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Unholy row for the “game they play in heaven”

Rugby Union is known as the game played in heaven. Star player Israel Folau continues to bring both the game and the venue into disrepute, as well as fuelling another debate in this country about free speech and religious freedom.

The musings of overpaid sportspeople usually don’t get my attention, but Folau’s Instagram post could not be ignored, especially as the post embodied the intersection of two cults of personality – religion and elite sport.

Folau went full Old Testament and decreed that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters are bound for eternity in the pits of hell unless they repent. But come to Jesus and you will be saved.

In just the one post, Folau managed to both encapsulate the essential sadomasochism of his religion – the demand to both fear and love the creator – and give full voice to the bigotry and vilification to which he believes his religion entitles him.

I’d go as far as labelling his post religious fanaticism, as it contained both theocratic bullying aimed at anti-theists like me, and the insulting notion that repentance is the only way to live a moral existence.

If said in the depths of the social media swamp by a religious zealot, the post would have disappeared. Shouting these types of remarks from the Dubbo Rotunda would have the zealot declared a public nuisance. But because of his position as a high profile sportsperson, the two personality cults intersected to create the perfect PR storm.

Folau, like many of us, had an employment contract and code of conduct that must be adhered to. His bigoted post was assessed by Australian Rugby Union (ARU) as breaching his employment contract, as well as being out of step with the ARU culture of diversity and inclusiveness, and Folau was sacked accordingly.

His sacking set off the second phase of this ruckus – claims of attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech.

A high-profile sportsperson attracts high profile supporters. The right-wing media duly pressed the outrage button, claiming the ARU had no right to sack Folau for expressing his faith.

When the GoFundMe website cancelled Folau’s legal fee fundraising page the Murdoch press was apoplectic. Sydney radio station 2GB could have been confused with a Folau telethon given its on-air calls for Folau’s financial support. GoFundMe was accused of censoring Folau’s right to free speech, despite it being a commercial enterprise that ruled Folau had violated its terms and conditions and was entitled to act accordingly.

The Australian Christian Lobby then entered the fray, hosting a fundraising campaign, with its managing director Martyn Iles saying “the way in which Folau’s motives have been impugned and his avenues of support have been cut off smacks of a new and ugly Australia where dissent from narrow cultural views is not tolerated.”.

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, said in statement: “It is of great concern to many Australians that this right (to express his faith) is being denied and vilified.”

Both these “faith leaders” failed to understand that Folau’s right to express his religious views was not denied. However, they both sought besieged victimhood status for Folau, and conveniently ignored “do unto others and they would do unto you” and the inherent bullying and clerical demands in Folau’s post.

Did they both also forget Folau’s flexible religious convictions, having been a Mormon for several decades before joining the evangelical Assemblies of God? This flexibility is also evidenced by Folau’s role as the marketing centrepiece of the 2014 Gay Rugby Union championships in Sydney.

Throughout this nonsense, Folau has continued to label himself a humble person, grateful for the public and financial support, for he was merely “wanting to share that message of love that God is trying to extend to all people”.

I would argue that a truly humble person would sell their multimillion-dollar property portfolio to fund their own legal defence, especially as he picked the fight in the first place.

I’d also argue that his inability to see the total disconnection between his claims of humility and the threats of eternal damnation and torture contained in his Instagram post do nothing to enhance the image of his faith in the wider community.

Folau’s sacking was an employment contract issue not a freedom of religion issue, and will now be a matter for the court.

Put that aside and consider a larger question – is this the relationship Folau, his religion and his moral and financial supporters want to have with the rest of us? The clerical bullying, the demand for surrender, and the preaching of hate?

This isn’t moral teaching let alone a cornerstone of democracy. It is, however, bringing parts of humanity into disrepute, and the rest of us would like to be left alone and not bullied.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.