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Thankyou for joining us, Michael. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that Freedom for Faith is doing and why it’s important?
We are a Christian think tank and all we do is try to protect and promote religious freedom. In Australia at the moment that’s certainly been a hot–button issue over the last 12 months and we think it is only going to get bigger.
Given the legislation that has gone through recently and the impact that has for us as Christians, what do you think the challenges are going to be for Christians in the coming months and years?
I think we certainly took a position which said that changes to the marriage act were going to bring consequences just as they have throughout the rest of the western world. I think we will start to see those play out. But we also want to put religious freedom on a broader base than that.
This is not just about a florist and a baker and whatever happens to be going on in the US Supreme Court at the moment. It’s actually a real issue for Australian’s about whether there is going to be a place for faith in the public square; whether the public square becomes naturally god-less and religion becomes a private thing. And that can find lots and lots of different forms, not just marriage.
What would some of those situations potentially be?
You certainly see it coming up with issues like the euthanasia debate where Catholic MPs are being told, ‘You can’t take part because of your faith. You are disqualified because you hold this belief.’
So for us to be able to say, no, the whole point of the public square is that you have people of different beliefs. They are able to contest them, able to speak about difference and find ways to live together. Rather than saying it needs to be this uniform, secular, hard, vacuous space that only non-belief can enter into.
That’s an obvious presenting issue but we think that same kind of thinking will find expression in schools, particularly.
There will be hot issues like how to deal with transgender kids – kids identifying as transgender within the school setting - where you’ve got a clash of different values going on. How is it that a faith based school is able to operate?
You’ll see it in other spaces such as the ongoing debate about scripture in public schools. Whether it is fair for people of faith to see a public school as a place where they live out their faith or have some say in how their children are taught.
As a general Christian living life in work and school, what sort of things should we be doing in light of this legislation?
We want to say that it is very helpful to have a historical and global perspective on some of this; to globally be aware that persecution is taking place on a genocidal scale with people being targeted because of their belief and only because of their belief. And to be able to say historically that that is something we have certainly seen as well. To therefore appreciate that the freedoms we have enjoyed in the West are ones that we shouldn’t take for granted.
With that context, what will that mean? That means that we will be prayerful for our brothers and sister who face persecution. We will be realistic about what it is that faces us here. But I think it also means that we will be prayerful and engaged and speaking about these kind of issues. Not just to protect our own rights and see that we have a privileged spot but really in order to love our neighbour. In order to see a flourishing of the community that is good for gospel proclamation. The kind of civic freedoms that whether you are a Christian or not, we have all enjoyed and all benefited from.
We haven’t had to think about that a lot. We have traded on the hard work and the shed blood of others in the past and I think we are entering into a time now where some of that is being challenged. We can’t just take these things for granted but we need to think about how it is that we speak, how it is that we are faithful to Christ as the world is changing a little around us.
In that context, I know some pastors have been thinking about what they should post online in terms of sermons or articles. What would you say to people thinking through those issues?
One of the problems we have got in Australia is that the law can vary from state to state so don’t hear me giving legal advice here but, there are certainly some states and territories where it can be a problem just to be teaching Christian belief. It potentially could be seen as hate speech. Now we don’t want to be alarmist about that and say you can’t put anything online but we also wouldn’t want to be naïve and say this is just not an issue.
We have seen pastors brought before the human rights commission in Tasmania. We are seeing litigation take place around that.
That’s a good example of how we have to think differently and carefully about how it is that we have platforms that are good for ministry. So, certainly there are some who are withdrawing certain sermons. That itself may be no protection.
We do know some churches where people have come just to find out that they can be offended and then make complaints so the internet just makes it easier I suppose.
What brings you encouragement as a Christian in times like this?
Well, the grave is still empty. So, the resurrection of Christ.
Psalm 2, which shows that God laughs at the nations as they rally against His Christ, against his anointed one. So again, that biblical perspective that says God is sovereign, God is good. The kingdom of God is not at stake here. And so, we can trust in God’s power and goodness. I wouldn’t be doing any of the things I am doing if I didn’t have that conviction already.
On to books, you seem like you must be a busy man. When do you find time to read?
You know how people walk down the street on their phones? That’s me with a book, I’m afraid. Sometimes with a kindle on the phone but sometimes with a book. I’m always reading. Never finding enough time for it. Always trying to read and be across things.
Just moved house and had all these boxes of books which we realised that many of them still aren’t read. So there are all of these to-do projects now that I got around reading.
Are there any books in particular that stand out as really impacting your life?
Look, it’s a bit like asking for favourite children. I’m not sure!
I think there have certainly been some tremendously helpful books over the years. One of the things I’m discovering is that some of the really old books actually have a lot of wisdom in this space, as you think about public theology.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise but I think it did to realise that all the reformers struggled with this in different ways. Whether it’s Martin Luther with the German princes and the peasant’s revolution. Whether it’s Calvin and trying to think about how Geneva should run and how to deal with the persecution in France and what that meant as he wrote to the French king.
Whether it’s in England as you see the reformation of church and state take place together there.
All of the great reformers are thinking deeply afresh about what the gospel means as they see a world in turmoil.
That same kind of thing takes place as you see the formation of the States with the puritans going there. The same kind of thing takes place with Locke and others, Augustine and the end of the Roman Empire.
Again and again it feels like great public theology has been done at times when there has been conflict and pressure and tension and change and potentially end of empire, those kinds of things taking place.
I think we are still waiting for that book for Australia; I’m not sure who would write it. But it would be good to be praying for people to be grappling afresh with the same gospel at a time when the West is really struggling with its self-identity and its sense of what it’s there for and what its connection is with a Christian Heritage. So, what does it look like in a post-Christian world to think of freedom of belief?
Probably didn’t answer your question at all there.