Australia: same-sex marriage and religious adherence

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In Australia, supporters of same sex marriage (SSM) continue to celebrate the result of the postal survey taken during the months of September and October. Around 62% of Australian voters answered YES to the simple question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Press coverage of this result has generally taken the line that the Australian people have overwhelmingly supported SSM.

Masking the details

Of course, such macro statistics mask myriad details. To speak of “the Australian people” as a monolithic block on such a contentious topic is misleading. Almost 5,000,000 Australians voted against SSM. The country is clearly divided on the basis of voting statistics alone.

However, this issue has revealed deep divisions of other kinds that have been under-reported in the media, itself largely pro-SSM during the campaign. One of the most interesting, and perhaps most concerning, aspects of division revealed by this vote relates to Australia’s multicultural and multi-faith society.

The SSM proposal received especially strong support from inner-city areas. For example, the fashionable electorate of inner Melbourne recorded 84 per cent support for SSM, the highest in the nation. In electorates in inner Sydney and the Sydney North Shore, where house prices determine a population of largely Caucasian professionals, support for SSM was running typically well above 70%. As with Sydney and Melbourne, the inner-city electorates of Australia’s third largest city, Brisbane, were among the top ten electorates that were most supportive of SSM.

On the other hand, the strongest opposition to the SSM proposal came from areas of cities with high density non-English speaking migrant populations from the two-thirds world. For example, twelve of the seventeen electorates that returned a majority ‘no’ to SSM are in western Sydney, where there are clusters of lower socio-economic communities, with high proportions of recent migrant arrivals.

Cultural & religious divide                                

So there is clearly something of a cultural divide between those sections which enthusiastically supported the proposal and those which strongly opposed it. While the lines are not drawn exclusively according to ethnicity, a general observation is that more affluent Caucasian communities tended to go with the proposal.

However there is another very interesting aspect to the deep division over the SSM question. It was also noticeable from recent Australian national censuses that inner-city areas tend to have higher proportions of (especially younger) Australians who self-identify as having no religion. On the other hand, lower socio-economic communities seemed according to Census statistics to be more attached to a religious identity.

The connection is striking. Those communities in Australia that tend to be areligious were inclined to support SSM, while those communities that embraced a religion– not only Christianity–were inclined to oppose the SSM proposal.

This contrast can be illustrated by two neighbouring electorates in the state of Victoria. In the inner Metropolitan electorate of Wills, support for the SSM proposal was 70%. However in the neighbouring electorate of Calwell, which has a significant non-English speaking migrant community that is heavily Catholic and Muslim, a 56% majority chose to oppose the SSM proposal.

As observed in a report by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, “the proportion of non-religious residents in an electorate has a closer statistical relationship to voters’ views on SSM than any other demographic variable.”

The Australian Parliament has already legalised same sex marriage, effective December 9 2017.  One male parliamentarian took the opportunity during a recent speech in the Lower House to propose to his male partner who was in the public gallery.

Papering over the cracks

Media reports of a sweeping victory for the YES campaign, and public celebrations of the result by supporters, paper over the reality of a deeply divided society. These divisions reflect not merely ideological perspectives but issues of ethnic, cultural and religious identity. Australian society is likely to become much more polarised in coming decades.

This article first appeared in “Evangelicals Now”, p9.

Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

Photo by Chris Yarzab