The Australian Christian Lobby has a high profile as a religious organisation seeking to influence government policy, but are its claims of intolerance and censorship a sign it realises it is out of step with a secular society? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s bid for influence

In 2013, the Australian Christian Lobby’s longest-serving managing director stepped down. Jim Wallace was a retired SAS brigadier, an assured man who became one of the country’s most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage. On Anzac Day 2011, he elicited outrage when he tweeted: “Just hope that as we remember servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”

Wallace later deleted the tweet and apologised for politicising the day, but he would continue to add to his sheet of controversial remarks. The following year he claimed that homosexuality was more lethal than smoking, which prompted then prime minister Julia Gillard to withdraw her attendance from the ACL’s national conference. Wallace was incensed. “This is a victory for the relentless campaign of demonisation against anyone who would challenge the gay activists’ agenda in the public square,” he said.

The man who replaced Wallace three years ago, Lyle Shelton, has continued his predecessor’s pugnacity – most frequently expressed on social media – and his assertion that criticism of the ACL is a form of censorship. When Senator Cory Bernardi’s office was vandalised by activists in March this year, apparently in protest at Bernardi’s opposition to the Safe Schools anti-bullying program, Shelton said that it represented a “disturbing lack of tolerance”. But Shelton was not cowed.

Shelton is a former journalist, local councillor and, in 2006, a failed Nationals candidate in Queensland’s election. The son of a pastor, he grew up in Toowoomba on Queensland’s Darling Downs. It is a region with a high concentration of Christians. Dr John Harrison, of the University of Queensland, tells me that “the religious right in Queensland has always been centred around the Darling Downs and the South Burnett, and not in central Queensland or north Queensland. The north is much more diverse ethnically – lots of southern European migrants, descendants of Chinese families who came for gold in the late 19th century, eastern Europeans in the Isa, South Sea Islanders in Mackay, and Indigenous people across the north.”

1 . Logos Foundation

In the 1980s, Shelton’s father was the second in charge of the Logos Foundation, a political/religious organisation founded by former Baptist minister Howard Carter in 1969. It defined itself as a “Christian organisation committed to the maintenance of the historic Judeo-Christian values as a basis for individual, family, ecclesiastical, economic and civil spheres.” Originally based in New South Wales’s Blue Mountains, the Logos Foundation moved to Toowoomba at the end of 1987. “As a child and teenager,” Lyle Shelton tells me, “my family was involved in Logos for many years. Logos taught me the importance of Christians participating in democracy. Logos, however, had many flaws and these led to its demise in 1990, while I was at university.”

One of those flaws was the philandering of its leader. Carter resigned in disgrace and Logos collapsed. But not before it had campaigned extensively for Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen – “the godly man in government” – in 1986, and later supported his tilt for the prime ministership.

“The Queensland Nationals’ corruption was acknowledged [by Logos],” Andy Murdoch tells me. Murdoch’s mother was heavily involved with the organisation, and Murdoch himself attended its Covenant Evangelical Church in the 1980s. “But [the corruption] was dismissed as irrelevant because the party’s policies – specifically around issues of sexuality and abortion – were similar to Logos Foundation’s.”

Another of those “flaws”, according to Harrison, was the foundation’s dominionist and reconstructionist theology. Dominionism is a form of Christian supremacy, with an anti-democratic agenda. Reconstructionism is the application of Biblical law – a Christian version of sharia law – which would mandate death for the sins of adultery, homosexuality and bestiality, for instance. Harrison tells me: “The now discredited ‘dominion theology’ of the Logos Foundation is one of the influences on the ACL. Dominion theology is anti-democratic, so while it will be vociferously denied, there is some anti-democratic sentiment in the DNA of the ACL.”

Lyle Shelton certainly vociferously denied any reconstructionist beliefs within the ACL, and told me that he didn’t know what dominionism was. It was a position strongly repeated to me by Dr Railton Hill, who served as the ACL’s Victorian director until 2008. “It’s nonsense,” he tells me. “These are ridiculous theories of fantasists. I never heard or saw anything to even remotely suggest any goals of some kind of theocracy or dominionism during the time I was involved.”

Hill stresses to me that he’s impartial – he has had nothing to do with the ACL for almost a decade, and feels no need to either “praise or condemn” them. Hill left the organisation after disagreeing with their position on surrogacy. “The views I differed strongly on were on bioethics, especially altruistic surrogacy,” Hill tells me. “They took a hardline, very conservative position. I couldn’t be identified with a group that I felt was both out of line with human experience and couldn’t be justified in terms of scripture. They wouldn’t support this quite rare option [altruistic surrogacy] even for married couples experiencing genuine medical infertility.”

