There needs to be more accountability in religion

Churches need to be held to the same standard

Artwork by Lena Wang

CW: Homophobia, suicide

Historically, religion and morality were closely related. What was right and wrong was based primarily on people’s interpretation of their faith. Religious institutions, in particular, prescribed morals. Nowadays, though they still make ethical claims, their influence has diminished. Religion is no longer the only important source of morality, including for some self-identified religious adherents, such as Australian and liberal Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and progressive Christians. This is partly due to the emergence of science and secularism coinciding with decreased confidence in religious institutions.

While prescribing morals was only one function of religion, it was nevertheless a highly influential part of it. Religion, generally, involves belief in a deity viewed as superhuman and above humanity. This leads fundamentalist groups to hold religion-endorsed views in high regard. For example, in its constitution under ‘Doctrinal Basis’, the USyd Evangelical Union (EU) makes clear it considers the Bible or Holy Scripture in its original form as infallible, divinely inspired and having “supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. This claim is questionable especially as a quick Google search will yield many instances where the Bible is inconsistent and contradictory. But regardless of plausibility, this kind of dogmatic belief has seen religious institutions escape accountability when they attempt to justify perpetuating harm and discrimination towards queer people.

A 2018 study found that same-sex attracted people living in electorates with a higher “no” vote experienced worse health outcomes and life satisfaction compared to those with a lower “no” vote

Research has proven negative views of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have significant consequences for same-sex attracted people, with the demographic scoring, on average, higher rates of suicide and worse mental health. A 2018 study found that same-sex attracted people living in electorates with a higher “no” vote experienced worse health outcomes and life satisfaction compared to those with a lower “no” vote.

But many fundamentalist Christians, including those who believe in a perfect Bible, have ignored this research, persisting in their beliefs by resorting to what can only be described as deliberate fabrication and willful ignorance. When the Uniting Church in July allowed ministers freedom to perform same-sex marriage, the Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia John P Wilson, called the decision “disturbing … and confusing”. His choice of words reveals he doesn’t understand why people care about marriage equality, seemingly ignorant to how Presbyterian churches overseas have taken steps towards same-sex marriage, including the Church of Scotland. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has also allowed same-sex marriage since 2014.

Others have made more extreme claims. Former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, who has endorsed EU, has previously opposed same-sex marriage and made homophobic remarks. He claimed that same-sex marriage could lead to polygamy and incest and in September 2012 on Q&A neglected to denounce comments made by the then-director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Jim Wallace, who suggested homosexuality was like smoking in regards to the potential fatal health risks.

Jensen has also been the General Secretary of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) since its inception in 2008. GAFCON is a fundamentalist Anglican group formed to guard so called ‘biblical truth’ and has taken conservative stances on many issues including same-sex marriage. It has accused the Episcopal Church of proclaiming the false gospel over their election and ordination of openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Furthermore, GAFCON criticised the Church of England’s motion calling for a ban on conversion therapy, identifying it as threatening “basic faithful pastoral care”.

Conversion therapy is known to be dangerous and incredibly harmful. It is discredited by many professional health organisations such as the Australian Medical Association and Australian Psychological Society and is responsible for the death of many people. But a 2018 Sydney Morning Herald investigation found that conversion therapy is still practised in Australia, hidden within the high walls of evangelical churches and ministries. Many fundamentalist religious groups including the ACL have defended it and claimed it is their right to practice it because of their religious beliefs.

Groups like GAFCON, the ACL and the Sydney Anglicans, have cited religious belief to justify lies about queer people and same-sex marriage. Most fundamentalist religious groups, including those at USyd, have also neglected to condemn conversion therapy. The EU and an associated group, the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, have documents on their websites which express negative views regarding homosexuality. Yet these groups are still not being held accountable for perpetuating homophobic stigma.

Their actions have repeatedly caused harm to many people, leading some to suicide. But, under the pretext of religious freedom and liberty these groups have escaped with actions as severe as practising conversion therapy. Faith based institutions have constantly dictated what is supposedly right and wrong, but times have changed. Justifying harm towards people whether it be slavery, racism or homophobia is no longer accepted.

Religious institutions need to engage with queer issues openly. Everyone, from affirming members of evangelical churches to campus groups such as the EU need to speak up and confront homophobia in their communities. It is simply unacceptable to assume religion-based morality is infallible, especially when lives are at stake.