6 October 2022
Essendon Football Club board members were well within their rights to refuse to keep Andrew Thorburn as chief executive while he was also chair of City on a Hill, a theological ethicist says.
But another theologian said it should not be assumed that Christians would force their beliefs on others.
Trinity College theological ethicist Dr Scott Kirkland said defending a right to work for a company which adhered to opposing political views to one’s own required a split between the public and private selves.
Mr Thorburn was recently appointed chief executive of Essendon Football Club but resigned shortly after being appointed. The club said his resignation came following the surfacing of sermon material regarding abortion and homosexuality from City on a Hill church. Mr Thorburn is chair of the board of City on a Hill.
An Essendon Football Club spokesperson said the board of the club had informed Mr Thorburn that he was unable to keep his position at the club were he to remain as chair of City on a Hill.
Dr Kirkland said evangelical Christians often held contradictory beliefs around the concept of public office. He said there was an idea that faith consisted of a set of personal commitments which should not affect one’s ability to hold assumption public positions in corporations with competing views. Dr Kirkland said those living in such a way were forced to be duplicitous as their public and private views did not align.
“What you have to lean into if you want to defend religious freedom in this way is a divide in the person,” he said.
“I don’t think you can disentangle your personal theological commitments from political life. Politics is theological.”
He said he understood why some people would feel as if they were being excluded from aspects of public life, but that corporations such as Essendon Football Club were well within their rights to refuse having a chief executive who did not align with their values.
“None of the options on the table are completely ideal,” Dr Kirkland said.
Ridley College dean Dr Michael Bird said Australia lacked mechanisms to handle the divide between competing views on issues such as sexuality.
“In order for our secularity to be preserved and freedom of religion to be preserved, and in order to be a successful multicultural liberal democracy, we’re going to have to find the tools and mechanisms to solve debates within our communities,” he said.
“What makes multiculturalism possible is we recognise that people have the right to be different without fear of reprisal. If a football club is going to force its CEO to resign not because of anything he said or did but simply because of religious affiliation, I think that is detrimental to a healthy liberal multicultural democracy.”
Dr Bird said a healthy relationship between religion and secular society meant Christians could freely hold their beliefs without it being assumed that they would force those beliefs on others.
“It’s not duplicity,” he said. “It’s the fact you can accept there are certain views that have currency in certain contexts.”
Dr Bird also said Andrew Thorburn was made to resign based on the beliefs held by an organisation for which he was chair, not based on his own personal beliefs.