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As Israel Folau awaits sanction from Rugby Australia over his social media posts, arguments over religious freedoms, hate speech and employers’ rights rage on the sidelines. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Testing Israel Folau’s faith

Israel Folau leaves a Rugby Australia code of conduct hearing in Sydney this week.
Credit: Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty Images

Israel Folau grew up in Minto, in south-western Sydney, to Tongan parents. He was raised Mormon but, by his own admission, he was inattentive in church – Sunday devotion was a chore. Still, he believed.

A rare athletic talent, Folau made his NRL debut in 2007 when he was just 17 years old. Thus began a loop of indulgence and shame, a world of temptation that Folau said he was too immature to resist. “Often during this period I felt I was losing control of who I was and what I wanted to be,” Folau wrote last year on the online platform PlayersVoice. “It was all ego and no humility. But despite living this materialistic life, I still felt empty. I would wake up on a Sunday morning and think, ‘This isn’t me.’ And yet I would do it again the next week. And the week after that. It was a cycle of sin that was getting me nowhere.”

Folau’s spiritual estrangement continued. He felt empty. Things worsened in 2011 when he became a high-profile code-swapper – joining the prospective AFL expansion club Greater Western Sydney. The venture lasted two seasons: one in the New South Wales state league, the other in the Greater Western Sydney Giants’ debut in the big league. The experiment was a miserable failure and Folau knew it. He wondered why he had left the sport he loved, and he was chastened by his inability to adapt to Australian rules. He was left “emotionally broken”. Around this time, he embraced the Pentecostal faith, a Protestant renewal movement known for its belief in prophecies and tongues. Folau felt reborn.

In 2013, he returned to rugby – but this time to union. That same year he debuted for the Wallabies. Arguably Australia’s best player, he has since played 62 Tests – but he may have played his last.

In April 2018, Folau was summoned to Rugby Australia’s headquarters by its chief executive Raelene Castle. The day before, a fan had posted a question to Folau on his Instagram account: “What was gods plan for gay people??”

Folau replied: “HELL. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

Castle explained this wasn’t acceptable, that the public and sponsors were appalled. So were some of Folau’s national teammates. “I don’t expect everyone to believe what I believe,” Folau wrote soon after. “That goes for teammates, friends and even family members, some of whom are gay. I don’t pretend to have all the answers in life. It can be difficult making the right decisions. You are always trying to reconcile the truth from the Bible with things you feel inside. But I have faith that God’s path is the right one and that path is outlined in the Bible. I will keep sharing that.”

Rugby Australia didn’t sanction Folau then. Soon after they offered him a four-year contract worth $4 million, although Castle did tell Folau he should consider himself warned. But in Folau’s mind there were more important warnings to be heeded. Last month, in response to the Tasmanian parliament’s decision to introduce gender-optional birth certificates, Folau tweeted: “The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free.” Hours later, he posted on Instagram an image that read: “WARNING Drunks Homosexuals Adulterers Liars Fornicators Thieves Atheists Idolators HELL AWAITS YOU”.

He had done it again. The Wallabies coach, Michael Cheika, suggested it would be difficult to pick him again. The captain, Michael Hooper, suggested it would be hard to play alongside him. The national team were riven: there were those appalled by Folau’s beliefs, those appalled by the distraction, and those who saw Folau as a persecuted man. Wallabies hooker Taniela Tupou wrote on Facebook: “Seriously? Might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Islands rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs. I will never apologise for my faith and what i believe in, religion had nothing to do with rugby anyways.”

Rugby Australia threatened to tear up the 30-year-old superstar’s contract, a possibility only if an independent panel adjudicated Folau to have committed a “high-level breach”. This week, after an epic three-day hearing, the panel decided just that, though the sanctions – which might be only a fine and/or suspension – will not be declared until next week.

And there it was: Israel Folau became the first Australian athlete sanctioned for expressing religious belief.

