By: Akos Balogh
The Israel Folau saga has uncovered an urgent need for Australians to have conversations about the sort of society we want to live in.
When Folau first posted his controversial Instagram post, there was an immediate reaction from many cultural commentators, demanding he step down. Rugby Australia, his employer, was only too happy to agree.
But as time has passed and emotions have cooled, there seems to be a growing backlash against Rugby Australia’s actions toward Folau. And I don’t just mean from Christian or conservative voices. In a Fairfax article entitled ‘Silencing Folau with queer fascism betrays our gay marriage victory’, prominent gay rights activist Dawn Grace-Cohen writes:
“[A] queer fascism that rules through fear rather than reasoned persuasion is gaining momentum…It is a left-wing version of the McCarthy era when American actors and singers who were suspected of communism were denied work.”
“Did Folau threaten to kill, maim or abuse anyone? Did he insult gay people at work? Did he use contemptuous or abusive language? Did he tell deliberate lies? No?”
Then let him keep his job…’
SMH sports columnist Darren Kane makes a similar point when he writes:
“Let me be clear: my view is that the message in what Folau published is abhorrent…But it’s also my opinion that it would be wickedly harsh, unreasonable and completely out of step with the values that we hold dear in Australia to sack Folau.’”
On a more popular (and conservative) level, The Australian newspaper ran an online reader poll asking, ‘Should Rugby Australia sack Israel Folau over his social media posts?’. The poll attracted 21,700 respondents, with 89 per cent saying Folau should not have his contract torn up.
At this point Christians should sit up and take notice: while it’s tempting to believe that all of secular Australia is increasingly against religious freedom, the pushback against Rugby Australia shows something different. Evidently, secular Australia is far from monolithic in its opposition to public religion. The most vocal opposition to religious freedom is coming from many elites within the secular Left, and not from everyday soccer (and Rugby) mums and dads.
As the above articles demonstrate, there are secular voices from all walks of life who are concerned about religious freedom. They would much rather live in a free society – as traditionally defined – than in a society where people get fired for posting the Bible’s message on social media.
Thus there is an opportunity to have meaningful discussions with secular people about the place of religion in society. As people devoted to the good of our neighbours, Christians should be initiating and having these conversations, especially while our culture is still divided over what to do.
Here are 4 urgent conversations that we should have:
1) How Serious Are We About Allowing People to Express Opinions that Others May Find Offensive?
Folau’s post was obviously offensive to many people. Commentators demanded he be sacked, with Rugby Australia indicating it will do just that. RA Sponsor Qantas also indicated it was angry about the post. Their tolerance for offensive speech (at least when it involved sexuality) was low.
But do we want to live in a culture, in an Australia, with such a low tolerance of offensive opinions?
Are we happy for people’s hurt feelings to shut down and censor other people’s points of view?
In particular, will we allow religious people to publicly hold views about sexuality that offend others?
The problem with allowing one person’s offence to shut down another person’s speech is that offence is a highly subjective and moving goal post. What seems reasonable one moment can quickly become outrageously inappropriate the next, especially when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality. As gay activist Dawn Grace-Cohen points out:
“First they came for Germaine Greer for speaking her mind on transgender ideology. Then they took jobs away from musicians who refused to comply with a queer boycott of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.
More recently, tennis legend Martina Navratilova was sacked from a board and Barry Humphries has been stripped of an honour by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for similar crimes.”
In a pluralistic society, there will be many views held by people that are deemed offensive by their fellow Aussies, especially on matters of sexuality and gender. And so, if we’re going to hold free speech hostage to hurt feelings, it’s hard to see how this basic freedom will survive.
2) How Much Should Employers Be Allowed To Own the Souls of Their Employees?
While Folau’s case is arguably unique – he is a public figure in a way most employees are not – the question remains: how much ‘ownership’ of employees should employers be allowed to have? Are employees allowed to express their own opinions in their own time, even if it goes against an official view of their employer?
Folau posted his own views in his own time, on his own Instagram account. He didn’t come close to breaking any law, nor carrying out a misdemeanour.
But his employer Rugby Australia believes he had to abide by Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct, even away from his employment. According to their view, as a public employee of Rugby Australia, he should have kept his employer’s interest front and centre, even in his own private space and time.
Yes, there are situations when a worker must align herself with her employer’s point of view on certain issues (think of people working for political or religious organisations). But for the vast of majority of workers in secular Australia, is it an inherent requirement for them to accept their employer’s view on issues that have nothing to do with their employment?
If Rugby Australia sacks Folau, it will send a powerful cultural signal to the rest of Australia, that employers have a disproportionately large right to the souls of their employees.
3) What Exactly Is Meant by ‘Diversity’, ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Inclusion’?
The Folau saga shows there’s enormous confusion on the meaning of these words.
Folau was found guilty of not showing ‘inclusivity’ and ‘tolerance’ in his views. He wasn’t respectful enough of Rugby Australia’s ‘diversity’ policy.
This is rather ironic.
Not long ago, it would have been easy to argue that Rugby Australia didn’t show enough ‘tolerance’ or ‘inclusiveness’ towards Folau’s ‘diverse’ religious viewpoint.
But ‘Inclusivity’ has now come to mean ‘anyone who doesn’t agree with us is excluded’, and ‘tolerance’ means ‘you must not criticise certain people or practices’. ‘Diversity’ refers to anything except viewpoint diversity. I’m not the first to point to the Orwellian twisting of these words. The cartoonist ‘Leunig’ nailed these ironies in a recent cartoon.
We need an urgent conversation on what real ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ mean, especially in the workplace.
Otherwise we’ll be at the mercy of organisations and policies that intolerantly exclude people due to their diverse opinions.
4) What Sort of Public Square Do We Want?
All the above questions lead to a final question: what sort of public square do we want? How do we want our public actions and words to be treated?
Simon Smart from the Centre of Public Christianity canvases the options in a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Os Guinness, the author and social critic, writes about three possible options of the kind of “public square” we can choose, two of which he says are bad. The “sacred public square” is one where one religion is preferred over all others, is “established” or is even a monopoly. Such a model is unjust because those who don’t share the religion are second class citizens. Think Iran, Pakistan, or Myanmar. The “naked public square” on the other hand, in removing all religion, is equally unjust because it leaves no room for the faithful. Stalinist Russia or contemporary North Korea illustrate the problem.”
“An alternative middle way is, according to Guinness, what he calls the “civil public square”, where people of all faiths and none, are free to enter into public life on the basis of their faith (or lack of it). The crucial qualifier in this model is that they do so within an agreed framework of what is just and fair for everybody else too. A good understanding of rights, responsibilities and respect are essential qualities for such a model to work. The Israel Folau case would test such a framework.”
If Folau is anything to go by, we’re moving to a ‘naked’ public square where religious points of view are unwelcome, and silenced.
But a ‘civil’ public square is the one which gives the maximum freedom to people of all faiths and none, to be themselves in public without punishment. Wouldn’t this be better for human flourishing?
Cultural Norms Eventually Become Law
These are urgent discussions in large part because cultural norms eventually become legal norms. While the sanction Folau currently faces is cultural, were this to become ingrained in law then one day other employees may fall afoul not just of their employer, but of the law as well.
Is that really the kind of Australia that’s best for Australians?
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.
About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.