Bernardi slips down the political slope with bestial comments on marriage

Cory Bernardi making his now infamous comments on gay marriage in the Australian Senate last night. ABC News

South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments about gay marriage have caused an uproar. Today he was forced to step down from his position as parliamentary secretary to Tony Abbott.

But are they representative of a sector of the Australian public’s views? Who thinks this kind of thing? And where does the slippery slope argument come from?

The slippery slope argument is a common, often convincing, but almost always fallacious rhetorical form. It works by linking something that people may find acceptable with something that is unthinkable. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, opponents to the introduction and extension of civil divorce claimed that it was the first step on a slippery slope to polygamy.

During debate on gay marriage bills in the senate, Bernardi argued that an acceptance of gay marriage would lead to an unravelling of the fabric of Australian society. He claimed that gay marriage was the first step on a slippery slope.

The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society - or any other type of relationship.

But Bernardi went further down the slope from polygamy. He claimed:

There are even some creepy people out there… [who] say it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, ‘These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union? I think that these things are the next step.’

Bernardi’s argument has been widely repudiated on all sides of politics.

But does his reasoning against gay marriage have a wider resonance in the electorate?

Polls consistently show a majority of Australians support equal marriage. This includes a majority of Australian Christians.

For a minority of Australians, however, gay marriage presents a major challenge.

Their views have been prominent in the media recently. Australian Christian Lobby president Jim Wallace claimed that homosexuality presented similar health risks to smoking. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen lent credibility to Wallace’s statement on Q&A. Jensen said that the debate about homosexuality suffered from censorship, and what was needed was a rational debate, where the facts could be examined calmly.

The health arguments against homosexuality presented by Wallace and Jensen were clearly disingenuous. They rely on outdated and misrepresented research.

The wider debate about marriage in general amongst religious conservatives at the moment can illuminate the Christian Right’s opposition to gay marriage. Prior to being asked to comment on gay marriage, Jensen was called on to explain and defend new marriage vows proposed in his diocese, in which women would vow to submit to their husbands. These vows are promoted on the basis of being more biblical.

Sidestepping fraught theological arguments about biblical interpretation, the proposed vows unambiguously represent a hierarchical view of marriage. This is an understanding of marriage based on differences in role, responsibility and authority between the sexes.

Marriage between same-sex couples undermines the Christian Right’s understanding of marriage as hierarchical, and structured by difference.

Incidentally, this view of marriage corresponds closely to the way that Bernardi’s wife Sinead represented their marriage in conversation with Sally Neighbour. Sinead told Neighbour her marriage was perfect because she and Cory were “both in love with the same man”.

Cory obviously has this huge belief in himself … If you didn’t love a guy who was so in love with himself you’d have a lot of trouble living with Cory. Life – I don’t think he’d mind me saying this – it’s all about Cory. I am all about Cory, and he is all about Cory, so it makes it easy.

Gay marriage didn’t pass this lower house today, but may pass at the state level in Tasmania, the ACT, SA and even NSW. And the question of the place religion in Australian sexual politics requires further examination.

In God Under Howard, Marion Maddox argued that John Howard was only successful in harnessing the conservative social agenda because he carefully masked his own religious views.

So perhaps we should be grateful for “ill-disciplined” representatives like Bernardi, Wallace and Jensen who make the politics behind their beliefs, and the beliefs behind their politics, obvious.