In 2017 we were compelled to have a national survey about same-sex marriage as if we were a nation undecided. We were not. We were represented as a nation deeply troubled by the non-binary nature of sex: we are not. Gender has refused to be binary no matter what we have thrown at it. Patriarchy has given it everything it has—it is spent.
When it was all over and done with, the lower classes and the Muslims were blamed for the no vote. Powerful and affluent white Australia conceived, rendered the contours and made vivid the messaging of the No Campaign, but blame was projected onto the communities that had been most silent on the issue. It was partly subterfuge to evade responsibility for the year of our national life wasted because of the fixations of a powerful few, and partly an assertion of our attachment to the notion that Muslims and the lower classes hold society back from more civilised values. Mostly we just wanted to continue to flagellate those whom we perceive as less than us.
Away from the noise and violence of it all, some in the No Campaign were fighting a different but not unrelated battle: one for their view of God. No cultural battle is ever held on one battleground. The keepers of religion and politics know this more than most. It is true religions have a definitive view of gender, sex and sexuality. It is also true that some religious actors in the No Campaign fought to prevent same-sex marriage because they believe it to be a sin against God. But it is naive to assume that control and regulation of sexuality has in any meaningful way been the defining mechanism of real power in religious institutions. Sex is a means to an end, not only for the control of the person but also for the control of religion.
As the nation argued, conservative religious leaders acted as if they were the preservers of faith and defenders of our national moral fabric. Their activism makes it necessary to ask whether institutionalised religion has anything to offer society about the ethics of identity, love, desire and sex, and whether conservative religious actors have anything meaningful to offer in the interpretation and practise of faith.
Historically, and very evidently in the marriage equality debate, religious conservatives have portrayed a homogeneity of faith and its doctrines that have never existed. Contestations to that homogeneity, historical and present, have been kept out of its exercise of power in the public space. This enforced homogeneity not only applies to who God is, to how faith is to be practised and doctrines realised, but it also applies to who we are as ethical beings in our modern societies.
The same-sex marriage debate didn’t bring religion into the sphere of public debate, so much as a particular construction of it. Conservative religious forces came into the public space masquerading as an uncomplicated and representative voice of all religious communities. That homogeneity, this very specific view of God and his creation, needs to be explored and interrogated, not as religion per se, as it has been, but as a dictated and enforced view of institutionalised religion. This view dominates, oppresses and impoverishes the very thing it purports to represent: faith.
As societies have changed, and human diversity chafes at the bit, the views of institutional religion have come to reflect a type of hyper-conservatism that cannot find a place for itself in who we’ve become. It is not only about being out of place and out of time, it is also about an inherently corrosive construction of God and us. For the hyper-conservatively-bound practitioner, God has nothing new to say to us: there are no more prophets, no more holy books, no more miracles; most importantly, we can make nothing new from what we already have: no new interpretation or understandings are allowed—it is all done. But while their God remains still, our complexity relentlessly compels us forward.
Some Muslims hold that God has 100 names, 99 of which are revealed for the pur-poses of human development but the 100th name, the ultimate attribute, is beyond human conception. Negative Christian theology holds that in the face of God, human language collapses and traditional Christianity, in fact traditional religion generally, is in awe of God’s greatness and sentimental of human inconsequence. Whether Christian or Muslim, men like to evangelise from their pulpit about God’s power and our feebleness, his complexity of purpose and our confused resolve. These dichotomies are designed to expose the ‘truth’ that is at the heart of all monotheistic traditions: we cannot know God.
Yet most of what has constituted religious action and sentiment is informed by a conviction that we know God. We know him better than he knows himself. We act for him, defend his views, protect his integrity and kill for his dignity. This all-powerful being must be defended as if he were meek. These profound contradictions we have brought into God are probably the first act of violence we claimed in his name.
Hyper-conservatism has always presented us with an untenable God, a God that is every-thing we are not, one of overwhelming and soul-destroying incongruities. Nonetheless we have continued to worship and revere all that is considered sacred. But all this pivots on a conception of God that corrodes the individual and society: we love God despite the fact that he does not quite love us. He does not love us when we are violent or greedy or neurotic; he does not love us when we fail to hold back our humanness; there is a recoiling from our frailties and human needs. Human desire and its diversity seem repugnant to God.
Modern Christianity and Islam have tried to promote this belief but paraphrased it for our modern sensibility: God hates the sin but not the sinner. But those distinctions belong to a postmodern God that religious hyper-conservatives have no ontological right to use. It is not in their epistemological construction of the world; in their world, sin and sinner are the same, because theirs is a God repelled by both.
How have we come to create an omnipotent God that cannot control or stand what he has created? He cannot bear us, any of us, because what is intrinsic to human nature is diversity: of creed, colour, belief, gender and desire. These aversions are not relics of a bygone era: Jesus is still white; the phenomenology of women lies in waste at the margins of doctrines and practice; and at the centre of faith, almost every faith, resides a heterosexual man.
So rarely do we ask, what has been the cost of all these exclusions to faith and humanity? When so much and so many have been excluded, what is left: a proximity of God or just man’s conceit? The marriage equality vote was in part a vote on our willingness to accept human diversity, but deeper within this question was a question for the faithful: the degree to which we privileged the belief in a bigoted homophobic God over an inescapable attribute of his own creation: the human tendency towards multiplicity.
Fundamentally, the No campaigners sought to structure the state as we have been told to structure God: all-powerful and essentially repelled by, and punitive towards, our human essence. It is about shielding ourselves, others and the state from what we feel is transgressive and incendiary in our nature.
