Lyle Shelton has many vitriolic enemies, chiefly because of his work as managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). He has been dubbed “Vile Lyle” by potty-mouthed critics like Mike Carlton and derided as a narrow-minded bigot by others, such as Tim Jones. Having met him and having known his predecessor as managing director of the ACL, Jim Wallace, for many years, I can vouch that neither man is vile at all. When Shelton’s recent book, I Kid You Not: Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture Wars, was published, I decided to read it; if only in order to learn more about where such abusive epithets might be coming from. This is my report.
Unlike his militant and abusive critics, I suspect, I have read Lyle’s book word for word, paying attention to every nuance and to the logic of his arguments. My core finding is that the book is dignified, honest and likely to appeal to a conservative Christian readership. As readers of this magazine may be aware, I myself grew up in a conservative Catholic household, and the arguments he advances in his book have been familiar to me for decades. They are not new. They are strikingly similar to the opinions my father and his mentor B.A. Santamaria held. I can see no justification for critics being abusive or for calling Lyle Shelton “vile” for holding them. The abuse says far more about the critics than it does about him.
The ACL, founded in 1995 as the Australian Christian Coalition, then renamed the Australian Christian Lobby in 2001, after Jim Wallace took over from John Gagliardi as its managing director, is in some ways an heir to Santamaria’s National Civic Council (NCC). It is broader in its reach, however, than the NCC; not dominated by a single personality, as the NCC clearly was; and is more modern in its lobbying techniques. I first met Jim Wallace before he became managing director of the ACL and have been in intermittent communication with him since. I first met Lyle Shelton in the context of the gay-marriage debate, quite a few years ago. I found his position clear and his demeanour consistently dignified.
The ACL is widely seen as an Australian counterpart to right-wing Christian lobby groups in the US, and that description has some merit. But regardless of what one thinks of the latter, the ACL must be understood not in terms of its vilification by its secular critics, but in terms of how its constituents see it. Lyle Shelton’s book, likewise, must be read closely for what it actually says and not dismissed or caricatured in terms of what it is presumed to say. Critics accuse Shelton of propagating hate and bigotry, but nothing in his book supports this assertion. What the book spells out is a consistently Christian worldview and a conservative morality, which the critics reject. It does these things, however, in a manner that is anything but hateful or bigoted.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant
The book opens with a brief foreword by Jim Wallace, dated October 2019, which sets the terms of the debate into which Lyle Shelton seeks to enter with his witness to the experience of twenty years in the trenches of the culture wars. Jim writes:
Few would doubt that we live in a world where truth is increasingly a casualty, not in the West of a physical war, but of a political and public policy one. This is, of course, disastrous for a system of government so dependent on truth, as democracy is. Its basic rights, that include freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and religion, are themselves guarantees of truth.
The first motif of Shelton’s book is his dismayed perception that, again and again, on one public policy issue after another, neither politicians nor the mass media could be relied upon to be either honest or impartial. He sets out his brief in enough detail that one can see why he felt as he did. When I finished reading the book, I communicated to him that it had made me want to re-watch Roman Polanski’s Chinatown; standing, as always, in the shoes of Jake Gittes.
But it isn’t the politics I want to dwell upon here. A whole other essay might be written on that. Such an essay would dissect the science of lobbying and the role of corruption in swaying governments. It would address the proliferation of social media and its use to spread viral messages of various kinds, including character assassination. It would examine Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and the profound cultural clash between secular radicals of his kind and conservatives of Shelton’s kind. It would take up the whole question of the vexed and complex relationship between freedom of expression and belief on the one hand and the establishment of truth on the other. It would look at the immense difficulty that political parties necessarily have in running for office and devising workable public policies in the face of entrenched disagreement about what the truth is, in any given instance. It would, in short, be a very long essay; more like a book.
Instead, for now, it is the other key motif, in many ways the leitmotif, of the book that I want to address here: the pivotal claim Shelton makes that what he openly calls “Biblical sexual morality” is both some kind of moral gold standard and something foundational to Western civilisation, which is being fatally undermined by secular radicals who follow Alinsky’s rules for agitating, mobilising and lobbying. In addressing it, I want to argue that, in a very important sense, Shelton and the ACL are in error about “Biblical sexual morality” being a gold standard and that, because of this error and their own adherence to religious beliefs that many others now find alien, they find themselves in difficulties when it comes to reasoning with their critics about Western civilisation and moral standards. And yet, there is a good deal in what Shelton and the ACL say.
