By Simon Kennedy
The current saga involving Australian rugby star, Israel Folau, is a high-profile incubator case for civil liberties in Australia. Folau, like others for him, is facing a threat to his livelihood because of publicly expressing his religious beliefs.
However, unlike similar scenarios in the past decades and centuries where the one hunting the heretic is the state, or the church backed in by the state, Folau is being threatened by his employer. This kind of scenario opens up a gamut of new issues concerning religious liberty. For Christians it particularly raises the question of obligations to employers.
Folau, a professing Christian (although one of questionable orthodoxy), made a splash with a series of incendiary posts on social media where he expressed the view that unrepentant gay people will be condemned to Hell.
Folau is one of the biggest names in Australian rugby. His employer was Rugby Australia, who, on all accounts, warned Folau to keep his views on sexuality to himself after a number of inflammatory social media comments.
Rugby Australia commenced disciplinary proceedings against its employee, and on May 7 it stated that Folau had committed a “high-level breach” of its code of conduct. More recently it was announced that he had been sacked as both a domestic and international rugby union player. Folau has, according to Rugby Australia, breached its culture of inclusiveness.
To add insult to injury, Folau has also just lost a lucrative sponsorship deal with ASICS, who stated that the views presented on Instagram “are not aligned with those of ASICS” and that the “partnership with Israel has become untenable.”
There is a curious twist, here. ASICS is also a major sponsor of the Australian international rugby union side, the Wallabies. Another major sponsor is airline carrier Qantas, who have actively campaigned in favor of same-sex marriage and related causes. This is, in one sense, the convergence of the activist interests of a peak sporting body and its corporate sponsors.
Observant readers will have noticed that the usual suspects in stories of heresy hunting are yet to appear. Australian state and federal governments are uninterested in this case. Churches are interested, but not involved. The side taking action is a corporation, one backed by other corporations. The person being charged is a lone, admittedly high-profile, employee.
Political commentator, Stephen Chavura, noted recently in The Australian newspaper that corporations “inhabit a zone between state coercion and civil liberty.” Employees are more or less obliged to fall into line insofar as the employer asks them to. Folau didn’t fall into line.
Folau knew what he was doing. In posting a graphic listing homosexuals as qualifying for eternal condemnation, he would have known that he would raise the ire of his superiors.
The absence of the civil authorities in this particular case is indicative of the state of play in western liberal democracies. While governments are sometimes targeting conservative Christians, the more typical heresy hunter is the corporation, employer or grass-roots activists.
Discounting the latter for the moment, the case of the employer is a tricky one Christians. There is a long, deep, and catholic tradition of civic theology which advocates submission to civil government. The basis for this tradition is unequivocal biblical texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–17.
Early church thinkers went out of their way to ensure Christians honored those in civil authority. Magisterial Protestant reformers like William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, allowed very little wiggle room for Christian civil disobedience.
Allowing for some variation in political theology, this unapologetic stance toward submission to civil magistrates is still widely accepted. No doubt it will become more and more pressed. The question remains, though, do Christians have a similar duty to submit to the pointy-haired boss as they do to those in civil authority?
The New Testament texts where Christians are exhorted to submit to civil authority have a clear context: governments were unquestionably hostile to the church. In some cases, such as the Apostle Peter’s mention of “the Emperor” 1 Peter 2:17, the rather unsavory Nero was in view.
However, the passages which mention master and slave relationships, like 1 Peter 2:18–21, Ephesians 6:5–8, and Colossians 3:22–25, are general exhortations for slaves to obey masters. We don’t know anything in particular about those masters. The exhortation is, as I said, general.
I would submit that the biblical testimony is unclear on this question. Should a Christian submit to their employer in questions of freedom of speech or religion? Should Israel Folau just keep his social-media trap shut because Rugby Australia told him to?
If the Bible is unclear, perhaps there are historical parallels or wisdom to be garnered from other sources in the Christian tradition. One thinks of Tertullian’s Military Chaplet. In this work, he was wrestling with the quandary of soldiers who had converted to Christianity having to participate in both violence on behalf of the empire and in the Roman Emperor cult. Of course, the example is not analogous because the state is involved and so, too, is outright idolatry.
It strikes me, and I hope others, that this is an area where Christians so-equipped could dedicate themselves to serious theological and ethical reflection. We enjoy a long, relatively coherent tradition of thought regarding state persecution and civil resistance. What is lacking is a theology of Christian obligations to employers who are hostile to the faith.
Christians will, no doubt, find themselves more and more frequently in situations where their livelihoods are compromised by their convictions. Our ability to participate in the mainstream market economy might come under increasing strain in the wake of corporate activism. Perhaps Christians will become a kind of economic underclass.
More tools are needed to navigate this new situation. Israel Folau’s approach, where he openly defied his corporate overlords, is presumably only one option. The bell will toll for more of us in due course. The politically correct spear tackle (to use a rugby phrase) will be executed. How should Christians respond?
Simon P. Kennedy has a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Queensland and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the same institution. He is also an Adjunct Lecturer at Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne.