Archbishop Freier says Folau case points to social media's limits as a tool to promote faith

The Folau case "raises an extraordinarily complex set of challenges" for Australian society, says Anglican Primate.

Dr Freier wrote: "Perhaps the most important lesson for Christians is that social media is the very worst way to try to argue their beliefs. Folau is not the only person to learn this the hard way. More than 30 candidates in the May 18 federal election had to withdraw or were disendorsed because of unwise posts on social media, some from many years before."

By Mark Brolly and Russell Powell

May 31 2019 

Australia’s Anglican Primate, Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier, has warned of the perils of social media as a tool to promote religious belief, saying the controversial Instagram post by rugby union star Israel Folau and Folau's subsequent dismissal by the sport's governing body Rugby Australia was the latest example of high-profile people coming to grief because of unwise use of social media.

Dr Freier wrote that young LGBTIQ people “could certainly be harmed” by a social media post paraphrasing a Bible verse taken out of context. But the backlash also meant that young Christians would learn that they had to suppress their faith, which could also be harmful.

In an opinion piece on his Primatial blog, Archbishop Freier wrote that the Folau case “raises an extraordinarily complex set of challenges, from how onerous employment contracts can legitimately be on people’s private lives to how far they may share their beliefs”.

“Young homosexuals could certainly be harmed by such a direct tweet paraphrasing a Bible verse taken out context (it’s aimed at Christians), and that is a genuine concern," Dr Freier wrote. “Another genuine concern is that young Christians are learning from the backlash that they sometimes have to suppress their faith, which could also be harmful. There are no winners in such a debate.

“Surveys show strong support in Australia for religious people to be able to hold and teach their faith, and also for non-religious people to express their beliefs, and surely this is a foundational position for a flourishing pluralistic society like ours.”

Archbishop Freier wrote that many secularists believed that faith was fine provided it was private, but that was unreasonable. People’s core beliefs influence their thoughts and actions in all the arenas of their lives – that could not be avoided “and we should not try”.

“But people can live out their faith in public without giving gratuitous offence, and in particular without trying to express it in 140 characters. If I were advising Folau, I would tell him he can live a full life of faith consistent with his beliefs without ever posting on Twitter.

“Perhaps the most important lesson for Christians is that social media is the very worst way to try to argue their beliefs. Folau is not the only person to learn this the hard way. More than 30 candidates in the May 18 federal election had to withdraw or were disendorsed because of unwise posts on social media, some from many years before.

“The perils of trying to convey the deeply nuanced character of religious discourse on social media are real. Social media by its nature is reductionist, reaching the lowest common denominator, so it is simply not possible to reduce the Christian faith to words or photographs on Facebook or Twitter. The nuances and complexities of religious traditions and practices defy a minimal presentation.

“If Christians are to venture on to social media they must emphasise the constructive, positive, edifying and helpful … Social media is as much a challenge to people of faith as it is to society in general, and critical self-reflection always speaks powerfully.

“It will be both interesting and important to see how the Government faces the challenge of balancing rights and responsibilities in heavily contested areas such as freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.”

See or for Archbishop Freier's full article.

Sydney’s Archbishop Glenn Davies and Bishop Michael Stead sought assurances on religious freedom from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as the election campaign drew to a close last month after Rugby Australia sacked Folau.

Archbishop Davies tweeted from overseas on 8 May, “I stand with Israel Folau”, while Bishop Stead, the Chair of Sydney’s diocesan Religious Freedom Reference Committee, told The Australian: “If a rugby player can be sacked by doing nothing more than posting on his social media page what is essentially a summary of the Bible then it’s a signal to the rest of us that we better keep our mouths shut.”

Bishop Stead was among a number of Christian leaders to ask Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten for a commitment on religious freedom, telling SBS he was frustrated that they had characterised the dispute between Folau and Rugby Australia during one of their leaders’ debates as a contractual matter, rather than one of freedom of speech, conscience and belief.