A great deal of Shelton’s book is about sexual morality: prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, gay marriage, traditional heterosexual marriage, abortion, gender fluidity, sex education, procreation, child-rearing and identity politics. Beginning (in Chapter 2) with his work on the Toowoomba City Council attempting to thwart government legalisation of prostitution and “adult entertainment”, Shelton addresses all these issues. In Chapter 3 he looks at the schizophrenic attitude of contemporary society in refusing to crack down on pornography while recoiling from its shocking social impact. Chapter 4 is about strip clubs and the sex trade. After a digression in Chapter 5 to discuss the politics of recycling sewage water, he returns to sexual politics in Chapter 6, addressing the matter of abortion.
Chapter 7 is about euthanasia, which is another vexed issue I shall leave aside for the present. Chapter 8 is about Aboriginal affairs and reconciliation, which also must be put to one side for present purposes; save for the passing remark that Shelton, in this chapter, exhibits anything but a hateful or “far right” view of the subject. In Chapter 9 he turns to the matter of gender fluidity and the “safe schools” controversy. Chapter 10 is about the Israel Folau affair, which Shelton correctly sees as one of the cascading side effects of the radical offensive he is resisting. Chapters 11 and 12 are about the same-sex-marriage debate and the way the major parties were turned around on the issue by lobbyists inside and outside their ranks. Chapter 13 is about climate politics, which I shall leave aside. Chapters 14 and 15, “Successful Failure” and “Where to from Here?”, attempt a summing up and a vision for the Christian future.
From first to last, it is evident that Shelton both assumes a largely conservative Christian readership and assumes, equally, that what the term “Biblical sexual morality” means is commonly understood and accepted as “Dad, Mum and the kids”, hard work, picket fence and decency in the suburbs. It is nowhere spelled out or subjected to cross-examination. Nor does he attempt any kind of historical survey of the fortunes of family life, or the costs of traditional family arrangements when they don’t work. He doesn’t entertain the idea that others might legitimately see things differently, or that there have been complex problems to address, the solutions to which are far from self-evident. These omissions vitiate his argument, though there seems to be no reason to question his sincerity.
“Biblical sexual morality” was plainly severe, as sexual morality has been in most human cultures; for the fairly straightforward reason that sexual behaviour tends to be unruly; sexual transgression a cause of much violence; reproduction and parenting fundamental to social order; and the nuances of sexual biology all but unfathomable to the intuitive or narrow mind. If, by the term, Shelton meant the sexual code set down in the five books of Moses, it passes belief that he would expect his fellow citizens in this day and age to want to adhere to it. Perhaps he thinks that the New Testament, rather than the Old, is a fount of wisdom in this regard; that Jesus’s rescuing from death by stoning of the woman taken in adultery is the coping stone of “Biblical sexual morality”. He might, then, at least have made that point.
But even Jesus was quite severe and is nowhere attributed with remarks that lavish praise on sexual pleasure or freedom. And “Biblical sexual morality”, if looked at in the light of New Testament writings and Church teachings on sexual morality, plainly does not suggest that there is much latitude in the moral code for what might be thought of as a natural and lenient approach to sexual feeling, romance or enjoyment; to say nothing of homosexual or bisexual inclinations, common enough though these have plainly always been in human societies. He does not so much as mention the actual teachings of the Church on sexual morality: the forbidding right up to the present, by the Vatican, for instance, not only of active homosexuality, but of divorce (except with special dispensation and under considerable constraints), masturbation, artificial contraception or abortion at any stage of pregnancy.
But there is an even more fundamental issue. Shelton freely talks of Christian belief as if such belief were unitary, rather than having always been a matter of profound and often bitter contention, from the Acts of the Apostles onwards. He also assumes that Christian religious faith is something intrinsically wholesome and epistemologically sound. He and his co-religionists no doubt believe both these things. But if they are to carry the day in debates on matters of public policy, in which interests and feelings run deep and the biblical religions are widely viewed with scepticism if not hostility, he needs to do much better. In particular, he needs to address the ancient Christian preoccupation with the presumed evils of sexual desire in and of itself and the supposed “holiness” of sexual abstinence. Nowhere in his book does he attempt to set out the grounds for anyone accepting that there is such a thing as Christian truth, as distinct from the existential choice to live according to some kind of at least notionally Christian code of morality. Well over two centuries after Voltaire and Immanuel Kant, this is simply odd.