 

The effect of Rugby Australia’s pursuit of sanctions against Folau suggests a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on religion. Which is difficult for those whose faith, such as Pentecostals, compels them to share the good news. The movement comprises various doctrines, but there are two that have central relevance to the Folau case. One is the inerrancy of the Bible. Written via divine inspiration, and so to be read as the word of God himself, the Bible is also to be literally interpreted. To devout Christians, is a perfect document, both as history and as a road map to eternal grace.

The second point flows from the first. Given heaven and hell are believed to literally exist – one an everlasting paradise, the other a place of infinite spiritual and physical torment – the stakes are high for the Pentecostals. And given the consequences, they believe there is an obligation to rescue others from sin, to encourage their repentance and dedication to God. You may consider all of this an extreme and destructive superstition, but it is also indissoluble. These are bedrock beliefs, and condemnation won’t force Folau’s disavowal of them – more likely, it will confirm for him and others his status as a modern Christian martyr.

In Folau’s church last week, the Truth of Jesus Christ in Sydney, his friend Evelyn Hema made clear to the gathered press how Folau saw it. “He doesn’t care how he’ll be persecuted in this world, where it’s temporary,” she said. “But it’s in the afterlife, when all die.”

High stakes. If Hema was a faithful correspondent of Folau’s heart, and we have no reason to doubt her, the Wallaby’s greatest aspiration is heaven – and he wants to ensure as many as possible join him. Censure, unemployment and outrage will be shrugged off like hapless tackles. Folau believes he is marching to heaven.

 

There’s a recurring word in this story: “consequence”. For Folau, the salient consequence is holy, eternal. For Ian Roberts, the consequence is hell on Earth. Roberts was the first professional rugby player in the world to come out as gay, something he did in 1995 while playing for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. He has been a powerful force for anti-discrimination ever since. “I do feel sorry for Israel, but there are consequences to your actions – and reactions,” Roberts said on Channel Nine this week. “I don’t say this lightly, what I’m about to say. The language is hard and it’s for a point, to get that message across: there are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves. I say that with the greatest sense of respect and I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that; please don’t take it that way. But it’s these types of comments and these off-the-cuff remarks … these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

There is a line that author, media commentator and former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons has repeated: Folau has a freedom of expression but not a freedom from consequence. For Mark Latham, who devoted a good portion of his maiden speech this week in the New South Wales upper house to Folau – the consequence was a society poisoned by political correctness and one comfortable in its vilification of Christians. It wasn’t much different to the scripture of talkback presenter Alan Jones, who coached the Wallabies in the 1980s, which he broadcast Wednesday morning. “The prime minister is sworn in with his hand on the Bible – the same Bible which Israel Folau has quoted and he’s now had his dignity, his integrity, his employment, his vocation and his income stolen from him.”

We have never seriously considered removing the Bible as the totem upon which a prime minister – or minister, judge or court witness – might pledge their solemn commitments. But there’s a relative subtlety to touching a book, compared with broadcasting provocative elements of it. Perhaps, as Jones implied, our hypocrisy resides within that subtlety — one that can be easily ignored.

It must also be noted that the Bible isn’t uniformly interpreted. In fact, the Bible isn’t even a single book – it’s a document that for centuries has been repeatedly revised, translated, amended and contested. So fiercely contested has its interpretations been that it has serially inspired war and the splintering of sects.

For some faithful, heaven and hell are metaphorical. Some doctrines refuse to accept the Book of Revelation as either coherent or canonical. In other words, when a man or woman places their hand upon a Bible, they do so in private, singular communion. They are not necessarily upholding the unforgiving literalism of Israel Folau. But what if they are? Should we formally punish this? If so, how? Or should it be left to the fabled marketplace of ideas – one form of expression is met with another? If it gets to court, what will the legal judgement be?

Rugby Australia hoped Folau would roll over – that he would offer them, rather than God, his repentance. He hasn’t, and he told them as much last year. “I would sooner lose everything – friends, family, possessions, my football career, the lot – and still stand with Jesus, than have all of those things and not stand beside Him,” he wrote.

Beyond religious positions, contractual obligations and national team fractures, there are intractable elements to the Folau drama. Alan Jones is notorious for his inflamed grandeur, but he just may be right when he says this will go all the way to the High Court. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "In God we trust". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.