The ACL: Why Do They Exist, Why Do We Listen, And Why Should We Care?

In the R18+ debate the Australian Christian Lobby has been the one major constant – always in opposition, always in the media, seemingly involved at the highest levels of Australian government. Considering their increasingly conservative message – in the wake of Jim Wallace’s controversial views voiced on twitter – we decided to take an in-depth look at the ACL themselves. Why do they exist? Why are they still relevant? And why should we care?

“Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for,” began the tweet. “Wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”

We were speechless. Gobsmacked. These weren’t the words of a boozed up lout with a loose tongue and a chip on his shoulder – these were the words of Jim Wallace, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, a man who – in December of 2010 – was invited to the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General to address those in attendance. A man who, with varying degrees of logic, has fundamentally opposed an R18+ rating for video games in Australia.

These were the words of a man with great power and influence.

In our disbelief we wondered why? Why does Jim Wallace and the Australian Christian Lobby have so much impact on Australian politics when their views can often seem so counter intuitive to common sense and decency? Why do they exist? What is their purpose? Why do they matter? We spoke to The Australian Sex Party, Lyle Shelton of the ACL, and numerous other experts to get answers.

“I’m not really sure,” laughs Rory Killen, from the Australian Sex Party, when asked why the Australian Christian Lobby were invited to speak at the SCAG meeting in December – a meeting in which Australia appeared close to receiving an adult rating for video games.

“Part of it is to do with the major political parties,” he continues, “there are groups within the major political parties that are, if not openly Christian, at least have that side to them. There’s a Catholic side of the Liberal party that tends to be quite vocal.

“But one of the major reasons the ACL tends to get such a look in on these matters is that they are outspoken and very politically organised. But they are definitely not in line with Australia’s views on matters.”

“Well, he has to say that,” says Dr Peter Chen, from The University of Sydney. “The Sex Party is the front end of the sex industry! They’re always butting up against the Australian Christian Lobby, and they get good mileage out of that.”

Peter Chen teaches at the University of Sydney, and is an expert on Public Policy and the manner in which technology and politics intersect. According to him, it’s important to separate the public presence of the ACL with the actual influence they have on policy.

“What I’d say is that there is no evidence that necessarily shows the ACL has had a huge impact on video game regulation in Australia,” claims Peter. “And I think it’s easy to mistake their inclusion in the dialogue for their active ability to, in a sense, dramatically change the regime.

“The government can’t really exclude the Australian Christian Lobby, because they do have to answer to that section of the public, but they haven’t necessarily had that much to do with this policy area.”

According to Peter Chen, the act of having the ACL involved in any debate is simply shrewd politics. An attempt to ease the minds of certain constituencies, whilst going through the process of finding the most comfortable middle ground politically.

“The ACL have a constituency that is motivated and mobilised on the R18+ issue, whereas the general public are not, for many reasons,” claims Peter. “One, most people tend to sit in the middle with these issues and, two – people who are put out by this, they usually find ways to circumvent the rules. Basically, there isn’t a huge mobilisation of people who think the other way. The government know if they were to tighten up restrictions these groups of people may mobilise, especially those who are fairly happy with things as they are.

“Politics is like that – just because you invite someone to a forum doesn’t mean you agree with their position. It certainly allows the ACL to talk to their constituents like they are big and important, but there isn’t conclusive evidence they’ve had an impact.”

Rory Killen, of the Sex Party, believes the situation is a little more sinister, driven by the agenda of specific politicians.

“It’s inappropriate that a Christian organisation is sitting at the table with the lawmakers when they’re considering changes to legislation,” he claims. “I don’t have a good reason as to why – but there will probably be particular Attorney-Generals who have an agenda – perhaps an AG who is against an R18+ rating.

“Having Jim Wallace at the table provides a politically expedient message. There’s also the fact that a figure like Jim Wallace has some clout – he has the ability to point the finger and say ‘you’re not protecting children.’ Some politicians may want to keep a figure like him onside.”

We spoke to Lyle Shelton, Chief of Staff at the Australian Christian Lobby – who, as you’d expect, disagreed vehemently with The Sex Party’s suggestions.

“Are they suggesting people should be barred from debates because of their religious views?” He asked. “That’s ridiculous. One of the things that makes Australia such a great country is religious freedom. People are free to come to this country and practice whatever religion they like.

We asked if this message of religious freedom is really apt in the wake of Jim Wallace’s comments on twitter, which implicitly suggested that Anzacs didn’t fight and die for Muslims.

“Jim Wallace made a clarification on that tweet, which I think is fairly self explanatory,” he said, “but that doesn’t take away from the idea of religious freedom – or the freedom for any religious group to express a view.

“I think most people are heartily sick of political correctness and they’re looking for people that will express a clear view.”