Andy Murdoch tells me he “had a bit to do” with Lyle Shelton in Toowoomba. Murdoch, who privately struggled with his homosexuality in the church, tells me that Shelton “was particularly keen on dominionism and theocracy and the idea that society should operate within a very conservative Christian moral framework … I seem to remember reading somewhere that in recent years he’s denied knowing what dominionism is, which seems very odd to me.”

2 . ACL’s influence overstated?

The Australian Christian Lobby was established in 1995 by Queensland businessman and megachurch leader John Gagliardi and retired Baptist minister John McNicoll. While a reasonably small organisation – they list 50,000 members, but membership is free and as easy as registering your email – the ACL has a loud voice. In a 2014 paper written for the academic journal Political Theology, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University wrote: “It has been credited with remarkable achievements, including persuading the atheist, Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to more than double her predecessor’s investment in the National School Chaplaincy Program; to prevent an overhaul of anti-discrimination legislation from removing religious organisations’ rights to discriminate against clients or employees on such grounds as religion, marital status and sexuality; and to maintain her apparently incongruous opposition to same-sex marriage.”

Professor Rodney Smith of Sydney University is more circumspect about the ACL’s influence, and he tells me it’s important to put their power into perspective. “It has a certain amount of influence on parliament, especially the Coalition. It doesn’t have any – or very little – influence on Labor. Electorally, it is not terribly influential. It suggests it is because that gives them greater access to politicians and the media.

“I see the ACL as just another pressure group. I think if you want to see it in a quasi-conspiratorial way, you need to ask if it’s been successful. There’s no evidence it has been. I’ve said this before: critics inflate the importance of the ACL.”

One of the criticisms of the ACL is that it exaggerates its representativeness. It is not a peak body, its board is not elected by members, and its policies are rarely formed in consultation with churches. Professor Maddox tells me: “Not only is ACL not representative of Christians, they are not representative of all charismatics, evangelicals, Pentecostals.”

John Harrison agrees. “ACL claims to represent the position of the mainstream churches, as Lyle Shelton did in his most recent Q&A appearance,” he tells me. “The sociological reality is that Pentecostal and Baptist churches from whom they draw their membership represent less than 2.5 per cent of the Australian population, and thus less than 5 per cent of the population claiming to be Christian. Secondly, Christianity in Australia is a truly broad church, and in public life, for example, we have lay people across a spectrum from the Progressive, gay senator Penny Wong in the Uniting Church, to hyper-Calvinist Eric Abetz of the Christian Reformed Church.”

Railton Hill tells me, however, that despite his disagreement with the ACL on surrogacy, he fully supports their opposition to marriage equality and that “on the key issues, I think they reflect the majority opinion of Christians”.

3 . Bella Girls

One afternoon, the eldest daughter of Charlie (not his real name) returned home from her Queensland state high school clutching a parental permission form. The form, which requested authorisation of his daughter’s participation in an extracurricular course, appeared “innocuous”. The course was, the form said, designed to improve girls’ self-esteem. His daughter was keen to join, and so he signed it. “There was no mention of specific ideological content,” he would later say.

The program was called Shine, and the night of his daughter’s first session she spoke excitedly about it at the dinner table. The girls had been assured that they were unique and “here for a reason”. Then Charlie’s daughter began to discuss the lyrics of a song the instructors shared called “Mirror”. “Mirror, I am seeing a new reflection/I’m looking into the eyes of He who made me/And to Him I have beauty beyond compare/I know He defines me.”

The song – popular among Christians – encouraged girls’ rejection of the supposed obsession secular culture has with the “ideal” female form. Charlie exchanged a look with his wife. They realised they had enrolled their daughter in religious instruction without knowing it – it had never been declared on the form. Seeing that their daughter was enjoying the program, they let her continue for a few weeks. But then, Charlie says, he believed the girls “were being groomed for domestic and spiritual bliss as demure brides of man and Christ. This went against the spirit of self-reliance, curiosity, empowerment and equality we encourage in our house for girls as well as boys. On Monday evenings, we regularly found ourselves openly contradicting what was being taught at school.”

The issue here was not the propriety of religious instruction, but its introduction by stealth. Charlie felt duped. He would later say that the Shine instructors were “secretive and defensive” and that the school that hosted them was hostile to his inquiries about transparency.

While the ACL seeks to engage in the political process, kindred organisations such as that behind Shine assert their beliefs through the state education system.

