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A bold stand in the Land Down Under

Put Christians on the barbie? No, says Lyle Shelton, WORLD’s 2016 Daniel of the Year

A bold stand in the Land Down Under

Lyle Shelton at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Sydney. (Jon Love/Genesis )

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A lone protester against same-sex marriage sits on the steps of South Australian Parliament in Adelaide.

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Two gay men attend a protest in Melbourne demanding same-sex marriage ahead of the Australian federal election.

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Shelton outside Australia’s Parliament House.

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Sydney skyline

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Flea market in Glebe

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Manly Beach

SYDNEY, Australia—The Anglosphere: six English-speaking countries with a common cultural heritage. From 2005 through 2015 five of them—Canada, New Zealand, England, the United States, and Ireland—legalized same-sex marriage. The architect of the Irish victory, Tiernan Brady, has now moved 10,700 miles to work with the “Australian Marriage Equality” movement and knock down the last domino.

As the marriage debate Down Under grew more intense in 2016, so did attacks on religious liberty. Gay activists took an archbishop to court for distributing a booklet, “Don’t Mess with Marriage.” A printing company refused to print a doctor’s book about marriage just before the book’s scheduled launch. A Christian group’s reservation of a hotel meeting room led to threats of violence against hotel staff members. A major accounting firm forced one of its senior executives to resign from the board of a Christian organization. A state “Anti-Discrimination Commission” treated a marriage-defending newspaper column as hate speech.

American Christians frequently speak about the importance of being “a city on a hill,” a Sermon on the Mount phrase that Puritan John Winthrop seized in 1630 to describe his hopes for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Sadly, Massachusetts long ago relinquished its Christian leadership role and in 2004 became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Australia is the new city on a hill regarding the marriage issue. If it can stand lonely but firm, others may gain new hope.

The Christian leader in this battle who takes the most heat, and yet maintains a civil public presence and wins allies when possible, is Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Daniel, in the book of the Bible named after him, remained calm in the face of threats, told the truth to kings, and didn’t change his behavior when sly adversaries legally undermined his religious liberty. Australian Christians I’ve spoken with say Shelton has also been steadfast—and he is WORLD’s 2016 Daniel of the Year.

THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF ACL is to foster “a more compassionate, just and moral society by seeking to have the positive public contributions of the Christian faith reflected in the political life of the nation.” Shelton, 47 and a pastor’s son, learned about both church and state during his 20s, spending six years as a journalist and three as a youth pastor in his dad’s church. During his 30s he served on the city council of Toowoomba, a city of 100,000, and brought Christian faith into politics as he fought legalized prostitution (unsuccessfully) and strip clubs (successfully).

Shelton gained allies beyond church walls on both issues. His anti-brothels pitch was decentralist: The Australian state of Queensland had legalized them, but couldn’t Toowoomba just say no? His anti-stripping campaign emphasized respect for women, with thousands signing petitions opposing “grotesque acts for the entertainment of men.” In the process Shelton also learned that some Christians fear controversy and hope that—if they hunker down—evil will bypass them.

In 2007 Shelton joined ACL and was thrown into the same-sex marriage debate. Laid-back Australians talk about the “fair go,” a concept that requests equal treatment but also sympathy in difficult situations, as in, “I have an enormous amount of work to do, so fair go, can I skip the meeting?” Shelton and others saw that gay and lesbian couples could complain about not getting a fair go, so in 2008 a bipartisan majority of the federal Parliament, with ACL support, passed an omnibus Same-Sex Relationships Bill.

‘When Australians look at the American Supreme Court, we just shake our heads. If that happened here, we’d say, “That’s not a fair go. How dare the judges make such a decision!”’ —Shelton

That bill amended 85 laws to give same-sex couples equality with married couples concerning taxation, healthcare, social security, next-of-kin status, inheritance, education, and just about everything else that had led to complaints. Some hoped that would satisfy the gay lobby, but it did not: Australian gay advocates insisted on legalized same-sex marriage, as have their counterparts in other countries.

