Rugby fans in Australia were getting used to superstar Israel Folau talking about his evangelical faith.
Then this spring, he posted a warning from St. Paul, from his Epistle to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
For Rugby Australia officials, the problem was that Folau jammed that into Instagram lingo: “WARNING. Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters. HELL AWAITS YOU! Repent!” Folau added: “Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”
A Code of Conduct Tribunal in May determined that Folau had violated this Rugby Union Players Association rule: “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”
Folau was sacked, ending his new four-year contract worth $4 million (Australian). This was not what fans wanted to hear, with the Rugby World Cup looming in September.
The result was an Aussie firestorm about rugby, religious freedom, race, sexuality and free speech — in roughly that order.
Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones took this shot, in the press, at Rugby Australia leaders: “They’ve destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the Bible, for God’s sake.”
Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle released this statement: “I’ve communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it.”
But there’s the rub, according to many Australians. By firing Folau for alleged hate speech, rugby’s principalities and powers may have attacked his “religious background,” as well as his Polynesian heritage.
“Seriously? ... Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs,” said Taniela Tupou on Facebook. “I will never apologize for my faith.”
Meanwhile, Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney tweeted: “Israel Folau’s right to express his faith is fundamentally important in any democracy. ... Christians do not ask that everyone agree with us, but it is part of our faith DNA that we speak out about Jesus.”
For those seeking compromise, some of the most interesting responses came from the left. For example, feminist political scientist Holly Lawford-Smith of the University of Melbourne tweeted: “i have donated to #IsraelFolau’s new fundraising page, after @gofundme took the original down and refunded all donations. i support folau’s religious freedom and freedom of thought and expression. Oh, and i am a lesbian.”
Then philosopher Peter Singer, of the University of Melbourne and Princeton University, went online to argue that Australians should laugh at Folau, not fight him.
“As an unrepentant atheist, I am among those for whom, Folau believes, hell awaits. But that does not trouble me, because there is, in my view, no god, no afterlife, and no hell. Nor do I differentiate, ethically, between homosexual and heterosexual relationships,” wrote Singer. “Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Folau’s post falls squarely within traditional Christian teachings that Christians accepted almost unanimously until the 20th century.”
Paradoxically, added Singer, Rugby Australia officials implied that Folau was free to hold ancient Christian beliefs — in private. “That looks a lot like telling homosexuals that they can do what they want in the privacy of their bedroom, but they must not show their affection in public because some people might find it offensive,” he said.
Looking at this debate through Folau’s eyes, it seems that his main goal was to issue a sincere warning. Thus, the Wallabies star, Singer noted, “even tells homosexuals that Jesus loves them, and calls on them to repent so that they can avoid burning in hell for eternity. That doesn’t sound like hate speech.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.