On the evening of April 11th, the deeply devout Rugby star Israel Folau was unceremoniously booted off his long-term contract with Rugby Australia for sharing a religious opinion on his Instagram account. This religious opinion did not take the from of the hateful speech which would ordinarily invite such a severe sanction. He did not call for violence, run a harassment campaign or support terrorism. He stated that homosexuals will go to hell.
Now, after the wait to see if this decision will be final, his firing stands to become a landmark moment in Australia’s debate on religious freedom. But it is also a worrying sign of our culture’s widespread illiteracy on matters of religion. The Christian Bible is a major foundational philosophical text in the Western canon; but, even as the mob continues to accuse Folau of being a rogue homophobe, it escapes them that the content of the image macro which damned Folau was quintessentially Biblical. It referenced 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 almost to the point of being an unabridged quotation.
That particular scripture reads “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”
In contrast to the habits of Folau’s critics, when the deist revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote his scathing attack on organised religion in The Age of Reason, he famously memorised every last word of the Bible before daring to put pen to paper. Perhaps the Twitter mob could learn a lesson or two from that formidable wisdom and humility.
The point is obviously not whether Rugby Australia or Qantas or even whether your average Australian specifically agrees with the content of Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians on homosexuality. The point is that Israel Folau’s open support of these principles resulted in his dramatic excommunication from the public sphere and set back his rising career.
For what it is worth, not all Christians actually support Folau’s perspective on homosexuality. Religion is a complex and evolving set of ideas. It is rarely easy to reduce down to simple moral rights and wrong. The question of the correct and codified Christian treatment of homosexuality has not historically had a singular, simple to understand consensus that can be pointed to and cited by believers.
But those in the media elite who came for Folau’s job when he previously expressed his religiosity will inevitably rely on an all too familiar pivot when issuing their criticisms this time around. They will hyperbolise his comments as “homophobic hate speech,” and they will maybe even go as far as slyly labelling Folau himself a bigot. Unsurprisingly, they won’t notice the poignant stench of irony in designating Folau as an oppressor when the only person on the planet who was hurt by Folau’s comments was Israel himself.
However, there are more important issues at play than the dishonest attempts of ideologues to label a sportsman as a hatemonger and bigot. Qantas and other major corporate sponsors have, in demanding that Rugby Australia remove Folau, made an attempt to purge an individual out of a major institution of public interest on the basis of his religious views. And despite a clear disdain for Christianity at play in the removal of Folau, these circumstances undermine the fundamental principles of freedom of religion for all beliefs and sects.
Imagine for a moment that it was instead a practising Muslim who was barred from a major sports league because that league’s major sponsors expressed concern that the player’s religious beliefs were incompatible with the values of a “modern” society. Would anyone really be in doubt about the ramifications of such blatant discrimination? Or, what if the shoe were on the other foot, and a major sports league only admitted devout players in the hope of appealing to religious viewers? Such hypocrisy is foundational to this firing, and fully on brand for what passes as debate in the modern political climate.
A censorious mob blindly labelling religious individuals as bigots whenever they express particular viewpoints is clearly not a reasonable foundation for healthy social discourse. It codifies ignorance and contempt as the default framework for interrogating ideas that we disagree with. It promotes a climate of retribution for the crime of thinking differently. And perhaps most importantly, no one should ever have to risk being forced out of their job just for quoting the Bible in their own time.