The Shine program – which would later change its name to Bella Girls – is run by Lyle Shelton’s sister, Letitia. She wrote of the course: “It has been our privilege to go into schools week after week and teach girls about their beauty, value and purpose.” Bella Girls also runs a camp called Girls Getaway, which suggests that its participants, aged 11-17 and who “have never been touched by Jesus”, will by the end of the weekend be “invigorated by the works of God”.

Commonly, there is a caustic or patronising tone when atheists discuss faith and its subsequent programs. The previous description of the camps is not meant pejoratively. But concern has been raised about their appropriateness, when many participants are – by Bella Girls’ admission – girls who have experienced physical and sexual abuse.

The camp’s material describes a weekend’s program: 

“We show a confronting documentary DVD of two women’s lives who were hugely affected by an abusive father and a father who left his family. This clip goes for about 20 minutes. Then I invite forward an older man (sometimes it’s my dad or another pastor from our city) whom we know well and trust. He comes forward and makes a humble apology to the girls on behalf of men who have caused pain in their life. And then he prays for them.

“By this point we have girls in tears. I put on the worship music and invite leaders to begin to move among the girls and ask them if they would like prayer. It’s not a time to counsel the girls, we just listen and pray...”

The girls are encouraged to write the darkest examples of their suffering on paper, before tossing the private declarations into a fire. The act signifies a sacred transaction. They have offered their pain to God and accepted his love in return. As the girls stand around the blazing oil drum, watching their record of abuse turn to ash, they are bound by their fresh and “invigorating” contract with God.

There is nothing insincere in this program. It is the expression of a guiding faith. But experts in violence against women and girls have expressed deep concern. Betty Taylor is the founding director of the Gold Coast Domestic Violence Prevention Centre. Her response to the camp is unequivocal.

“The Bella Camp is so appalling. Taking vulnerable girls and retraumatising them is outrageous,” Taylor says. “The potential for serious harm is concerning. There is no place for people [not clinically trained to deal with victims of sexual abuse] accessing kids through the education system, be it private or public, [and placing them] into a program that appears to have no professional oversight. If girls have experienced abuse at home, in all likelihood it has been sexual abuse and the potential for them self-harming and suiciding would be high.”

Letitia Shelton tells me she has no clinical training. She says that, regarding abused girls, they would “engage their parents or refer them to experts”. She stresses that the girls were not forced to do anything – that their participation was voluntary. “Our experience is that the girls have got a lot out of it. When you carry pain in your life it is important to have an avenue to release it. I would say [to critics], come and join us and see.” 

4 . High Court win over school chaplaincy

In 2014, Ron Williams took the federal government’s National School Chaplaincy program to the High Court. Initially conceived as a battle for secularism, Williams’ lawyers changed their argument to one about funding arrangements. They won in a 6-1 majority ruling, and it temporarily wreaked havoc for the government. The court’s ruling read, in part: “In the absence of statutory authority, Section 61 of the Commonwealth Constitution does not give the Executive the power to fund matters that are not specifically enabled by the Constitution or legislation.”

A lawyer and father of four, Williams lives in Toowoomba and is the director of the Secular Education Foundation. He is passionate about guarding against what he refers to as the church’s “frequent intrusions” into public schools. In the year of Williams’ win in the High Court, his eldest daughter was invited to the Bella Girls program. It helped inspire his approach to the High Court, he tells me. “Using NSCP-funded chaplains to recruit girls as young as nine to participate in programs such as Bella Girls and Shine, which leads them to attending an extremist Christian camp, is beyond outrageous,” Williams said. “Shine and Bella Girls preach messages of godliness via abstinence to girls as young as nine. As for the appallingly age-inappropriate lipstick, make-up and hairdos – this is to please the Christian princes.”

Secularism is frequently misunderstood by many to mean the expulsion of religion from public spheres. It is not. Freedom of religious expression is a central – if circumscribed – right of our open and pluralistic society. But Williams argues that parents and students should be given a choice – that full disclosure of religious agendas is important in a secular society.  

Last month, Lyle Shelton compared the Safe Schools anti-bullying program to Nazi Germany. “The cowardice and weakness of Australia’s ‘gatekeepers’ is causing unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s,” he wrote. He later said that he couldn’t imagine why anyone would be offended.

