The view from Billinudgel

Testing faith
On Israel Folau, free speech and the problem with religious fundamentalism

Israel Folau. Source: Facebook

The Israel Folau saga is finally moving to the tribunals – first to the Fair Work Commission and, if that does not produce a result, on to the Federal Court and perhaps beyond.

It was inevitable of course. It’s a high-profile case and, more crucially, one involving millions of dollars. No lawyer worth their silk was going to pass up an opportunity for free publicity and a shitload of money.

Ostensibly it is a dispute over an employment contract between Folau and Rugby Australia, but it has been conflated with a major battle over religion and free speech: should an employer have the right to sack an employee whose decision to publicly make homophobic comments is at odds with the organisation’s values of inclusiveness? It is up to the various judges to sort this out, but in the meantime it is worth unpacking just what he said and its implications.

The full list of those that Folau warned were hell-bound included: drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. But he offered a get-out clause – they could escape their fate if they repented. Well, perhaps most of them could – all but one of those alleged sins is matter of choice, so repentance may be an option. But homosexuality is not a choice. Demanding repentance for what cannot change is both cruel and pointless – as silly as telling Folau to repent for having Polynesian heritage. This is where the offence lies: people, including young Christians trying to come to terms with their sexuality, are to be condemned to damnation. And because they are who they are, there can be no escape. It is a recipe for rejection, trauma and despair.

Some apologists have tried to play this down: one of the more absurd claims was that all Folau was saying was offenders would have to sit in the naughty corner. But that is not what his faith states: it declares unequivocally that they will be cast into a flaming pit to be tormented for all eternity, a bit more severe than 10 minutes in the sin bin. As a devout Pentecostal, Folau must follow his scripture.

However, Folau’s fellow Pentecostal, Scott Morrison, disagrees: after some prodding, he said he did not believe homosexuals would go to hell, because God loves everyone. But hang on: Folau’s key defence is that he is simply quoting Saint Paul, the Bible, the word of God. So which part of the Bible does Morrison reject? Apparently, whichever bits do not suit him. For instance, he is clearly not interested in Jesus’s ideas about the Good Samaritan approach when it comes to asylum seekers.

And when it involves money, his aspirational agenda is not that Christians should forsake all their wealth and give it to the poor; they should instead accumulate as much as possible and then hang on to it rather than pay taxes to Caesar. None of this goody-goody stuff about camels and needle’s eyes: in the gospel according to ScoMo, Saint Peter will roll out the red carpet to welcome the super-rich into heaven. Folau himself is asking for $10 million in damages, and that may be just for starters.

Which is the problem with religious fundamentalism: you can’t just cherry pick the bits that suit your agenda – it is all or nothing. And that is why Australia is a secular democracy and, it is tempting to say, thank God for that.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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