This fits with Peter Chen’s idea of politicians using more ‘extreme’ groups like the ACL and The Sex Party in order to find an acceptable middle ground, and appeal to the majority of their constituents.

“When you start messing around with the status quo, people start getting pissed off,” says Peter, bluntly. “It’s hard to piss people off, generally, when you don’t do anything, so by and large this area of policy making has seen very little change over time. That’s partly why there has been little change when it comes to R18+.

“The most significant people involved in this debate are the politicians themselves, who have a keen eye for where the Australian middle ground is, and they aren’t quite video gamers yet.”

So, the Australian Christian Lobby exists as a referential benchmark – a right wing touch point – but surely there’s more to it than that. On a state level at least it appears that, despite Lyle Sheltons claims, Christians are over-represented in government.

Despite being extremely careful with his language, Peter Chen agrees.

“Well you know, it doesn’t really hurt Politicians to profess their faith – it’s not an electoral turn off. Politicians may be disproportionately Christians, but they’re disproportionately lawyers too, and disproportionately men!

“But why are they disproportionately Christians? Well being part of Christian groups, professional groups or unions teaches you professional networking. It forms a base upon which you can be a more effective politician.”

We suspect that Peter Chen might be on to something – Christian groups have always been involved in politics on some level. Is there something inherently Christian about political activism, or is there something political about being a Christian?

“Well, here goes,” begins Tim Dean, with a deep breath. “Organised religion is best understood as a cultural institution that binds and organises a social group, encouraging social and cooperative behaviour within the group, and group identity and central cohesion in order to better compete against other groups.”

Tim Dean is the Editor of Australian Life Scientist, and a PhD candidate focusing on moral philosophy. According to him, the motivations behind organised religion and political activism are more or less the same or, at the very least, intertwined.

“Each religion has its own metaphysical justification for obeying the prescribed social norms, and the specifics aren’t as important as the notion that they’re externally binding, which helps keep people in line.

“As such, organised religion is inherently political,” continues Tim, “it’s trying to solve the same problems of social coordination that politics also emerged to solve. It’s just a more ancient and less rational way of approaching it.”

To an extent it makes sense, organised religion is, by its nature, organised – which makes it easier for Christians to mobilise their efforts politically. Particularly when they have a specific, unified vision like the Australian Christian Lobby.

We put it to Lyle Shelton – does being part of an organised religion help the ACL mobilise themselves as a political entity?

“I don’t think so,” he claimed, “it’s obviously a factor for sure, but we’ve still got to put our case forward in the public square like anyone else. It’s a free country and if you’ve got a point of view you should organise. And it’s up to the court of public opinion and the democratic process whether your ideas will be accepted in the mainstream.”

But there is one connection that simply cannot be overlooked, not even by the Australian Christian Lobby themselves. As a group founded, and mostly staffed, by evangelical Christians – the nature of their faith almost compels them to spread their moral message, be it political or otherwise. That’s what it means to be evangelical.

“In the lobby we’re people drawn from the evangelical churches in the main,” stated Lyle Shelton, during our interview, “and it’s those sort of churches – orthodox, catholic, Pentecostal type churches – who tend to be supportive of what we do.

In a sense being evangelical compels the Australian Christian Lobby to get involved in the Australian political process.

Peter Chen agrees with this, with a slight caveat.

“If you are an evangelical Christian,” he begins, “you have a duty to advance a particular observance of morality. People in that movement are almost obligated to advance a set of behaviours.

“I have no view on whether religion automatically leads to organisation, but certainly when you have organised religion, it can mobilise its resources – and it does. Whether that’s effective, however, I’m not so sure.

“You can be a social conservative and be religious. You could be a social conservative and not be religious. You could be progressive and be religious too – it’s not necessarily about religion. But, on the whole, the Australian Christian Lobby really represents the evangelical side of Christianity.”

But why? Why does the Australian Christian Lobby tend towards socially conservative behaviour? Particularly when the New Testament lends itself so explicitly towards liberal thinking?

Long time gamer, and Christian, Jeremy ‘Junglist’ Ray, has some ideas.

“The most obvious answer,” he claims, “is the generational one. These decision-makers are so out of touch, with the technology they oppose and the Christians they represent. They didn’t grow up with video games, they didn’t grow up in a world where being homosexual was acceptable, and they don’t want their old fashioned values to die out. It’s as detached as the Catholic Church’s homophobia and condemnation of condoms.”

Lyle Shelton, of course disagrees with those assertions, despite admitting that the group often uses its own intuition in its representation of Christian values.

“We seek to represent a view that we know intuitively is in agreeance with our understanding of Christian values and what would appeal to an evangelical, bible believing Christian,” he claimed. “It’s not rocket science.

“But we have a policy formulation process; we speak to people on a state level, and a national level, on certain issues. So we feel like we can advocate with a high degree of confidence with the R18 debate that we’re representing Christian values.”

