The Bible Society of Australia has recently celebrated its 200th birthday- a significant milestone in a country whose European settlement only took place about 230 years ago. It decided to celebrate the event by way of connecting with popular Australian culture- and in a fairly secular country, a key aspect of that culture is beer!
So in a creative move, the Society formed a partnership with Coopers, a long-established but slightly “niche” brewery, to arrange the release of cans of “Coopers Light”, a low-alcohol beer, with Bible verses on the cans. (The link was all the more appropriate because the motto of the Society was “Live Light”. Coopers also claims to be “Australia’s longest living family brewery”, having been established in 1862.)
So far, so good- though some Christians may have had some doubts about linking the Bible to alcohol in a country that is known to have significant alcohol-related health issues. But the fear that this creative marketing decision may have backfired among conservative Christians was precisely not the problem that eventuated. The Society also decided to start what was apparently intended to be a series of video discussions on important topics, entitled “Keeping it Light”, by featuring a discussion on same sex marriage.
The link to that video now shows a screen that says: “We have removed this video at Cooper’s Request. The audio and transcript are available here: bible.com.au/light.” What happened?
The original video, as can be seen from the transcript, involved a polite conversation between a moderator and two politicians, on the reasons for supporting or opposing same sex marriage. The topic, of course, is one of great political debate in Australia, which does not recognise same sex marriage. Changing the law on the topic is supported by the Federal ALP Opposition and other minor parties, but the current Liberal/National Coalition Government went into the last election promising that there would only be a change if it was supported by a national plebiscite on the question. The Opposition and others have so far blocked that plebiscite, claiming that simply having the debate would lead to trauma and harm to same sex attracted youth and others.
In that context many conservative commentators have responded that the debate can be conducted politely and respectfully. But the reaction to the video now shows pretty clearly what opponents of the plebiscite mean: not that they fear “hate speech” directed at gay people, but that they object to the very idea of a debate on any terms. The discussion featured on the video on any analysis was anodyne and polite. The two participants almost sound like those classic cartoons of the chipmunks, Chip and Dale, going out of their way to be deferential to the other!
Yet almost as soon as the video appeared, it was subject to a vitriolic attack. Most of those who attacked probably had no idea who the Bible Society was, but the locus of the attack was Coopers. In light with the “Light” theme and the recent joint release of Bible-themed beer, the participants in the short discussion were shown very prominently drinking bottles of Coopers beer. But for one reason or another, it seems that no one in the Bible Society had thought to ask whether Coopers were happy to “sponsor” or be associated with the discussion.
The internet “campaign” took the familiar turn of an online “mobbing” of Coopers. Naturally there was a “hashtag”, #BoycottCoopers. A number of the “cooler” bars who stocked the beer were shown smashing bottles or pouring out the beer. Threats erupted all over Twitter that people would no longer drink it. It suddenly became an established “fact” (perhaps we could call it a “twitterfact” to distinguish it from something that corresponds to reality) that the mere airing of a discussion where one person expressed opposition to same sex marriage, and was explicitly not labelled as a “homophobe” by the gay person in the discussion- is itself “homophobia”.
For those who had actually seen the video, as opposed to those who just believed others about its “hate”, what precisely was the problem? Amidst the outrage it was a bit hard to find the logic. One commentator was angered that the video was “Supporting the right for Christians to have an anti-gay marriage debate, but not the right for gay marriage.” Notice how the “debate”, which involved on one side a gay man who argued in support of change, and says that he is not a Christian, now somehow only involves “Christians” and is “anti-gay marriage” in and of itself. Another statement: “If Coopers chose to sponsor a political act by a religious organisation then they force their customers to make a choice.” Here again the mere airing of alternative views is a “political act”- and presumably the “choice” of customers is that they do not want to be confronted with views that challenge their own.
In the end the internet outrage, sadly, seems to have worked. Coopers issued a series of statements in successive attempts to placate the mob: first, that it was just a debate and they did not themselves support change; then, that they had not authorized the video and did not agree with it; finally saying, in a video statement, that they would now become full-on supporters of “marriage equality” and, to boot, cancel the release of the Bible themed beer cans.
The message sent by these events is very disturbing. Some conservative commentators have seen this episode as a new low in the suppression of free speech on this important issue: not only will it been seen to be wrong to oppose change to marriage laws to allow same sex couples to marry, it will now no longer be possible to even suggest that there are reasonable views on the other side! This comes in Australia in the same week in which the CEOs of some of Australia’s largest companies were revealed to have signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging that the marriage issue be put directly to a Parliamentary vote, again bypassing any further discussion on the matter by the Australian community at large.
It seems clear that at the very point where society’s “elite” are sure that no more debate is needed, continuing discussion is essential.
In an important statement released recently by two senior US scholars from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and signed by many others, Professor Robert P George and Professor Cornel West say: “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views.” That was precisely the purpose of the Bible Society video, and shorn of the complications involving beer, it is to be hoped that they continue to provide a model for such respectful debate on this and other issues.
Justice Samuel Alito, a member of the US Supreme Court, has recently said in a recent extra-curial address that his prediction, as a member of the dissenting minority in the Obergefell decision which “constitutionalized” same sex marriage, that in the future “opposition to the decision would be used to ‘vilify those who disagree, and treat them as bigots,’” is coming true. He warns that Americans need to persuaded again of the importance of religious freedom.
The same task is needed in Australia.
Neil Foster is an Associate Professor in Law at Newcastle Law School, in the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. The views expressed here are, of course, his personal opinions and not those of his institution. He teaches Torts, Workplace Health and Safety Law and a course in Law & Religion, and blogs at https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog .