By Rod Benson
This morning I was enjoying a quiet Anzac Day at home after watching the ABCnews24 coverage of the various civic gatherings over breakfast. Then, just before midday, several journalists contacted me via Twitter, seeking to verify the genuineness of the Twitter account @JimWallaceACL, since an interesting and newsworthy tweet had just appeared on its timeline.
As it happens, I had followed the account early in 2010, when it first appeared, but as it was largely inactive I soon unfollowed since I prefer accounts rich and regular in content. The user subsequently followed me, and still does. A quick perusal of the 86 tweets, 231 followers and 35 followees confirmed to me that this was indeed the Twitter presence of Jim Wallace, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Here’s a screen grab of the tweet that sparked the online debate, and subsequent apology:
The original tweet was deleted from the account just after 2.00pm, and a statement of clarification posted on the ACL website at 3:17pm. Unfortunately the ACL website crashed within minutes, before I had time to read the statement. I asked ACL staff to email it to me, but have yet to receive it.
The tweet clearly offended some. I viewed it as a “dog whistle” comment intended for ACL’s core constituency, and posting in a public forum, and on Anzac Day, was bound to create controversy. There are at least two ways of interpreting the comment, which I assume was written by Jim Wallace but may have come from a staffer.
The first interpretation, discussed at length on Twitter, and on blogs, and in the mainstream press, was that Wallace had “used Anzac Day to attack homosexuals and Muslims,” (as ABC News had the story), or that he had displayed homophobic and “racist” sentiment by claiming that Australian service personnel did not support same sex marriage or Islam. Others went further, condemning Wallace for making such a statement as a Christian wielding significant political influence. As journalism academic Julie Posetti tweeted:
So @JimWallaceACL, your Easter message is that Jesus only died for straight Christians? And you wonder why people reject the Church!
The second interpretation, slightly different, was that the moral and spiritual ideals for which Australian service personnel had fought in past generations were different from the specific values of the largely anti-Christian homosexual lobby and the equally anti-Christian element of the Islamic community in Australia. This was my initial understanding of the tweet, and remains so. The Australian’s Ben Packham also took this view, reporting that Wallace had declared on Twitter “that Diggers didn’t fight for an Australia characterised by gay marriage and Islam.”
It is no secret that there is entrenched and sometimes vitriolic opposition to Christianity and certain Christian values on the part of homosexual activists and their close supporters, and on the part of Islamists among us. Nor is it a secret that, especially in past generations, a large majority of Australian servicemen and servicewomen conscientiously served “God and country” under the Australian flag, and understood “God” as the traditional Christian God of the Bible. They may not have been evangelical Christians, but I doubt they thought they were fighting for the right of homosexuals to marry or the right of Muslims to establish legislative and institutional beachheads in Australian society.
Wallace was also widely criticised for expressing views contrary to the teachings of Jesus, for claiming to speak the Christian church, and for politicising Anzac Day. For example, as @JacktheInsider put it:
@jimwallaceACL Your tweet today. Not exactly the Sermon on the Mount was it, old son?
Victorian Baptist minister Simon Moyle (@simonmoyle) tweeted:
For what it’s worth, I’m a Christian leader and @JimWallaceACL doesn’t remotely speak for me or any other Christians I know.
And @ABCnewsIntern tweeted:
Fancy that. A self-appointed Christian leader and former SAS soldier using #ANZAC day to dishonour both callings.”
To be fair, the Gospels record not one word by Jesus against homosexuals (although he clearly affirmed the conventions of heterosexual marriage as divinely ordered), and it would be some seven centuries before Mohammed penned the Qur’an and crafted his rival monotheistic religion. And, as I have been at pains to point out to disbelieving secularists and liberal-minded Christians alike elsewhere, neither Jim Wallace nor the Australian Christian Lobby claim to speak for all Christians.
But it was poor form on the part of the ACL’s managing director to state his personal opinion as he did, in a public forum such as Twitter, on Anzac Day. And it was arguably poor form to delete the offending tweet, as it merely added fuel to an already raging fire. Such is the immediacy of social media and the speed at which ideas and controversies advance in the 21st century.
The other matter that today’s Twitter event raises is the right to freedom of speech. Early in the Twitter debate today, I maintained that the key problem with the tweet in question was its timing rather than its substance. My view was that Jim Wallace was entitled to hold the view he expressed, and to express it publicly. The error he made was in expressing it on Anzac Day, when it was surely going to offend public sentiment and result in negative publicity. My view has not changed, despite robust criticism by people I continue to respect and admire.
Everyone is free to express ideas of every kind, within the limits set by law. Those who advocate otherwise are enemies of freedom. The irony is that many political liberals and libertarians, as well as some who privilege the state over individual rights, appear to want to silence legitimate debate and dissent when it comes from Christians. This was unfortunately Jim Wallace’s experience today.
Having said that, there is a right time and place for public discourse, and there is an established etiquette for social media which punters ignore at their peril. I was only half joking when I tweeted earlier this afternoon, “Think I might start a social media skills academy for religious leaders.” Still, if it was publicity that ACL wanted, it certainly got more than it bargained for today. And the number of followers of the @JimWallaceACL Twitter account has tripled to 643, and counting.
One hopes that from today on, tweets on that account are just as personal, but more frequent, and more judicious. Journalists and bloggers, of course, may have other hopes.
Senthorun Raj, “Christian lobby chief violates the true Anzac spirit” (25 April) – http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/Christian-lobby-chief-violates-the-true-Anzac-spirit
Scott MacInnes, “Aussie, Christian or universal values?” (25 April) – http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/166708.html
Official ACL statement (25 April) – http://australianchristianlobby.org.au/2011/04/mr-acl-managing-director-clarifies-tweet-misrepresentation/
Lateline, “Wallace apologises for Anzac tweet” (25 April) – http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3200102.htm
Sunrise (Seven Network) interview (26 April) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeTvimoQoyo
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.