But if Jeremy Ray is representative of a younger, more liberal form of Christianity, it’s clear that they don’t represent all current Christian values. Which begs the question: why aren’t there a number of more moderate Christian Lobby groups?

The answer is simple – indifference.

“Why aren’t there more liberal Christian groups?” Wonders Jeremy. “Well, the generational answer would be that young people are more apathetic. The political answer might be that if you aren’t on the extreme of an issue, it’s hard to get heard.

“I feel that many young Christians would rather avoid the word ‘Christian’ altogether. Thanks to organisations like the ACL, some perceive ‘Christian’ values as a judgemental, discriminatory, holier-than-thou belief system that actually goes against the true teachings of Christ.

Rory Killen, of The Sex Party, has similar views.

“Well there have been a few groups who have rejected them,” he claims, “but it’s not common. In terms of moderate Christians, many will fall into the group who are a little more indifferent, or regard it as a side issue. So even if they reject what the ACL say, it’s not that important to them to lobby against them.”

Jeremy Ray also believes that younger, presumably liberal Christians tend to be more focused on bigger issues.

“Perhaps there aren’t more liberal Christian Lobby groups because, almost by definition, anyone who would belong to such a group would believe in the separation of Church and State,” says Jeremy, continuing from his earlier point. “Or they might believe that any funds such a group might obtain would be better put to use solving real problems like helping those in need, rather than using political channels to impose their values on others.

“I personally think there’s a place for such a Lobby – if only to provide a better representation of Christianity, and oppose policies sought by the broadly named ACL.”

Speaking to a high ranking member of the Australian Catholic Bishops, who asked not to be named, he claimed that, apparently, the Australian Christian Lobby is often driven not to change policy per se, but simply to make noise. To satiate those who support and fund the group.

Which may account for the way in which they attack certain issues with a disregard for common sense.

“The ACL’s representatives regularly quote factual inaccuracies in their arguments, they rarely man up to a public debate, and they spin defeats as victories on their website,” claims Jeremy Ray. “Call me assumptive, but I just don’t think people that are this organised could possibly believe their own BS. It would require a state beyond out of touch – bordering on delusion.

“My belief is that the ACL is filling their self-perceived role in society. They probably know it’s a losing battle, and they probably know they’re wrong. They just believe it’s expected of them to be the good guy in all this ‘Current Affair’ styled hysteria – and they know journalists aiming for objectivity will seek both sides on the issue, so by always providing a soundbyte from the extreme right, they ensure they’re always in the headlines.”

Peter Chen doesn’t go quite as far, but does concede that, as a lobby group, the ACL has to answer to its constituency is some manner.

“Well, some lobby groups get funding to do particular things,” he says, cautiously, “and certainly these kinds of groups have to sell themselves back to their memberships. If you’re a member of the RSPCA you have to tell your members how effective you’re being. If you’re a lobby group your effectiveness is in your profile and the amount of policies you’re raising – even if you’re not effective you have to say that you are!”

Lyle Shelton, however, denies that he or the ACL feels pressure. According to him the Australian Christian Lobby are unified as a group, and committed to making a genuine difference.

“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” he said. “People support us because they like what we’re doing, and they can see a need for it. We don’t get pressure; we get support because they can see we’re having an effect.

“If you take the R18+ issue, they’re worried about what their children might be exposed to, and they’re worried about the games industry pushing the line, bringing in more offensive and dangerous games – according to academic research. So we get support from our base, particularly parents who want to make sure the system is in line with what they want for their children.”

Is that moral support or financial, we ask.

“Both – all of that,” he begins. “We’re a not-for-profit organisation. We exist because people donate to us financially, like they donate to other lobby groups. There’s nothing unique about that. It’s support for the positions we take and material support as well.”

The Australian Christian Lobby has a right to exist. No-one doubts that – even for a second. It also has a right to be involved in the political process, particularly if it represents its constituency in a responsible and accurate manner.

Problems arise, however, when the group continues to spin truth, quote outdated research, and stoke the moral panic with inaccurate information and brute political pressure. Problems arise when it fails to represent the majority of Christians and instead caters to a far right minority, the minority who most likely funds and holds the group accountable.

In a sense, the failings of the Australian Christian Lobby are the failings of the political system as a whole – a system in which the loudest are heard first, a system where the squeaky wheel gets the oil to the detriment of all others.

We live in a world coated in shades of gray, yet those that would approach situations in a pragmatic manner are ignored.

“My point of view is this,” says Rory Killen, finally, “moderation and rationality simply isn’t good politics. That’s my conclusion.

“A moderate and rational response tends to be understanding and takes into account the grey areas. The ACL, on the other hand, takes the position of finger pointing – and they live in a black and white world.

“And, sadly, a black and white world is simply far easier to communicate to politicians.”

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