Proponents of same-sex marriage have tried to push it through Parliament 18 times since 2004. They have had a losing streak similar to that once faced by gay advocates in the United States, who lost referendums or legislative battles in most states. The big difference: U.S. judges stepped in and created same-sex marriage by edict, but Australia has not suffered such judicial imperialism.

Shelton says: “When Australians look at the American Supreme Court, we just shake our heads. If that happened here, we’d say, ‘That’s not a fair go. How dare the judges make such a decision!’” So in 2013, when Australia’s High Court—its equivalent of the Supremes—did not rule on same-sex marriage but said it’s up to Parliament, that meant this issue would have to be No. 1 on the ACL agenda over the next several years.

Shelton does not love that prioritization: “I’m sympathetic to our social justice friends who worry that Christians seem like nay people. That’s an obstacle for the gospel. I get that and it bothers me.” ACL wants Australia to have strong border protection but is also pro-refugee, stating in its election guide last June, “With so many people—including hundreds of thousands of Christians—displaced and persecuted around the world, Australia must stand up and support those whose governments are unable or unwilling to help.” Shelton also sees the importance of Christian poverty-fighting—“but I can’t step back from the need to show real compassion and speak difficult truths” regarding homosexuality.

COMPASSION ON THIS ISSUE, to Shelton, means caring about adults but also thinking children deserve the fair go of having both a mother and a father. One flashpoint now: A government-backed “Safe Schools” program proclaims that individuals decide their own gender, teachers should give children information about sex change surgery, and men can use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms in schools. One poll shows most Australians support same-sex marriage but oppose the transgender agenda, and Australia’s cultural radicals may have tactically erred in promoting trans proselytizing in schools before winning the same-sex marriage battle. (In the United States, the left’s sequencing was more careful.)

A debate between Shelton and Ireland-to-Australia activist Brady on June 30 pointed to the radicals’ weak spot. Shelton said, “Marriage is a compound right” that connects with other aspects of life, since government has a stake in children becoming good citizens. Shelton also brought up the commercial surrogacy issue: Paying a woman to carry a baby is illegal in Australia, and the gay lobby wants to change that because gay men wanting to become fathers often want to rent wombs.

Brady insisted that questions involving children are “separate pieces of law,” and the issue of same-sex marriage is “a very straightforward, simple question.” Shelton knows same-sex marriage will become law unless Australians realize it is neither straightforward nor simple—and the more time they have to grasp how same-sex marriage connects with surrogacy, a loss of religious liberty, indoctrination in schools, and other concerns, the better chance of holding the line, which Christians in the five other Anglosphere countries have failed to do.

Brady also said during the televised debate, “No one should be called names or branded.” Shelton agreed with that, and noted that radical “Safe School” advocates use “bullying words such as ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’” in the name of anti-bullying. Shelton added, “The use of bullying language to demonize people who simply wish to preserve the definition of marriage must stop.” David van Gend, the doctor/author whose printer became frightened before publication, notes, “The end game of any revolution is to remake society in its own radical image … by silencing dissenting voices.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Coalition won a narrow victory in July after advocating putting the question to voters: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” But gay radicals oppose such a plebiscite, in part because Australians are beginning to connect the dots, and gays might lose. The gay lobby got its way on Nov. 7 when the Senate branch of Australian Parliament voted 33-29 to block the plebiscite.

Now radicals want to try for the 19th time to ram through the change by parliamentary vote: With the Labor and Greens parties committed to same-sex marriage, gays will win if only three members of Turnbull’s coalition majority flip.

That may not happen because party discipline is strong: Asserting self above party undermines the fair go and turns legislators into “tall poppies” likely to be cut down. But, given what’s happened in other countries, it won’t be a surprise if the Land Down Under buckles as well.