Shelton’s earnest arguments against the legalisation of prostitution, pornography and “adult entertainment” are at no point hateful or bigoted. But he seems reluctant to accept that in all these cases he is grappling with social issues that have, to say the least, very long histories and do not admit of simple solutions. Again and again and again, all the way back through the biblical religions, such things have been inveighed against and, where puritanical religious authorities were able to assert social control, they have been banned. The God of the Old Testament famously set a condign example by visiting obliteration on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their dissipated ways. This is not to say that either Sodom or Gomorrah—or any given “den of iniquity”—was an abode of innocence. It is simply to point out that Shelton’s preferred social order is problematic, in ways he could not bring himself to confess.
To his credit, he deplores moral hypocrisy. He opens Chapter 3 with the pointed remark that:
One week before Hervey [sic] Weinstein’s creepy serial sexual abuse of young actresses on the casting couch became public, the world was eulogising Playboy founder Hugh Heffner [sic].
He is rightly horrified at the plague of pornography now endemic on the internet and argues that it is demonstrably causing widespread collapse in sexual decency among the young and is “more addictive than crack cocaine”. For those of us unfamiliar with pornography, his acquaintance with it is sobering:
The recent phenomenon of “gonzo porn” movies depict wall to wall sex acts because porn addicts don’t want to witness any non-sexual material in between scenes. Choking women, anal sex, multiple partner sex and variations of violent assault are all par for the course on Pornhub, which gets 81 million visitors per day … the global porn industry is worth $150 billion per year and Australians, to our shame, are the eighth-largest consumers.
Those who dismiss Shelton as a “bigot” or “hater” might better direct their concerns to the Eros Foundation, which, at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the ACL, is the lobby group for the sex and porn industry and directly targets politicians who interfere with those interest groups. It is those politicians who then become moral hypocrites, as Shelton shows.
In discussing the “adult entertainment” industry, at one point, Shelton describes a number of members of the Toowoomba City Council as either libertarians or “cultural Christians who did not want to be seen to be pushing back on the gains of the 1960s sexual revolution”. Quite. But this points to where there are genuine debates to be had, not self-evident truths to be proclaimed. There were gains made in the 1960s, but there were also problems that arose from the ferment of that era and some of these have yet to be resolved. It would actually have strengthened Shelton’s hand had he been willing to admit this. But to do so would have taken him outside his “Biblical sexual morality” frame of reference and into consideration of what secular principles might best govern a much more open, sceptical and worldly culture than the one with which he identifies.
His chapter on abortion movingly lays out the human grounds for objecting to late-term abortions. Those who would condemn him for this stance are themselves guilty of moral obtuseness. The moral problem is a very real and confronting one. Yet Shelton’s underlying stance is an anti-abortion one, rather than the acknowledgment of an intractable moral dilemma of the kind that a Bernard Williams or a Ronald Dworkin would ponder. Williams famously, in the words of Adrian Moore, “simply refused to allow philosophical system-building to eclipse the subtlety and variety of human ethical experience”. Shelton’s opponents are even more obtuse in refusing to see a moral dilemma at all in abortion.
Dworkin, in Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (1993), began a book-length reflection on the subject with the remark:
Abortion, which means deliberately killing a developing human embryo, and euthanasia, which means deliberately killing a person out of kindness, are both choices for death … Each choice has been condemned and defended for millennia. But never have the arguments been so passionate, so open and so evenly divided [as they are now].
Shelton’s position on the subject instantiates this divide. He makes plain why. Yet he appears to think that “Biblical sexual morality” is what is at stake. It isn’t. What is at stake is the capacity of twenty-first-century societies to reach a workable, morally informed and scrupulous consensus about such issues. We are not doing very well, but Shelton does not provide us with a viable fall-back position.
Nowhere is the collapse of our collective capacity to reach this kind of consensus more in evidence than in the eruption of the gay marriage, LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-sexual, Queer and Inter-sexual, in case the initials throw you) and “safe schools” agitation of the past decade. These things and their implications preoccupy Shelton through Chapters 9 to 12. The case he makes is in no sense vile or bigoted or irrational; but neither is it sufficiently sensitive to what has driven the agitation and animates the agitators. He conflates three things that need to be kept analytically distinct if we are to achieve anything resembling a common understanding of what is at stake here: how we define marriage; the problem of gender fluidity; and the politics of how activists have pursued their agenda in regard to these things.
He rather drily remarks at the beginning of Chapter 11: “Homosexuals didn’t destroy marriage. Heterosexuals did.” Here he was referring to the dilution of marital vows and the liberalisation of divorce laws. Suppose, however, that he could be induced to see “Biblical sexual morality” as more problematic and sexuality itself as more complex than he prefers to think it is. How might he then have framed things? He might have argued that a conservative, faithful, biblical approach to marriage and family is an existential choice available to people even now, rather than a timeless moral code incumbent on everyone. Or he might have accepted that a great many such marriages never did work especially well and that gay activists insisting on the right to marriage were traducing not marriage as such but their own prior commitment to transgression and the “gay” lifestyle.