A harsh, punitive state undertaking surveillance of its citizens is a defining feature of human history. States are paranoid, wary of internal challenges and external threats. Our federal government has moulded this tendency into a grotesque art form. The state is prudish too and it insists on triangularising relationships by inserting itself as the third party; why else should it matter to the application of state power who we have sex with? Like religion, the state has been taught sex is inherently a threat.
Why sex specifically is the crucible for all of this is now deeply buried in our unconscious, so primal is the fear or the assertion of power that enmeshed our notions of God, morality, sex and identity. It is clear that the monotheistic religions are hostile to sex, the foundational story legitimising that hostility is the fall of man and woman from grace; but that sex act was heterosexual, committed in an ethereal plane where sex and gender are the same. This story locates LGBTI communities outside the sex act that is said to have damned us all; it is gender duality and heterosexuality that caused our expulsion, and yet this is the model of identity and sex that is most dear to us.
Deep in the heart of the psychoanalytic framework is the subjective and projecting human being, not seeing the world so much as personally and incessantly constructing it. This is not a negation of God, just of our capacity to see him through our inescapable partiality. Inherent in this theory of who we are is the belief that religion cannot bear sexual plurality because we cannot.
Desire embodies lack, French psycho-analyst Lacan would have us think. Desire and sex is where most of us, otherwise held and persuaded by societal norms, become restless and transgress. Love is the point at which we learn we are better than we thought ourselves to be or the crisis from which we realise we are empty. Love and desire is when, where and how we come to most and least recognise ourselves. We see God through this expansive or constrictive space of identity, love and desire.
Religions hold that transgressive sex pollutes the soul. But might it not go the other way too? Might not the condemnation of love or desire that is experienced as intrinsic to one’s sense of self desecrate the soul? Here is where the hyper-conservative argues that such an argument could be made about paedophilia—this is an ugly and dishonest sleight of hand. Paedophilia is not about love and desire, it is about power. Equality and consent are not only ways in which societies mitigate the excesses of love and desire—equality and consent enable love and desire. All else is treating each other as objects of utility.
Might not the vilification of love, identity and desire injure a soul beyond redemption? How does a soul, marginalised and diminished, excluded from love, ever escape reproach and shame?
Some Muslim mystic traditions hold that neither heaven nor hell exist; upon death the soul does not travel outwards, but contracts inwards into its pure essence. That essence is a concentration of everything we were as human beings: as a concentrated mixture of love, acceptance, kindness and compassion, we are ourselves heaven; as a concentration of anger, judgement, anxiety, neurosis and hatred, we are hell, much as Milton’s Satan discovers, ‘Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.’
What transformation would take place for a soul denigrated and punished for its true nature and deprived of its expression and receiving of love? What is left of the person after such impoverishment except hell? More still, what is the concentrated essence of one whose entire life has been committed to the denigration and exclusion of others? Is he or she not also hell?
Today violence is no longer the strategy of choice in our religious establishments; instead, dissenters are silenced, shamed and treated as inauthentic and illegitimate participants in faith. Longing for the truth of God, beyond all the clamour for exclusion and hate, has situated many outside the walls of accepted faith. When these strategies are exhausted, the holders of power in religious traditions now employ a new approach: to portray themselves as both the victim and the minority in need of protection. Religious participants in the No Campaign displayed no visible discomfort or reservation in complaining of their victimisation as they argued for their right to target groups for exclusion. There is a profound immorality to this, a real and spiteful cruelty to this mockery of real abuse and persecution.
All throughout the same-sex marriage debate, established religious institutions decried their vulnerability while attacking the vulnerable, decried their persecution while they persecuted a minority, decried the discrimination directed at them while they lobbied for discriminatory laws to apply, decried the venom aimed at them without once acknowledging the deeply pernicious sentiment in pathologising relationships between people of the same sex. Were it not for the cynicism of it all, the cognitive dissonance should have made us wonder about the state of their mind.
But neither the cruelty nor the farcical nature of religious groups railing against the potential of diminished protections for them as they attacked other communities has prevented the spectacle that is now the inquiry into religious freedom. For the religious progressive forces, this inquiry is another form of subjugation still. This is not an inquiry into the protection of religious integrity; it is an inquiry designed to ensure that the tendency towards persecution and exclusion of LGBTI communities continues to form religious doctrine with the protection of state law and policy.
What is seeking protection here is not God, but an unethical construction of him, not religion, but an unconscionable interpretation of it.
When the Human Rights Commission declares we need to find ‘a balance’, it demonstrates that it does not understand religion and sees hate and bigotry as its raison d’être. Similarly, when inquiry panel member Professor Nicholas Aroney warns that as ‘anti-discrimination law is increasingly prioritised’ and religious freedom is becoming ‘at best a second-class right’, he is suggesting that to be religious is to act in a discriminatory way, that to be robbed of the right to discriminate is to be robbed of your right to God. There is a political manoeuvre taking place here, not an inquiry.
Intolerance, narrow-mindedness, animosity and other forms of social violence towards minority communities are not synonymous with religious adherence. Perhaps more important still, anti-discrimination law might save religion from the obsessions, neurosis and fixations heterosexual men have poured into faith and institutionalised as religion. For so long, an uncompromising masculinity has seeped into our consciousness of ourselves and God, as if exclusion of others were the only way the universe could be understood and ordered.
We are at the point at which a community long vilified may be allowed the peace of acceptance, a point from which faith might finally be released from the triviality of our fears, from our smallness of spirit and the lack of generosity in our own nature.
Joumanah El Matrah is the CEO of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights. This article does not represent the views of the Centre. Joumanah has written for The Guardian and The Age. She is a PhD candidate at Western Sydney University