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Freedoms religious and social: an Australian stock-take

By Andrew Cameron - posted Friday, 10 May 2019

As I write this article, Israel Folau is considering his future with the Wallabies. A keenly public Christian, Folau has posted to social media a short biblical mashup deemed by his employers to breach the sport's inclusiveness code, hence imperilling his four-million-dollar contract.

Both the biblical paraphrase and its reception are instructive. Folau seems to have selected from and conflated the vice-lists and theological sequelae of 1 Corinthians 8:9–10 (pertaining to the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers) and Revelation 21:8–9 (referring to the cowardly, the faithless, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators and liars). According to the apostle Paul, members of the first list do not inherit the kingdom of heaven, although the twist in St Paul's argument is a note of rejoicing that the original readers had been "washed", "sanctified" and "justified" despite their participation in such modes of being. For John of Patmos, the "lake of fire" does indeed await those in the second list.

Folau's paraphrase mentions the sexually immoral ("fornicators"), adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, idolaters, liars and adds "atheists", with hell awaiting them all. The Folau list is weighted a tad more toward sexual sin than are the originals. He is a rugby player, not a theologian, yet on the face of it we might wonder about his purpose in that, and perhaps also about his elision of greed, slander, swindling, and murder. (We might also wonder about the bald reference to hell, as reported, although the post included a call to repentance and the offer of salvation. Folau later cited Ezekiel 33:11 to the effect that God "is a loving God and he wants people to turn away from what they're living in and he'll give them life" both the post in question, and Folau's tweets indicate his interest in alerting people to their need to repent in the face of God's wrath, with a leavening of references to Christ's life-giving, salvific power.)


On the face of it Folau exemplifies an evangelical Christianity that was common in the West for several centuries and regarded only lately by educated Anglo-Australians as a dotty oddity. It is still common in several cultures, such as Folau's native Tonga. Yet the ire it has elicited, and perhaps the semiotics evident in Folau's selection of vices, elegantly highlights how a progressive modern Australia has coalesced around, and aggressively protects, a common object of shared value: the perceived right for everyone to be respected and honoured in their sexual identity, and in their consenting adult sexual practice.

Neither polemic nor approval is intended in this way of phrasing it. The notion of a "right", an "identity," and this lauding of sexuality could be examined from every angle, but the fact remains that at a profoundly visceral level, matters to do with sexual expression and narrated self-identity have become ascendant in our polity. These matters are vigorously fought for and defended, with little or no quarter given in public space to those who take a more traditional view. Here we see a common point of strong affection, or, to borrow from theological discourse, a "common object of love".

All cultures have them. They change from place to place and from time to time, for better and for worse - depending, obviously, on one's point of view. This same object was also evidenced in 2017–18 Ruddock Review into religious freedom that arose from social and legal contradictions emergent in changes to marriage law for same-sex couples, and from the bitterly fought plebiscite preceding those changes. Subsequently, the mishandled release of the Ruddock Review triggered further outrage when it alerted people that under current law, various forms of action could in theory be taken by religious schools in relation to a student identifying as lesbian, gay, transsexual, bisexual or other, should school authorities estimate the student to contravene its religious ethos in some respect. Longstanding religious exemptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws were judged too broad by many, and to many more were simply a surprise.

In both episodes, a significant body of heightened and emotionally-charged opinion, and then effective political action, mobilised around matters of sexual identity in a way that has become almost unimaginable for any other issue within our polity. Were Folau's tweet to have pointed hell-ward only, say, for adulterers, thieves, drunkards, liars and fornicators, most Australians would have regarded it as quaint at worst, or even as a well-deserved if fanciful shot at current Australian and American political leaders; at the CEOs of our major banks; at the perpetrators of domestic violence; and at plenty of other rugby players. Whether football authorities would have invoked inclusiveness codes against Folau's severe take on drunks, liars, and swindlers remains to be seen. As it stands, though, his inclusion of "homosexuals" has rendered these other categories of sinner almost completely invisible to ensuing punditry on the matter, such is the power of the shared "love" of sexual identity and its free practice.

Nor is it hard to imagine that at some level Folau knew as much, or at least reflected the way faith communities can use matters of sexual identity to confront the host culture, to assert their difference, and to provoke flash-points of confrontation around faith versus unbelief.

While Folau's fight with his employer is being construed thinly as a contractual matter, his fight with the Twittersphere and that "common object of love" is more protean, a kind of shadow-boxing with the Zeitgeist. In a way, we must all suck up the knockabout unpleasantness inherent to the comparisons, contraries and competitions that characterise human social life. At this level there are interesting, if somewhat amorphous, questions available to us about broader social freedoms we actually disallow ourselves. Do the opprobria of both religious and a-religious moralities constitute bullying, or worse? Is the internet's constant invective itself now a form of subjugation? Conversely, how much less free can or should speech become, in proportion to expanding liabilities supposed to inhere in the "causing" of offence? Are unexamined "common objects of love" unmaking Western freedom, and robbing us of moral imagination? These are questions I wish I had the wit and wisdom to begin to answer well.


But in our polity, such social hostilities have a habit of crystallising upward into the policies and laws that order our common life, at which point matters of legal freedom are straightforwardly at stake.

In Australian polity, most employers are un-free to employ on the basis of discriminations irrelevant to the task at hand. Just as others might test for illicit forms of hiring or workplace discrimination, Folau could test for "religious discrimination" since his tweet is unrelated to the practice of rugby and perhaps unrelated to his efficacy at playing alongside a hypothetical gay teammate.

Formally, the discussion of "religious freedom" is a subset of political philosophy and is the discussion of what the state-that is, official agents of its citizenry, acting in its behalf-may legitimately require religious people to do or not to do. If the liberal democratic state acts on behalf of the citizenry, and if the citizenry has its "common objects of love", then these will deeply influence the decisions of state officials.

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This is an edited version of his article in the St. Mark’s Review 2019 on Religious freedom in Australia.

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About the Author

The Revd Dr Andrew Cameron is Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, and teaches theological ethics.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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