He might have argued that if all marriage means is that two people announce their intention to live together as long as it pleases them, it means very little and an alternative designation should be found for those who believe in a different and more solemn commitment. Or he might have declared that if marriage meant an at least provisional commitment to interpersonal care and sexual fidelity, the more gay couples married the better. He took none of these positions, so the matter became trench warfare between conservative religious believers and angry, confused sexual “radicals”. To Shelton’s understandable dismay, the radicals have won hands down.
Suppose Shelton had taken as his premises that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon, which the Bible failed to adequately or humanely address; that, in fact, sexuality is even more complicated than that, because sexual inclinations are often polymorphous and ambiguous, so that there is scope for intelligent discussion about how to address the often painful dilemmas and challenges with which many human beings find themselves confronted when it comes to sexuality. He might, then, have found it easier to engage with all these militant activists on some basis other and more promising than his chosen ground. How sexual education might best be undertaken could also, then, be addressed. He is much exercised by the excesses of the “safe schools” ideology, Roz Ward and The Gender Fairy. He might, however, have stirred up less hostility had he been prepared to address the question of sex and sex education on something other than a black-and-white, God’s-holy-writ basis.
These questions often strike home when one encounters them in personal life, rather than as abstract issues. Let me disclose at this point, therefore, that I have encountered them in both my personal and extended family life and have been shown, first-hand, why the “Biblical sexual morality” approach does not serve us all adequately. I have both female and male friends who are gay. My partner and I had a civil registry marriage, not a church one. We have, for the past thirteen years, lived on opposite sides of the world, but have remained legally married and are soulmates. We travel together, we communicate about everything, but do not cohabit.
Most challenging and thought-provoking of all, one of my sisters has an adolescent child who, born anatomically female, always exhibited boyish preferences and has now changed his name and birth certificate to reflect this sense of self. He “identifies” as male. He is a gifted musician and thespian, highly intelligent and fully functional. For his fifteenth birthday, two years ago, I gave him a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, having written inside its cover that it is the finest book on mutant being in the Western canon and had a greater influence on Shakespeare than any other book. His parents have been totally supportive of his self-actualisation. Each is a professional of great personal intelligence and integrity. His secondary school, an all-girls private school, has been openly and unstintingly supportive. We have all had to reframe our thinking somewhat.
Many others, not least if guided by something close to Shelton’s “Biblical sexual morality”, have not done so well in dealing with similar challenges. Surely, however, it’s time we all did—on the basis of a broader and more reflective morality than that of either Moses or Jesus, to say nothing of the Vatican.
But Shelton does not go there. Instead, in his last two chapters, he offers his presumed Christian readers a rallying cry about how to dig in for the long haul. He quotes Winston Churchill and Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the necessity of defending Christian belief as the foundation of Western civilisation. He attaches himself to recent books—Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land—and adopts as his key point of reference the remark by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The spiritual crisis in the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.”
But this is, I submit, a hopelessly romantic way to look at things. Christianity had been the state religion of the Roman Empire for more than a century before the fall of the Western Empire, so the idea that it had an answer to the “spiritual crisis” of antiquity is questionable. The Catholic Church, rather, embodied a very imperial and Roman approach to what religion was all about. It became, in its own way, an empire, and that empire is falling. What is needed is something better fitted to the world in which we now live and move and have our being.
Two books published last year on the fall of Rome offer a more promising set of reflections than Dreher or Chaput. The first is Michael Kulikowski’s Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine’s Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy AD 363–568. The second is Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome: The Failure of the Empire and the Road to Prosperity. The gist of the first is that there were various possible outcomes in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries and choices at various points were fateful. We need to make good and constructive choices and they won’t necessarily come easily. The gist of the second book is that the fall of the empire actually set Europe free to reshape itself; and Christianity was only one of the forces in the mix. The crucial development was invigorating competition, through the rise of new states and ideas.
Lyle Shelton calls upon us to become a “faithful remnant”. The more promising path, I suggest, would be to set about creating the institutions and ideas that will enable us to master the twenty-first-century world, rather than longing for the biblical one.
Paul Monk (www.paulmonk.com.au) is the author of ten books, including The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (2009), Credo and Twelve Poems: A Cosmological Manifesto (2015) and The Secret Gospel According to Mark: The Extraordinary Life of a Catholic Existentialist (2017)