“The problem with that is that there does need to be a positive protection for free speech so people can genuinely say what they believe without being gagged by oppressive codes of conduct because employers will then have ­licence to restrict religious speech in a workplace context for fear of offence,” Dr Stead said. “In effect, people will be told to leave your religious self at home when you come to work.”

Mr Morrison repeated a commitment to legislate to protect religious freedom in the same way as sex discrimination, through a Religious Discrimination Act, if the Coalition was returned to office.

Mr Shorten said a Labor Government would “maintain religious education and freedom of religion and we believe in freedom of speech, but we also believe that we can't be a nation who allows one group to inflict hurt on another group”.  

Bishop Murray Harvey of Grafton said that while Mr Folau was free to hold to particular religious views, how he expressed these views in public was another matter.

“Free speech is not hate speech and should not be used to vilify others,” Bishop Harvey said. “Threatening people in this way cannot be disguised as protected religious activity. If it was, then things like ethnic cleansing and slavery could be justified on religious grounds as having divine approval.

“I applaud the efforts being made by many Rugby clubs to build inclusive communities and promote rugby as a sport where everyone is welcome to participate. Like many sports they have taken the lead in addressing racism, equal opportunities for girls and women and more recently LGBTQI persons. Having been a member of the rugby community at the local level in clubs in Australia and the UK for many years, I can say that his views are not representative of the wider rugby community.

“Israel Folau is a tremendously popular young Rugby player … I hope he can see the potential impact of his statements on impressionable young fans and others who see him as a role model. Words have consequences, sometimes dangerous ones, especially in this case amongst young people who might be questioning their sexuality. I call upon Israel Folau and other high-profile role models to carefully use the platform they have to send a positive message about their faith, promote social inclusion and community well-being.”

The Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, Mr Simon Smart, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald on 13 May that he wished he could have had a beer for Mr Folau before the rugby star posted on Instagram what he [Folau] believed was central to the message of Christianity.

“If I’d had that opportunity, I would have urged him to adopt an entirely different posture towards the culture he is hoping to influence,” Mr Smart wrote. “In the current climate of distrust, polarisation and simplistic sloganeering, I’d want to convince him of the need for thoughtfulness and sensitivity to how his words will be heard. And what the potential damage of those words might be.

“For what it’s worth, I would have stressed that good communication matters, that social media is perhaps the worst possible place to try to explain complex religious concepts and that Bible verses ripped out of context and lists of ‘sinners’ bound for hell, without any sense of the broader story, distorts the core message of the text and its offer of abundant life for every person who would accept it.”

Mr Smart wrote that Mr Folau had been “the subject of a mob justice that has determined that not only is the content of his post hateful but so too is his motivation”.

“I’m sure that’s not the case … Whatever you think of Folau’s theology, or method of communication, it seems odd to me that people don’t recognise what is moving him to act, especially given the comprehensive list of those deemed at risk of perdition. Folau is, after all, a footballer and not a moral philosopher, or theologian or even a nuanced writer.

“Given the repeated ‘atrocities’ committed by footballers who continue to play the game after a minor sanction, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Folau has found himself a modern heretic to a particular kind of orthodoxy.

“Working out what true tolerance will look like in a liberal democracy is complex. As tens of thousands of displaced people around the world look at Australia as an attractive destination of freedom and opportunity, and many Australians rightly and admirably advocate for their acceptance, the question remains as to what kind of welcome they will receive when they get here. Remembering that the vast majority of new arrivals from non-Western countries will be religious, and very often conservatively religious. They will typically hold views, especially on issues of morality and sexual ethics, that are clearly not in sync with contemporary Australian culture. How will we deal with that awkwardness? True inclusiveness and diversity must make room for many different worldviews. And it’s all of us, not just Rugby Australia, who will have to navigate these complexities, if we are going to cultivate an environment that we say can be a home for all.”