Certainly, the ACL’s rhetoric differs from that of most churches. Raymond Smith of Sydney University attributes it to a sense of urgency, enfolded within a strategic necessity. “In the 1950s and ’60s, the churches were far more influential in their lobbying. Today, they are less powerful and more defensive,” he says. “The ACL’s intemperateness is owing to a sense of great urgency. The balance of public opinion has shifted against them [on issues of sexuality]. Society is pluralist, meaning they have to make their case rather than just saying, ‘This is what God wants.’ But the ACL use an older fashioned rhetoric, if you like. That’s the dilemma for the ACL. If they do what the Uniting Church does, which is engage with issues in secular terms, then how is that any different to other groups? So you make your appeal in hardline ways.”

5 . ACL claims intolerance

If Australia is to have a plebiscite on marriage equality – as promised by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull – it is the deployment of these “hardline ways” that is concerning to many. Anticipating this campaign, the ACL requested a temporary suspension of anti-discrimination laws that they argued would unfairly crimp their arguments. This alarmed many, who now anticipate a level of injurious rhetoric. “My fear is that people’s livelihood depends upon this agitation,” Graham Perrett tells me. Perrett is the federal Labor member for Moreton, who recently repudiated Shelton’s claims about gender reassignment surgery. “The ACL is funded by evangelical churches, and for their wages to be paid for the next three years they need maximum return. Agitation helps fund their office. And I think this agitation will go into overdrive during any plebiscite debate.”

For all of Shelton’s fire and brimstone, for all of the intemperateness and offence caused, there is undoubtedly a strain of anti-religion in this country. Any plebiscite debate will be a crossroad of duelling principles – freedom of speech versus freedom from vilification; secularism versus religious expression. In this, Shelton tells me, he faces great intolerance.

“Ordinary Australians are very tolerant and do not mind at all if religious or non-religious groups participate in our democracy,” he says. “[But] some elites think we should not be allowed to participate and I think that is sad. We should all welcome a contest of ideas. I’m very disappointed that we have been called haters, bigots, homophobes et cetera. We simply believe the definition of marriage should be retained and that children, wherever possible, should be allowed to know the love and nurture of their biological mother and father. If that is hate, God help us. Unfounded allegations of hate are sadly used as a bully tactic to intimidate people on our side of the debate into silence.”

Railton Hill agrees, and tells me that he’s witnessing an ever-increasing intolerance of religion. He’s wary of groupthink – intellectual orthodoxies that are as much badges of moral vanity as they are contributions to debate. “We’re hitting a period of extreme intolerance towards Christians,” he says. “And there’s a double standard. You can’t say anything negative about other religions, but Christians are fair game. There’s a real viciousness about this intolerance. Where does this end?”

I have wondered where we draw these lines, how we patrol the messy borders of our pluralism. Shelton sees intolerance – which is not imagined – but thinks simply it is an effort to intimidate him and his peers. Likewise, I have spoken to many people who hold grave and legitimate concerns for the mental health of young LGBTI people, whose sexuality will be co-opted and condemned in a brutal culture war.

“In a liberal democracy, everyone, including ACL, has a right to put their views,” Marion Maddox tells me. “But challenging errors of fact is not intolerance. On free expression versus hate speech, I try to address [this] by means of definitions of extremism. ACL does fit at least some definitions of extremism, in that it seems to assume inherent inequality of value between some people – heterosexuals, straight married couples – and others – LGBTI people, same-sex couples. The current tactic of saying shocking things about their opponents, then crying ‘Hate speech!’ when they are criticised is a continuation of previous CEO Jim Wallace’s technique of calling his opponents extremist, while denying being extreme himself.”

6 . Electioneering

Lyle Shelton was busy during the climactic week of the long election campaign. Each day he published dozens and dozens of tweets, stating his case and repudiating others’. “Redefining marriage means redefining parenting, making mothers, fathers dispensable,” he wrote on Tuesday. A week before the election, he was in the audience of the National Press Club during Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale’s speech. When Di Natale said that any plebiscite campaign would be hateful, Shelton shook his head in annoyance.

Then there were the political leaflets. The ACL had printed flyers that included excerpts from newspaper articles on Labor’s support for the Safe Schools program. The flyers said: “Gender-bending political correctness like [children’s picture book] The Gender Fairy is already creeping into our schools leaving kids confused and denying parents a say about what their children are being taught. Labor plans to make this worse by reinstating the controversial $8 million so-called ‘Safe Schools’ program.”

Graham Perrett tells me: “I’ve had more ACL-aligned material in this electorate than ever before. They’ve obviously cultivated or motivated a lot of people.”

For Shelton, this is all part of the contest of ideas – the culmination of his early encouragement for people of faith to participate in politics. But as Raymond Smith told me, public opinion is against them. This might be a contest of ideas, but it might also be a raging against the dying of the light.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "Altared state".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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