Storm in a Beer Can: Coopers Brewery & Bible Society Under Fire

By Clare BruceTuesday 14 Mar 2017

Listen: Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke chats to Katrina Roe about the ‘Keeping it Light’ video discussing gay marriage. Above: MPs Tim Wilson (L) and Andrew Hastie (R) with ‘debate’ facilitator Matt Andrews.

With such a volatile mix of ingredients, it was never going to go down quietly: two politicians, a Bible, some beers—and a discussion about gay marriage.

In fact you might consider it a veritable grenade waiting to explode.

The first video in the Bible Society’s Keeping it Light series features a gay, agnostic MP (Tim Wilson) and a straight, Christian MP (Andrew Hastie), chatting about their opposing views on marriage equality.

It was meant to illustrate how grownups with wildly opposing views, can have a friendly, civil discussion—but it’s become the centrepiece of a media storm.

How the Beer Storm Began

Bible verse on the packaging of the Coopers Bible Society commemorative beer.

Above: The Bible verse on the packaging of Coopers’ commemorative beer.

The storm began brewing last week, when Coopers Brewery’s charitable arm, Coopers Foundation, joined the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary celebrations by releasing 10,000 cases of a special limited edition of Coopers Light. Cans feature a ‘happy birthday’ message to the Bible Society, while the beer features on its packaging the Bible verse John 3:21: “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light”.

The Bible Society in turn released the video in which Matt Andrews mediates the friendly ‘debate’ between Wilson (wearing rainbow socks) and the conservative Hastie, about their opposing views on same sex marriage.

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“Tim, aren’t you in danger of becoming a rednecked fundamentalist, simply by sitting next to Andrew in Parliament?”

The moderator prompts the discussion with tongue-in-cheek questions like: “Andrew, you’re a Bible-reading Christian, aren’t you morally required to hate Tim?” “Tim, aren’t you in danger of becoming a rednecked fundamentalist, simply by sitting next to Andrew in Parliament?” “Andrew, essentially you are a homophobe, does that sum up your position?”

The three discuss the importance of keeping a discussion open, even when you disagree, and highlighting the value of listening to other viewpoints.

But within days the video has become the subject of angry backlash and mockery among beer drinkers, publicans, Christians, gay rights activists, and everyday citizens. They’re angry at either Coopers, the Bible Society, or both, for their unlikely partnership.

Boycotts and Satire

Above: The Feed's satirical video about the Bible Society debate.

SBS Viceland released a cutting satirical video, hitting out at Coopers for their apparent support of the Liberal party and Biblical views.

LGBTI activists have lashed out, saying that featuring two Liberal politicians doesn’t display a diversity of views, and that ‘Keeping it Light’ is a patronising slogan when in fact the issue of gay marriage is very personal, emotional, and anything but light.

Pubs in Sydney and Melbourne have declared a boycott against the brand, and a bar in Fitzroy released a Facebook video in which managers were shown dumping bottles of Coopers beer in a bin.

Members of Coopers’ own online forum ‘Club Coopers’ are criticising the company for its involvement in the campaign, and on social media, the anger is thick.

Tweet about Coopers and Bible Society

“My money will never go to those bible bashers who advocate youth suicide and stopping equality between two loving adults…I smashed the bottles I had left over from celebrations and any functions I have in the future… 18-35 year old people purchase Coopers beers. Which last count 80% of support marriage equality,” wrote one Facebooker.

“No more @coopersbrewery beer for me,” Tweeted another, while many started using the hashtag, #BoycottCoopers.

Coopers have released a press release distancing themselves from the video, explaining that they didn’t sponsor or endorse it.

Surprised by Hate Against Coopers

Greg Clarke, Bible Society CEO

Above: Greg Clarke, Bible Society CEO

In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe, the Bible Society’s CEO Greg Clarke said the hatred against Coopers was unexpected.

“I guess I’ve been surprised how people have attacked Coopers,” he said.

“They didn’t sponsor the video. It seems pretty obvious to me that a lot of people haven’t actually watched the video, but are still happy to comment on it, because the comments just don’t line up with what the two people in the video actually say.”

Mr Clarke said that the ‘Keeping it Light’ series aims to “model how you can have a conversation between two people who really disagree on a serious issue… in a light-mannered way with a lot of respect for each other.”

“We really need a robust Australia that is able to deal with people having different perspectives.”

He argues that it wasn’t unwise to start with the issue of marriage equality.

“That’s what we’ve got to be able to do as a nation,” he said. “Take any difficult topic and talk about it in a civil manner. We really need a robust Australia that is able to deal with people having different perspectives. I’d be really disappointed if this becomes a way of silencing those kinds of partnerships and connections between businesses and causes.”

A Positive Outcome says Greg Clarke

Mr Clarke said despite the negative media attention, he’s pleased with the outcome of the Keeping it Light series and believes it has “elevated the discussion [about marriage] into a new space”.

“People are coming to see what the Bible society’s all about,” he said. “We’re still about getting the Bible into everyone’s hands… and advocating that it’s the good book, and that if you pay attention to it, your life will really benefit from it.”

Why Partner with a Beer Company?

Coopers beer bottles

Too much? The Bible Society video included a blatant promotion of Coopers Light.

Meanwhile, many Christians are questioning the Bible Society’s long-running partnership with a beer company.

Mr Clarke said it was a fair ciriticism, but given the many wide-ranging views of alcohol among Christians, he considered it a positive partnership.

“Coopers has supported the Bible Society’s work for a very long time, as well as other Christian causes,” he said. “They’ve given us money to provide Bibles to the Defence Force, through their chaplaincy networks,” he said. “So they’ve been a long-term partner of ours. It wasn’t a new thing.

“And this really was just a way of celebrating and marking our turning 200. We’re not promoting beer, we’re really trying to promote the Bible and the impact of taking the Bible seriously.”

One caller to the Hope Mornings show, Kathy, pointed out that Coopers have long been a sponsor of a gay and lesbian cultural festival in South Australia in South Australia.

“It’s kind of weird to label them with an anti-equality or anti gay marriage stance, just by being involved in a debate, when they’ve long term supported the gay and lesbian community,” she said.

Coopers Defends its Bible Society Friendship…Then Backpedals

In the original statement promoting the beer, Coopers described beer as “the beverage of moderation”, saying “the choice of Coopers Light for the celebratory can made elegant good sense”.

In a later press release, Coopers describe the Bible Society’s video as a “light-hearted” video about a “debate we need to have”.

“Coopers isn’t trying to push religious messages or change your beliefs by celebrating 200 years of charitable work undertaken by the Bible Society.”

“Coopers never intended to make light of such an important issue.” ~ Dr Tim Cooper

On Monday, though, a tired and sombre-looking Dr Tim and Melanie Cooper, who are senior staff members of the company, released a highly scripted apology video, saying Coopers supports diversity and is “deeply sorry” for causing offence.

“Our company’s guiding principles have centred around respect for others, and as such, the recent activity surrounding the video made by the Bible Society has conflicted with our core values,” Tim Cooper says. “Coopers never intended to make light of such an important issue.”

His sister Melanie adds: “We’ve listened to a range of community views, we acknowledge this feedback, and respect everyone’s individual opinions and beliefs. We’ve consequently cancelled the release of our Bible Society commemorative cans, and will be taking steps to show further support for our community, including joining Marriage Equality Australia.”

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