Australia is often referred to as a “secular” nation, but the reality is more complex than that. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the practice of religious faith, researchers are more likely to find modern Australians at the beach or in pubs than in church pews.
Australia isn’t post-Christian Western Europe, but religious faith is rarely a major player in public life. (If my reading on this topic is out of date, please leave comments and point me to new sources.)
Thus, it’s interesting that religion is currently making big headlines down under, in part because religious issues are affecting politics and another topic that ordinary Australians view with religious fervor — rugby.
The question in this post is whether these two stories might be connected: First, there was Rugby Australia sacking the land’s most popular star, after he included homosexuality in a social-media post on sin, hell and the Bible. Then, days later, conservatives — led by an evangelical Protestant — shocked the world by winning a national election.
Once again we see a familiar questions: Are worries about religious liberty and free speech playing a role, in many cases, in this “populist” political wave that journalists around the world are struggling to cover?
First, let’s talk rugby, with this story from News.com.au, days before the national election:
An understandably gutted Israel Folau has issued a parting jab at Rugby Australia shortly after his official axing from the Wallabies.
The 30-year-old had his $4 million contract scrapped … following the nuclear fallout to his anti-gay Instagram post.
“It has been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” he said.
That social media post, which Folau has refused to take down, quoted the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
The key is the inclusion of a Greek word that is usually translated as “sexual immorality” in English, meaning all sexual acts outside of traditional marriage. Thus, Folau — in his social media — bluntly included homosexuals in a list of sinners who are risking hell.
Like I said, sacking the national team’s biggest star created a national media firestorm. A typical quote from former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, aimed at national rugby leaders: “They’ve destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the bible for God’s sake.”
This brings us to the national election, held with the Folau controversy still making headlines. The key is that the conservative coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been trailing in the polls for quite some time.
Then, suddenly, his beloved “quiet Australians” rushed to the polls and won the day. What happened?
Well, let’s start — naturally — with The New York Times, the world’s most authoritative newspaper: “Australia Election Results: Prime Minister Scott Morrison Seizes a Stunning Win.”
SYDNEY, Australia — Scott Morrison, Australia’s conservative prime minister, scored a surprise victory in federal elections on Saturday, propelled by a populist wave — the “quiet Australians,” he termed it — resembling the force that has upended politics in the United States, Britain and beyond.
The win stunned Australian election analysts — polls had pointed to a loss for Mr. Morrison’s coalition for months. But in the end, the prime minister confounded expectations suggesting that the country was ready for a change in course after six years of tumultuous leadership under the conservative political coalition.
“I have always believed in miracles,” Mr. Morrison said at his victory party in Sydney, adding, “Tonight is about every single Australian who depends on their government to put them first. And that is exactly what we are going to do.”
The election had presented Australia, a vital American ally in the Asia-Pacific, with a crucial question: Would it remain on a rightward path and stick with a political coalition that promised economic stability, jobs and cuts to immigration or choose greater action on climate change and income inequality?
Let’s see: What kind of issues are missing from this Times list? Let’s keep reading (with a reminder that this is a news story, not a commentary piece):
The triumph by Mr. Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed admiration for President Trump, comes at a time of rising tension in the Asia-Pacific region. A trade war between the United States and China has forced longtime American allies like Australia to weigh security ties with Washington against trade ties with Beijing. …
The conservative victory also adds Australia to a growing list of countries that have shifted rightward through the politics of grievance, including Brazil, Hungary and Italy. Mr. Morrison’s pitch mixed smiles and scaremongering, warning older voters and rural voters in particular that a government of the left would leave them behind and favor condescending elites.
Now, concerning those easy-to-scare rural nobodies: Is it possible that there is some religious content hidden behind the term “condescending elites”?
The Times story — #SURPRISE — included zero references to, well, religion or rugby. Ditto for the online coverage that I’m seeing from the BBC.
What did folks down under think?
I did a very general online search for Australia election coverage, but included references to the Folau story, as well. I was looking for Australian and New Zealand sources, of course. Here’s a few of the top mainstream-news headlines that turned up in my Google News search:
By sheer coincidence, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher happens to be in Australia at the moment, because of a series of speaking engagements. He said the heat caused by the Folau firing was quite significant at the level of sidewalks and pubs. And leadership on the political left weaponized the Folau case, creating more news. Here’s a bit of one of his posts:
It will be interesting to see if the social conservative/religious vote will have been decisive, given the controversy this week over Israel Folau, the Aussie rugby player sacked by the league for posting to Instagram a Bible quote that offended gays. A few days back, Bill Shorten, the Labor standard bearer, attacked opponent Scott Morrison for not condemning Folau unambiguously. And on Friday, the rugby league formally ended Folau’s career, causing a lot of anger among Australians who believe he was robbed of his livelihood because of his Christian belief.
There could be no doubt that a Labor victory would have been bad for religious liberty in this country.
Rugby isn’t a big deal here in America. But, suffice it to say, it’s a major sport in Australia, something along the lines of the NBA or major-league baseball. So, let’s say that — right before a national election — someone the level of Steph Curry or Kevin Durant was kicked out of the NBA for quoting a controversial Bible verse in social media.
Except, this Australia case is bigger than that — since we are talking about the national team. This is more like some the level of LeBron James being thrown off Team USA during an Olympics year.
Maybe this was worth one or two sentences in the stories at The New York Times and the BBC?