Why promoting No is a strategic mistake for religious groups

As the same sex marriage debate rages on, freelance strategist Daniel Bluzer-Fry considers if a No vote is a strategically bad mistake for religious groups.

Before I drop the clutch and throw you into a fairly dense read, I want you to participate in a little thought experiment.

Imagine you were working on a brand that happened to have exactly the same name as another brand, and in many ways, this brand was not entirely dissimilar. Imagine your brand’s name had actually emerged from a period in time where you were essentially the same product/service.

Then imagine that both of these brands, had such a serious impact in people’s lives, and they cared so immensely about what the name of the brand represented that they were willing to march in the streets for it.

Of course, in reality, this would never happen because of things like trademark law, but damn, it would make for an excruciatingly difficult situation for say a copywriter or CMO on either side of the fence.

Plenty of confusion, plenty of sensitivity, plenty of anger to have to deal with on a daily basis. If you find that you’re questioning what this piece is doing in a leading Australian marketing publication, let me preface by saying this is where the principles of marketing get really interesting.

The pro-marriage equality campaign, which launched earlier this year

There’s no denying that secularisation – the separation of religion and state – has at least had some impact in enabling us to bear some of the fruits of modernity.

By severing religion from governing institutions and encouraging an inclusive society that tolerates a multitude of beliefs, amongst other things, western societies have successfully decreased mortality rates and improved levels of education.

Australians from various religious backgrounds are not in favour of legalising same sex marriage, as they claim marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

These people are not wrong – theologically speaking. However, when we all fill out the forms, we’re not considering marriage as a religious institution, we’re really talking about marriage as defined by the state. Thinking back to my little thought experiment on brands, can you see the problem?

If only, back in the day, somebody had thought to rebrand what this legal union, and not used the word ‘marriage’. Perhaps they could have branded it a Union of Commitment or even just something more casual without theological ties like a Hitch – a word with nautical etymology. As you can probably tell, I’m not a copywriter, but I do appreciate the power of words. Right now, this single word is causing a lot of trouble.

It has been fascinating to watch different brands and religious groups (along with different sects within them), respond to this debate. Some have supported the Yes side, whilst others have been advocating No. 

When thinking about what religious groups stand to gain versus what they risk losing in promoting a no vote through being inflexible with the legal definition of the ‘M’ word, one has to think about the risk they face surrounding their relevance in modern Australian society. Given that data suggests Australians are becoming less religious than ever, there’s no doubt that some religious leaders are hearing the alarm bells ring. A more secular society is simply bad for membership.

To that end, what about the risk that these religious institutions who encourage a No vote face if they win the plebiscite battle? That may put the government in a bit of a bind – especially if it’s a close result – when it comes to keeping everybody happy coming into the next election. One strategic response that could be rebranding the ‘Marriage Act of 1961’ to say, the non-discriminatory ‘Fair Hitch Act of 2018’.

That way same sex couples could be afforded the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, and that the precious ‘M’ word could be theologically preserved.

Yet this would mean that in order for a minister to perform a legally binding ceremony, they would have to have a celebrant’s license and adhere to the revised act, meaning if the minister said no to creating a ‘Hitch’ between a same sex couple, this decision may amount to discrimination. Ultimately, fighting to keep the word ‘marriage’ as something between a man and a woman would make religious groups less relevant in modern society.

But what about same sex couples who want their local church/synagogue/mosque etc. to marry them despite their leaders’ choice not to condone same sex marriage?

Well, should the above type of scenario ensue, at least those couples would be able to go down to a state office and receive the same, equal legal rights as heterosexual couples. After that, I’m afraid it’s not really a social issue, but rather an issue of personal choice and indeed, religious freedom. Nobody would be forcing these couples to stay with their local, just like nobody would be forcing their leaders to ‘marry’ them.

Now there’s no denying that there’s many wonderful people committed to diverse faiths across Australia. Some are involved in community work and show great care, tolerance and kindness to those around them who do not share their beliefs.

So in this sense, I want to clarify that this article is by no means promoting a No vote to trigger a scenario as detailed above, which hurts religious groups in the long term.

The Australian government has spent a stack to commission this plebiscite. Given the harm that this decision has had upon many LGBT members of our society (especially LGBT children along with dependents of same sex couples), those considering No on religious grounds have a very serious question to ask: do you want to be flexible with the ‘M’ word in order to stay relevant and move forward with society?

Worth considering, especially given how flexible secular society is towards organised religion through the tax concessions it provides these institutions with in Australia. Also seems worthwhile given the very real possibility of a Labor Government eventually taking office, and putting changes to the Marriage Act of 1961 to a parliamentary vote.

It’s also worth briefly considering a number of leading Australian brands that have come out in support of Yes – from Qantas to Holden, through to leading sports brands like the AFL, Cricket Australia and NRL. These brands have copped some flack for this decision.

Sure, this may hurt them a little in the short term, but ultimately, these brands have made a sound, long term strategic decision in following their brand’s values (both internally and externally). A question that I often like to ponder, is are certain brands beginning to take the role of religious groups in modern, secular Australian society?

After all, many brands tend to champion values around community, tolerance and inclusivity, knowing that it will enable them to grow moving into the future.

So in summary, supporting a No vote on religious grounds seems like it may be a strategic mistake for religious groups, insofar as its long term consequences could lead to a decrease in membership and social relevance, which – in a worst case scenario – could eventually result in revisions to generous tax exemptions putting the survival of some in far greater jeopardy.

And yes, I’d suspect Australian society as a whole – religious and non-religious alike – will be far better off if we move into the future united rather than divided.

This article has been edited by Mumbrella. You can read the original piece in full here.

Daniel Bluzer-Fry is a freelance researcher and strategist based between Melbourne and New York City. 


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