Steph Lentz is an LGBT activist and teacher from Australia, working to educate the community of risks to new federal laws non-inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI). Here, she discusses what led her to speak out about the pressure that the LGBT community is under from the Christian lobby, and how fear is the weapon of the religious freedom movement.
By Jo Moses
LGBT activist Steph Lentz wants you to know that Australia is under threat from a conservative Christian lobby, with organizations from the megachurch Hillsong to the Australian Christian Lobby pressuring Parliament to pass a controversial religious freedom bill that LGBT activists like Lentz fear would legitimize anti-LGBT discrimination in the eyes of the law. Lentz, herself a teacher, worked at Covenant Christian School until 2020 when according to Lentz, “the school fired [her] because [she does] not believe homosexual activity is sinful so [she] couldn’t toe their theological line, this being a condition of employment at Covenant Christian School.”
Should this Religious Discrimination Bill be passed when Parliament reconvenes in February, Covenant Christian School and other conservative institutions like it would be protected under the law in their initiatives to discriminate against Australia’s LGBT community. Though Australia is often viewed as a progressive nation and safe haven for LGBT people, Lentz wants Americans to know that “whatever secular, progressive sheen we give off is just a thin veneer.” Lentz emphasizes that in actuality, from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s membership in conservative megachurch Hillsong to “the political pressure being exerted by conservative lobby groups, many of them Christian,” the Australian political landscape is in many ways indistinguishable from America’s. Hillsong, in particular, has been sinking its claws deep into the shoulders of Parliament since 2007, when Prime Minister Morrison befriended Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong. Houston inherited the church from his father after accusations of child rape, which Houston and others in the know failed to report, came to light. Since becoming pastor, Houston has preached conservative Christian messages and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous like Justin Bieber.
Morrison’s promotion of the Religious Discrimination Bill alongside his membership at Hillsong is not a coincidence. In his very first speech in parliament, Morrison cited Houston as an inspiration and as evidence that “Australia is not a secular country.” Then, a month after winning the 2019 federal election, Morrison got on stage in Sydney and assured his constituents suffering under Western Australia’s drought that prayer, not policy, would end the drought: “I’m prophesying rain,” he prayed with the crowd, “I’m believing it’s beginning to rain. I’m believing; truly, we’re gonna smell the rain.” In September 2019, Morrison even tried to bring Houston as a plus-one to a state dinner at the White House, which victims of alleged abuse by Houston’s father considered a slap in the face to all sexual assault victims and survivors.” In his latest move, as Australia rode out lethal bushfires, Morrison introduced the controversial Religious Discrimination Bill that continues to be the subject of debate in and out of Parliament. The first major controversy was over the so-called “Folau clause”, which would protect people like rugby player Israel Folau’s right to post on social media that “hell awaits” LGBT Australians. The main text of the bill has fallen to nationwide scrutiny since, with LGBT activists pointing out that Morrison’s conservative Christian associations make it plain that this bill is not about protecting anyone’s individual freedoms, but instead sanctifying the ability of institutions to discriminate against LGBT people. Lentz herself says that in even considering passing this bill, Morrison and his Parliament are failing to ask honestly and empathetically: “How would this bill affect people? Not ideas, not organizations, not beliefs or budgets — but people. [Lentz is] confident it will do much more harm than good if it passes into law.” Though the debate has raged over the Religious Freedom Bill, people like Lentz, herself a person of faith, want to emphasize that this, at its core, is not a fight between LGBT people and Christians, but a fight to incorporate empathy and understanding into the political sphere.
Lentz herself knew she was gay since she was quite young, but her conservative Christian upbringing taught her homosexuality was a sin. Lentz has since deconstructed her conservative faith and went on to delve deeply into biblical study and academic literature that reconciled Christianity and homosexuality. However, she also realizes that the controversy over this Bill comes from the fact that conservative Christians and secular Australians have irreconcilable worldviews. “I know Christians who see the controversy about this bill as an instance of ‘suffering for the gospel,’’ says Lentz. “It’s hard to argue with this logic because it’s founded on principles non-Christians do not accept, i.e. that the Bible is the word of God. The only way forward that I can see is to focus on our common humanity. Gays, Christians, trans folks — we’re all human.”
These ideological differences were on show when Lentz was fired from Covenant Christian School for refusing to subscribe to their Summary Statement of Belief that held that homosexuality was sin. Lentz responded to the school by attempting to hold a dialogue with her superiors and introduce them to other biblical perspectives, but they wouldn’t have it. “I provided the Board and leaders with a list of some resources outlining the theological and historical reasoning for this perspective,” said Lentz. “They did not engage with the material and suggested I was being unfaithful to the Scriptures by over-relying on secondary material. I would have hoped that the seriousness with which the school regards the Bible would have led them to engage with the high-quality scholarship that makes a strong case for the inclusion of LGBT people in the community of Christian believers. I really enjoyed teaching at Covenant. I had great friends among the teaching and administrative staff, and I was liked and respected by my students. I loved that the school encouraged teachers to have meaningful conversations in their classrooms, about the big questions of life. I’m sad that the ‘social capital’ I had with people there did not result in a more robust discussion about the theological issues surrounding my sacking.”
Suppose American readers want to understand more about the political situation surrounding LGBT rights in Australia. In that case, Lentz wants them to remember that fear, more than anything, is at the heart of this issue, not good faith debate about religious freedom. “Believers are holding tightly [to their values],” explained Lentz, “out of fear that further change will sweep them away!” Conservative Christianity enveloped Lentz as a “chaotic and fearful teenager,” and so it has enveloped the Australian nation, “the ‘traditional’ view on marriage and sexuality [being] the dam holding back the floodwaters that will finally undermine the Church’s credibility as a voice on social and cultural matters. If Christians concede that they need to re-examine how they’ve read the Bible on this topic, then what else might they have got wrong?” Unfortunately, it seems that right now, Australian Christendom isn’t ready to cope with that question.
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