Americans, being somewhat exceptional in their sports (as in much else), may be unaware of the controversy currently raging around the Australian rugby player, Israel Folau.
Folau plays at number 15 for the Australian national team and Australia is a country which takes its rugby very seriously. But Folau now finds himself in trouble for a number of “homophobic” tweets and social media posts, some of which are little more than Bible verses. As of this moment, he is appealing termination of his playing contract.
Rugby may be unfamiliar to American readers, but the basic dynamics of this narrative are not. Someone says something on Twitter which defies current social and sexual mores; others protest; corporate sponsors threaten to withdraw support; representatives of sports management make noises about this “not reflecting the values of the sport/business/town, etc.”; and the perpetrator is terminated and consigned to ignominious oblivion. So far so predictable. It has happened before and, call me a pessimist, I fear it is going to happen again. Many, many times.
I myself do not consider Twitter a particularly useful medium for discussing controversial and sensitive topics. It barely provides enough space to adjudicate the respective virtues of hamburgers from McDonald’s or Burger King, let alone allow for significant discussion of the nature of personhood and sexuality. It is really a medium for cultural Marxists—not those who follow Karl, but those with the inimitable gift for one-line witticisms possessed by that greater Marx, Groucho. Deep thought can at best only be transformed into fortune cookie pietism when refracted through the lens of 140 or 280 characters. Indeed, it is surely reasonable to ask whether those who drop these controversial soundbites are really trying to persuade others of a better way of thinking or merely attempting to generate heat and draw attention to themselves.
Now, to be clear: I believe Folau has the right to express his opinions in the public square, using whatever medium is at his disposal. And I would defend his right to do so, as I would defend the right of his critics to respond. It is somewhat puzzling that many of his critics, who presumably do not believe in hell, should be so upset that Folau believes some people may be going there; but they have their right to believe and express their outrage just as he does to express his beliefs.
What makes this interesting, however, is the way many Christians have hailed Folau as a Christian hero, even on the international stage. Christians love nothing so much as a celebrity martyr. And yet here there is a problem: Folau’s religious views are really anything but Christian in the historic, dogmatic sense of the word, because he denies that most basic of Christian creedal doctrines, the Trinity. Folau, who grew up as a Mormon, is now involved with a Pentecostal church. Whether or not this particular church affirms the Trinity, Folau himself has explicitly denied the doctrine in another tweet—the difficult issues can apparently be dispatched in a mere handful of characters.
It is surely a sign of the times when Christians lionize someone as a hero of the Faith and quasi-martyr for taking an ethical stand on traditional morality, but wink at his denial of fundamental Christian doctrines. Again, this is not to deny that Folau has the right to express his opinions or that he is being unfairly treated; it is rather to question the discernment of Christians who are so quick to make such a man a martyr for the Faith. Folau may be brave—or very foolish—but he is not a representative of historic Christianity. And to fail to make that point is to arbitrarily prioritize sexual morality over the distinctive dogmatic foundations of the Faith.
The Folau controversy certainly reveals the asinine level and fractious nature of so much political discourse, right and left, when it becomes merely an exchange of antithetical cheap outrage online. Indeed, Christians might do well to ask themselves whether they want to lionize a man as an example of the Faith (rather than as an example of freedom of speech) who lands himself in trouble for putting controversial views on Twitter, where the capacity to reason and persuade others is almost non-existent.
More worrying, this incident appears to offer evidence of what many critics have claimed over the years: that religion is too often little more than an idiom for angry engagement in the culture wars, a means of justifying selective prejudices. But if culture wars are necessary, they are only necessary because of prior metaphysical truths which have implications for a well-ordered society; and they should never be allowed to become so important that they jeopardize or dilute commitment to Christian orthodoxy. And that means that Christian culture warriors need to be careful about how they characterize co-belligerents—lest they end up relativizing truths which cannot and must not be relativized. Of which, I would imagine, the identity of God is rather high on the list.