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The culture war is over: On religion, homophobia and Israel Folau

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Invoking a higher being to rain fire on swathes of humanity is no longer the done thing, says Paul Thomas.

Australian rugby star Israel Folau has received plenty of advice, much of it laced with biting criticism, since telling one of his 337,000 Instagram followers that God’s plan for gays is “HELL – unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”.

Here’s my two cents’ worth: the next person who gets the urge to activate caps lock and inform a section of the community they’re damned for eternity should bear in mind that in this part of the world the culture war is over and your side lost.

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There are swathes of America where what Folau said would be regarded as a statement of the obvious. When former judge Roy Moore suffered a shock – and very narrow – loss in Alabama’s special Senate election late last year, what sank him was a history of preying on teenage girls; his views on homosexuality – that it’s akin to having sex with a cow and should be criminalised – caused barely a ripple of controversy.

Christian media mogul and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson warned that “acceptance of homosexuality could result in hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist bombings and possibly a meteor”.

His fellow televangelist and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell reckoned Aids was “not just God’s punishment for homosexuality; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuality”.

Israel Folau. Photo/Getty Images

We can dismiss the US’s multimillionaire men of the cloth as hate-mongering spiritual-snake-oil salesmen, but they have huge followings: according to a 2005 survey, 45% of Americans watch Christian TV monthly. They also speak for a movement that’s significantly responsible for the Republican Party’s rightward, populist lurch and its current stranglehold on power at both federal and state levels.

In most of the rest of the Western world, the issues over which the culture war was fought – race, feminism, homosexuality, abortion, censorship, religion – are no longer sufficiently divisive and galvanising to sustain the conflict. That obviously doesn’t mean everyone now holds progressive views, but those who don’t have seen the writing on the wall. Their belief system isn’t going to prevail, at least in the foreseeable future.

Faith-based social conservatism lacks political and economic clout; it’s not taken seriously by the media; its socio-cultural influence is diminishing. We still close shops at Easter and sing carols at Christmas, but these are anachronisms. To all intents and purposes, we are a post-Christian society.

Roy Moore. Photo/Getty Images

Limits to tolerance

Progressivism isn’t totalitarian: it doesn’t actively seek to suppress dissent. But as Folau discovered, there are limits to its tolerance. And there were moments in this controversy when pushback verged on intolerance.

There was a tendency to portray Folau as a Bible-bashing crackpot, as opposed to someone expressing “old school” Christian beliefs that, as former Mana MP Hone Harawira pointed out, are shared by many in the Pasifika community.

Folau cited 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10: “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor the drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

You can argue it’s not sensible to adhere to a literal interpretation of the teachings of men from a time and place that had more in common with the Stone Age than the 21st-century world. However, that’s probably not going to cut much ice with those who believe Adam and Eve were real people and Hell is a very real place. And if you’re going to accuse Folau of hate speech, it would seem to follow that you think the Bible, a copy of which could be found in most New Zealand households when I was a child and which is still read and recited in churches up and down the country every weekend, is a hateful document.

There were the suggestions, such as this from TVNZ weather presenter Matty McLean, that Folau had abused the right to free speech: “I am so sick of people who keep saying, ‘It’s okay, he’s allowed to have an opinion.’ I call bull on that. You cannot continue to stand behind religious views and spout this bigoted, hateful, homophobic speech.”

The counter-argument is that if free speech doesn’t extend to letting people say things we’d rather not hear, it’s a pretty meaningless concept. If Folau can’t put forward his version of Christianity, clearly the most important thing in his life, he’s not getting much value out of this supposed fundamental human right.

Nigel Owens. Photo/Getty Images

Tragic effect

The warning from, among others, the gay Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens, who attempted suicide when he was 26, that such comments from someone in Folau’s position could have a damaging, if not tragic, impact on troubled young men struggling to come to terms with their sexuality is worthier of consideration. It brought to mind perhaps the best-known saying on the subject, famed American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”.

It’s worth noting this was part of the judgment in US vs Schenck (1919), which rejected an appeal from a conscientious objector prosecuted under the Espionage Act for distributing leaflets urging young men to resist conscription. That decision was overturned by a Supreme Court ruling in 1969 that a Ku Klux Klansman’s speech advocating violence was protected by the First Amendment unless it “is directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”. (In other words, there has to be unambiguous intent and a demonstrated likelihood that the offending words will have the undesirable effect.) Holmes himself came around to the view that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas”.

One could also ask where Owens’ admonition – which, incidentally, was also heard in 2010 when Air New Zealand cut a scene in an in-flight safety video in which All Black Richard Kahui declined a peck on the cheek from a gay flight attendant – leaves parents who share Folau’s beliefs. Are they entitled to refer a troubled son to 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10?

Having provided my two cents’ worth, I’ll leave Folau with a question: given that he “believe[s] the Bible is the truth” and reportedly earns close to $2 million a year, what does he make of Mark 10:25 in which Jesus tells his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God”?

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.