Christian Israel Folau’s Faith and Freedom Of Speech

Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Rugby Union have threatened to terminate the contract of a star player as a result of his passionate defense of conservative sexual morality in one meme.

This is the text of that meme from Christian footballer Israel Folau:

“WARNING

Drunks

Homosexuals

Adulterers

Liars

Fornicators

Thieves

Atheists

Idolaters

HELL

AWAITS YOU

REPENT !

ONLY JESUS SAVES”

These are very strong words. But much of the online response focusses on this meme as if the only thing in it is an attack on gay people.  Folau is also very hard on people with drinking problems AND on people who lead liberated sex lives AND on atheists AND on people who idolize things which Israel Folau doesn’t idolize.

I believe it is reasonable to say, as Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done this morning, that Folau’s words are “terribly insensitive.”

But I think Folau’s meme can also reasonably be described more positively. Is it a clarion call to oppose excessive drinking which ruins many lives? Does it uphold a traditional sexual morality which has long been foundational to most family life? Does the meme’s condemnation of theft deserve support? Is upholding belief in God something which a modern secularizing nation like Australia needs? (Faith in God has been part of the bedrock of western civilization for almost all of the two millennia preceding this one.)

If the focus shifts to more positive ways of describing Folau’s Christian moral passion, his meme raises issues worthy of discussion not kneejerk condemnation.

Conservative Christian Folau names 8 types of people he believes are bound for hell. You could say that 12.5 % of this meme is an attack on homosexuals. Yet Folau is now being attacked by some people online as if the only thing he has done is to condemn gay people. He names these eight groups of people because he wants all of them (in the terms of his belief system) to be “saved.” He wants what he believes is the best for them. Even if he is wrong and being unfair, at least part of what is in his heart is compassion and love.

To get a broader and fairer picture of what Folau believes, here are some more quotes from him from the Player’s Voice website where he is called a “founding contributor”:

“I used to believe I was defined by my actions on the footy field, but I see now that’s not true.”

“…… my faith is far more important to me than my career and always will be.”

“I will not compromise my faith in Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of every single thing in my life. People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.”

“I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.”

“No man or woman is different from another – if you sin, which we all do, and do not repent and seek forgiveness, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

 “I believe when Jesus died on the cross for us, it gave us all the opportunity to accept and believe in Him if we wanted to. To enter the kingdom of Heaven, though, we must try our best to follow His teachings and, when we fall short, to seek His forgiveness.”

Are these the publicly expressed beliefs of a man we should condemn or of a man we should praise?

Bill Shorten’s response is to say, “There is no freedom to perpetuate hateful speech …….”  What right does a man aspiring to be Prime Minister of a western nation like Australia have to be so forgetful of our heritage that he suggests that passionate Christian morality is “hateful speech”? Two days before Holy Week.

A year ago, after Folau made another allegedly anti-gay comment online, one of his current bosses was quoted by New Zealand website newshub like this “The situation cooled after Rugby Australia’s CEO Raelene Castle said she was proud that he holds so strongly to his Christian beliefs.”

But a year later it looks likely that, for expressing his beliefs, his bosses will terminate his contract. The Rugby Australia Chief Executive yesterday released a joint statement with the New South Wales Rugby Union CEO with this conclusion: “In the absence of compelling mitigating factors, it is our intention to terminate his contract.”

Now, as a philosopher, I suggest that Rugby Australia (RA) and NSW Rugby Union consider the following principles for fairness as mitigating factors:

  1. Freedom Of Speech. Freedom of speech has to be robust for it to work. Sometimes that will be offensive and hurtful to some people. But robust freedom of speech is the foundation of genuine democracy. Being really good at a game is not a reason for taking away anyone’s fundamental civic rights.
  • 2. Freedom of Religion. Please look at the whole package of his religious beliefs before condemning Folau for one part of his beliefs as if that were the only thing he has said.
  • 3. Openness. It is better to discuss Folau’s beliefs and to include him in the discussion than to risk driving those beliefs underground by trying to ban their expression.
  • 4. Inclusivity. Excluding Folau from the sport in which he is a champion is the opposite of inclusivity.
  • 5. Consistency. A year ago the RA CEO praised Folau’s religious beliefs. Now part of one tweet gets Folau sacked? If RA were able to resolve a similar issue last year without punishment, why cant a lesser punishment, like a fine, be considered this year?
  • 6. Fairness and Public Health. Folau has taken a stand against the abuse of alcohol. Doesn’t that aspect of his meme deserve our support?

Is Israel Folau going to be metaphorically crucified as we enter the Holy Week of Easter because of his conservative moral passion in one meme? Or are we grown up enough in 2019 to discuss and try to consider everything that he has said?

Geoff Fox, Resident Of Maribyrnong

12th April, 2019