When Jacinda Ardern was asked about Israel Folau’s recent recommendation that most of us should repent to avoid ending up in Hell, no one was interested in what she thought of the fate of atheists, adulterers, drunks, fornicators, thieves, idolaters or liars. All attention was on gays.
Journalists asked Ardern if she thought Folau’s words amounted to “hate speech”. She said she didn’t think they would be included under current thresholds and implied they shouldn’t be, given that they are grounded in religious belief.
However, she repeated several times that even if Folau’s words are not classed as hate speech they are “damaging”, and mentioned our vulnerable “rainbow community”.
Ardern also said: “Obviously, at a personal level, I clearly don’t agree with what he said. He is a role model and a person in a position of influence and I think with that comes responsibility.”
It’s hard to know exactly what Ardern meant by saying she disagreed with what Folau said. It could mean that she disagrees that Christian theology condemns to hell the sorts of people Folau mentioned if they are unrepentant; or that she simply doesn’t believe in the existence of hell.
Whatever she meant, she’s well qualified to have an informed opinion on Christianity given that she grew up in a religious household.
Coincidentally, both she and Folau were raised as Mormons and both left the church in their twenties.
In 2011, he and his family left to join a Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God.
Ardern abandoned her faith in 2005, principally because she couldn’t reconcile its anti-homosexual teachings with her friendships with gays and support for gay rights whereas Folau went to another church with equally strong views on homosexuality.
Mormons teach that “sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife” and that homosexual acts are a “serious transgression”.
The Mormons are far from alone. Other Christian denominations — including Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists and most of the Pentecostal churches — hold similar views with regard to homosexual behaviour.
While Ardern may now not view gays and hell the same way as Folau and his church, many Pasifika people of faith do. As Tuiloma Lina Samu wrote last year when Folau had been in the news after an earlier claim that unrepentant gays were going to hell, “The sad thing is we can’t deny that many of our people are entrenched in this unforgiving, (un)Christian conditioning and agree with you… An unquestioning belief in and holding fast to the Bible is very much a feature of our lives as Pasifika peoples.”
So, does Folau’s “responsibility” as a “role model” — as Ardern put it — mean faithfully representing those who share his religious beliefs (and particularly Pasifika people who look up to him) or should he hide his views to avoid hurting the wider “rainbow community”, who may have no religious beliefs?
As a deeply religious man, what exactly does he owe the latter group as a duty of care, if any?
Folau’s own answer last year was that, as a Christian, it is his loving duty to warn all of us of the dangers of not accepting Christ and repenting.
As he explained: “You see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?”
Folau is not saying he thinks that unrepentant gays — or any other unrepentant sinners — should go to hell; he’s just saying that is what the Bible tells us will happen. For that reason, he believes, “It is a loving gesture to share passages from the Bible with others.”
He repeated this view this week when asked if he would reconsider his views about sinners — and particularly the gay community. “I’ll stand on what the Bible says. I share it with love.”
Greens co-leader Marama Davidson clearly doesn’t agree with his ideas about sharing his love. She tweeted: “Israel Folau’s bigoted comments about our rainbow whānau and our transgender community are the opposite of peace-building. Rugby Australia c’mon this is hate speech.”
Presumably Davidson doesn’t care (or possibly even understand) that she is insulting hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians in New Zealand — including a lot of brown people — as bigots and haters.
As England rugby union star Billy Vunipola posted in support of Folau: “I don’t HATE anyone neither do I think I’m perfect. There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough. What [Folau’s] saying isn’t that he doesn’t like or love those people.”
Under our current laws, Davidson has the right, of course, to criticise someone’s religion just as Folau has the right not only to believe what he likes but to express those views publicly (even if his employers think he shouldn’t).
The obvious problem with this sort of attack by the Greens co-leader right now is that her junior colleague Golriz Ghahraman is currently leading the charge for hate-speech laws to protect religious minorities, among others, from what could be considered to be harmful insults.
As Ghahraman wrote last week: “I know our current hate speech laws aren’t working. We have seen recently how New Zealand aspires to be an inclusive society and to protect those values we must protect the rights of our minority communities from hateful rhetoric, especially online.”
She nominated Muslims and Jews as two religious groups that “are routinely the victims of hate speech” and said she was looking forward “to working with the Justice Minister Andrew Little on making these important changes”.
Unfortunately for Ghahraman, Davidson’s tweet accusing Folau of “hate speech” and making “bigoted comments” looks very much like the sort of online attack against religious groups she is hoping to make unlawful. In trying to protect one minority (gays), Davidson is employing what could be construed as hateful rhetoric against another minority (conservative Christians).
The media — and politicians — are mostly treating Folau as a rogue believer but that is far from the truth. His views on gays are representative of a big chunk of Christians from a variety of denominations.
I suspect the strong, often virulent reaction to Folau’s unwillingness to keep his mouth shut is due in large part to the fact that non-religious people often want to kid themselves that the religious are mostly happy to accept others’ differences — including their sexuality — under a blanket of love and forgiveness.
While that is true of some branches of the Christian faith, it is clearly untrue of many others. Nevertheless, most churches that condemn homosexual acts prefer not to widely advertise that fact — with the notable exception of Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church, whom the media likes to dismiss as renegades.
As a Christian, Folau is not a renegade in terms of his beliefs but he definitely is when it comes to being willing to announce them publicly to his vast audience on social media. Most public figures who think like him keep very quiet.
That includes the leaders of churches. As Michael Reddell, a committed Christian, remarked in a post titled “Honouring Israel Folau” on his economics and politics blog Croaking Cassandra: “It is interesting to note that not a single church leader has been willing to stand up openly for Folau, and the Scriptures.”
Folau’s rugby bosses have made it clear they accept he has the right to hold those views, they just don’t think he should relay them to his 313,000 followers on Instagram, or elsewhere, which is a very odd view, to say the least, of what freedom of religion means.
As much as anything, the backlash Folau has generated shows just how much liberal society really doesn’t want to hear what many religious New Zealanders and Australians — including many Muslims — believe about homosexuality.
Folau has broken the unspoken pact that exists between unbelievers and believers in our society that endeavours to hide religion’s less comfortable aspects, summed up by the injunction: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.”
Exposing the truth publicly, and to a huge audience, as Folau has done is clearly unforgivable.