the same disaffection and social isolation that it seeks to overcome. People who hold biblical or theological views on marriage aren't going to be convinced by arguments that don't respect those views. Even if marriage equality legislation is passed, same-sex attracted people will still face marginalisation, and even homophobia, within religious communities.
The alternative isn't to give homophobia and hatred a voice. No conversation on marriage equality should begin from any place other than that same-sex attracted people are equal in dignity, and worthy of the same respect and aspirations, as heterosexual people. However a conversation has to happen, and religion has to be included in it. Marriage equality isn't just a civil rights issue, it's also a biblical and theological one. Religious people need to be won over, too.
In opening up spaces for religious voices, advocates will find they have allies among believers. There are many who question the biblical and theological underpinnings of Christian opposition to marriage equality. The religious debate isn't as cut and dried as the civil rights debate, but there's a conversation to be had. And whether or not churches change their teachings, religious people can still be convinced to follow their own religious teachings on loving their neighbours when it comes to same-sex couples and their families.
The Bible Society video showed that there are Christian communities that are open to having a conversation about marriage equality, and to conduct that conversation in a way that respects the dignity of same-sex attracted people. While it may be painful for many marriage equality advocates to even admit that a conversation is needed, for the sake of building a more harmonious society they need to be willing to give space to that conversation.
Michael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.