A pro-gay parliamentary vote would have dire consequences, according to Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine: “There goes any chance of same-sex marriage being made law with the blessing of the entire nation, of fence-sitters embracing it, and of the losers accepting the verdict with good grace. Attitudes will harden. … Everyone will know the outcome was rigged, and that the change merchants didn’t trust the Australian public to legitimize this radical change to our foundational social institution. We will know that victory was only achieved through lies and intimidation.”

FOR SHELTON, who married in 1993 and is the father of four teenagers, this battle is professional, pastoral, and personal: He calls a marriage plebiscite “the only way that, as Christians, we can secure both the future of marriage, and our freedoms to believe and practice our faith.” Australia and the United States have much in common—oceans protect both countries, immigrants have built both, and the constitutions of both say the national government shall make no law “establishing any religion”—but Australia during recent decades has been more accommodating to Christianity than the United Sates.

In part, this is because Australia’s High Court in 1981 ruled that laws could benefit religions generally as long as they did not give preference to a particular religion. That’s different from the U.S. Supreme Court’s opposition to laws that benefit a specific religion or all religions. In practice it means that the Australian government has funded religious schools and religious charities: About 20 percent of children in Australia attend private schools (twice the U.S. percentage) and about 50 percent of social services come through such charities.

The Australian understanding has been both blessing and curse. Churches enjoy tax-free status and have not given up their religious freedom, but many charities are government look-alikes, and many church schools are likely to buckle under government pressure if same-sex marriage brings with it the demand that all institutions affirm it. The left is already trying to turn “fair go” into pressure on the recalcitrant: For example, the Australian Sports Commission has a “Fair go, sport!” project promoting “sexual and gender diversity.”

Much is at stake, and many Australians wish the whole debate would go away. Australia is a secure and wealthy country without a big sense of its own power. Historians sometimes describe the United States as a country founded on an idea of liberty and virtue, but John Sandeman, editor of Eternity, Australia’s national monthly Christian magazine, points out that Australia has neither an oft-quoted Constitution preamble and First Amendment nor a Gettysburg Address: “The United States bears the burden of being the most powerful country in the world. … Australia doesn’t have a manifest destiny. It simply wants to get on with life.”

Sandeman added: “A lot of Australians would like to have a country founded on ideals, but we are actually a country founded because the British had to have somewhere to send their prisoners. You can’t get too excited about that, can you?” He was referring to the First Fleet, 11 ships that carried to Australia in 1787-1788 roughly 800 condemned prisoners and 600 sailors, marines, and passengers including Anglican chaplain Richard Johnson.

The penal colony they founded at what is now Sydney was the first European settlement in Australia, so Australians joke that their country originated with convicts, not conviction. (So did the United States, in part: Before the 13 colonies became independent, Britain sent to them 52,000 convicts. Australia was Britain’s post-1783 substitute for an American dumping ground.)

Australia’s second founding came in 1901, when the six colonies England had created on the continent during 113 years united as one country with a newly minted constitution. Christians participated in that process but did not lead it. Australia’s first prime minister, heavy-drinking Edmund Barton, had the nickname “Tosspot Toby.” His successor, “Affable” Alfred Deakin, praised Anglicanism only as “evidence of the British genius for compromise.” Deakin extolled “the God of Jesus, of Plato, of Epictetus,” praised Muhammad and the Buddha, and said Darwinists had “explained the origins of the universe.”

The same-sex-marriage and transgender debates have already led to a Sydney corporate culture where new employees are drilled in left-wing gender ideology at the same time they hear, “Don’t bring your faith into the workplace.” Australia may soon have what Michael Kellahan, head of Freedom for Faith, a think tank that is a behind-the-scenes complement to ACL, calls “a public square that isn’t free”—or it may have a third founding based on a fair go both for the roughly 3 percent of Australians who are LGBT and for the larger number of Christians.

Three decades ago, when Crocodile Dundee actor Paul Hogan starred in commercials for the Australian Tourist Commission and promised to “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie” for visiting Americans, Australia leaped from Americans’ 78th “most desired” vacation destination to No. 1 or No. 2. Australians now face a choice: fair go barbecue for all, or Christians on the barbie.

