Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

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 (If my reading on this topic is out of date, please leave comments and point me to new sources.)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, 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.

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New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

Let me start by confessing that I know very little about rugby or the fan culture that surrounds it in some parts of the world. In other words, I am an American.

However, I do know a thing or two about church music. Basically, I have been singing in church choirs (and academic choirs dedicated to classical and sacred music) so long that I don't even remember when I started. My childhood memories have always included choirs.

Thus, allow me to make a few comments on half of the material found in a fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem." The story is labeled "rugby," which implies that it was a sports feature. However, it was also featured in the "international" news section of the Times online round-up.

Obviously, I want to comment on the feature's religious content and lack thereof. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- Barely a minute had elapsed in the match between the national rugby teams of England and France when the song first boomed around the stands at Twickenham Stadium.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” thousands of fans sang, “coming for to carry me home.”
It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.
But here, across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem.

The feature includes quite a bit of material about rugby culture. It also does a fantastic job of describing the symbolic role that this spiritual -- it could also be called a folk hymn -- has played in African-American history.

So what is missing?

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