Surprisingly urban Australia

Australia has 24 million people in an area the size of the 48 states. Nearly half of Australians live in three east and south coast cities: Sydney (4.6 million), Melbourne (4.2), and Adelaide (1.3). Nearly 2 million more live in the major west coast city, Perth. Materially, Australia’s per capita gross domestic product is $47,000, compared with $56,000 in the United States. Spiritually, 6 out of 10 Australians claim a Christian identification, but only 15 percent say they go to church at least once a month.

Although many Americans imagine Australia as an outback land of kangaroos and dingoes, Australia’s population is 90 percent urban and suburban. Its largest city resembles New York City in many ways. Café names—Welcome India Authentic Food, Ibrahim Restaurant, Mexican Street Fare—suggest Sydney’s diverse human population, and the central business district (CBD) sports not only pigeons but ibises and cockatoos. The climate, though, is like Southern California’s, and in October, the beginning of Australia’s summer, Manly Beach was crowded with old folks browning under a cloudless sky and college students throwing around footballs (fatter than the American version).

Expensive homes surmount the beautiful beaches that border Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Just off the coast sits Bondi Junction, where family homes coexist with the Iyengar Yoga Institute, The Crystal Temple (“Sacred Treasures From Mother Earth”), Hairvolution, and USA Nails and Footspa. Just west of the city sits Balmain, once a working-class suburb that birthed Australia’s Labor Party. It’s still home to a few beef-pie-and-pint standbys like Cricketers Arms and the Cat and Fiddle Hotel, but far more wine bars, boutiques, and Pilates studios.

A Sydney southwest suburb, Glebe, sports each Saturday a flea market with dozens of booths offering vintage and recycled clothes, $5 rings, and T-shirts sporting wit such as “T Rex hates pushups” or “Always be yourself unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman.” Shoppers eat kebabs, nachos, and Turkish gözleme. The relaxed vibe is evident in sales of wooden iPhone cases proclaiming, “Keep calm and go fishing,” and a nearby design store’s reflection: “Some days I wrestle with my demons. Some days we just snuggle.”

South of the CBD, the Surry Hills neighborhood resembles Greenwich Village: Super-trendy for the young and wealthy, with rainbow flags waving, but also a half-dozen urban missions for the down and out. Another neighborhood, Darlinghurst, encompasses a smaller Times Square only halfway through a Manhattan-style cleanup, so Dream Girls, Bada Bing Nightspot, and Risqué Adult Boutique mix alongside upscale shops and Panhandlebar Food & Wine. One morning some homeless men were still “sleeping rough” on benches, not far from $3 million apartments—and some affluent residents imitated them on select streets for one night of “Roughtober,” a charity fundraiser.

A few people give more than a check and a night out. Sixteen years ago Michael Chang left his job as a computer network engineer to work with the men and women who “sleep rough” for real. He still derives satisfaction from times with the homeless when “the lightbulb goes on, they get hungry for the Bible, and they learn at an incredible rate.” But although most of those large charities are still Christian in name, many employees are not Christians: Chang says “very few think of promoting Jesus.”

Will those determined to promote Jesus be free to do so? Freedom for Faith’s Michael Kellahan sees more Australians beginning to “understand the potential consequences” of the LGBT agenda, which includes restrictions on “freedom to teach in schools” and “hold views that are not politically correct.”

Kellahan says claims of religious liberty for florists, bakers, and photographers gain little traction in Australia, but appeals to the fair go do: “That’s the language of mateship, a sense of us all being one.” The fair go means not “having a law on the books that puts a large segment of the Australian community in conflict with Australian law over deep and irreconcilable beliefs about gender and marriage. … [Freedom for Faith] cannot keep up with the amount of requests for help we’re getting—a church group wanting to figure out its policy on renting out its hall, a school wanting to figure out its enrollment policies around transgender students.” —Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.