Rugby Stars, Religious Schools, and the Charge of Hypocrisy

I wasn’t going to write about the Israel Folau saga: given that oceans of ink have already been spilled on the topic, I wondered what else I might be able to contribute. Surely everything that could be said has been said?

Well, not quite. There are some commentators who think that criticising Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau bars a person from also supporting a faith-based school’s right to employ staff on the basis of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof). For Peter Van Onselen, this is an egregious case of religiously-tinged hypocrisy. For David Marr, holding both views simultaneously not only manifests cognitive dissonance; it also reveals the inherent arrogance of conservative religion. So far as I can tell, no one has tried to rebut these asseverations.


To be sure, the alleged equation between Israel Folau’s firing and the hiring policies of religious schools – issues that have intensified the confused debate concerning religious liberty in Australia – is superficially compelling. RA’s CEO, Raelene Castle, insisted recently that the sporting body was well within its rights to sack Folau, since he had violated some of its key values. She implied that by posting his now-infamous tweet, the former rugby star had fallen afoul of RA’s commitment to “inclusion”. Castle also added that it was “important” the code “defend [its] values”, which presumably meant firing one of the Wallabies’ most important players.

In what appears to be a similar principle at work, the leaders of religious schools and their supporters argue that a faith-based institution ought to be able to employ and dismiss staff according to its grounding principles. To condemn the former whilst applauding the latter might indeed seem duplicitous – a form of religious privilege masquerading as high ideals, which critics like Marr regularly flay.

To reach such a conclusion, however, would be hasty. For whatever similarities hold between the two cases, they are outweighed by key differences. Though not as apparent, those differences are far more consequential.


There are several crucial issues concerning the two cases in question: differences in the respective values at play, the nature of the institutions articulating those values, and the subsequent demands placed upon employees. The principles inhering within a faith-based school are essential to its institutional identity – marking it out as a distinct religio-educational entity, and leading naturally to an understanding of staff duties that includes adherence to those principles. As I shall suggest below, the absence of any real parallel in a sporting body like RA means that cries of hypocrisy simply do not apply. This requires a degree of stage-setting, so bear with me.

Consider the relationship between a religious school and one of its teachers. In addition to undertaking discipline-specific responsibilities (teaching maths, for example), the employee is in most cases expected to uphold that institution’s foundational values. As I have written before, the raison d’etre of a faith-based school is the transmission of those values to students. Not only are students educated in the various subjects one commonly associates with school; they are also enjoined to engage in a broader process of intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, set within the religious matrix that informs the school’s ethos. This is part of the institution’s core aim of propagating a particular vision of reality. Staff members are not only expected to conform to that vision; where appropriate, they are to reinforce it (gracefully and winsomely, of course) with students. Such expectations are neither arbitrary nor tangential. Rather, they naturally flow from, and are rooted in, the school’s overriding mission and identity.

None of this is unique to faith-based schools: all bodies predicated upon the articulation of a certain set of beliefs – philosophical, political, or religious – require members to reflect and promote that institutional identity. This is grounded in the recognition that such beliefs are constitutive of the body’s distinctiveness – something without which it would simply fail to exist as it is. To borrow an example from a previous post, it would be quite odd if the Australian Greens remained sanguine about an employee who thought that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax, and was unflagging in his support for fossil fuels. This is for the obvious reason that the Greens’ entire purpose is constituted by a “deep-green” environmentalist philosophy at odds with so-called climate “denialism”. Indeed, to retain such an individual would be self-defeating in the context of the Greens’ overall aims. We can therefore say that there exists a rational connection between the values of an institution of this kind, and the subsequent demands made upon individual employees.


For orthodox Christian schools, staff requirements are likely to include adherence to a conservative view of sex and sexuality. It’s important to elaborate this point, for proscriptions against certain types of sexual conduct aren’t simply a set of arbitrary rules, which can be discarded at will. They are integral to the wider body of Christian beliefs – beliefs which claim to say something crucial about reality – and cannot be easily amputated.

According to most Christians (including most Christian educators), beliefs concerning sexual and gender expression are rooted in what orthodox believers take to be the authoritative word of Scripture, behind which stands an understanding of God’s designs for the flourishing of his creation. Indeed, there is good reason to think that woven into the fabric of biblical revelation is an understanding of sexual relations as grounded in gendered/biological complementarity. Sexual distinctiveness is central to the originating vision for human beings, as set forth at the very beginning of the Bible’s master narrative (Gen 1:27-28; 2:20b-25). That harmony-in-difference is consistent with the integration of created polarities – land and sea, night and day (Gen 1:1-25) – while its most obvious sequel, procreation, reflects the native creativity of the God in whose image humans are made.

The NT clearly reinforces this vision. Jesus cited the creation mandate in a debate with some Pharisees over the legitimacy of divorce (Matt 19:5; cf. Gen 2:24). For him, marriage is a one-flesh union between male and female specifically, which should be sundered only under the most extreme conditions. To defer to the authority of such a passage is to implicitly affirm what it says about the gendered nature of sexual congress. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Paul selected same-sex erotic relationships to illustrate humanity’s debasement in Romans 1 (vv.26-27). This wasn’t because sexual intimacy between, say, two men was seen as more egregious than other types of wrongdoing. Rather, homosexual conduct provided for the apostle a clear and ready manifestation of the thoroughgoing corruption of human beings, and the universal misdirection of their divinely-ordained telos. Behind his denunciation lay the belief that same-sex eroticism signalled humanity’s collective failure to live within the sacred structures of reality, as portrayed in (amongst other places) Genesis 1-2.

All this is to say that how one expresses oneself sexually is hardly peripheral within the ambit of classical Christianity. Given the cosmic implications involved – i.e., the boundaries of the created moral order, and its role in framing human behaviour – these convictions are of central importance. Indeed, they are indelibly tied to the nature of scriptural revelation and its purchase on theological, ontological, and ethical truth. As the Roman historian, Kyle Harper, has observed:

“Sexual morality [for early, as for most modern, Christians] was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God”.

Upholding certain standards of sexual conduct reflects their significance as key constituents of the very worldview animating an orthodox religious school. Likewise the obligation that every staff member observes such standards, stemming as it does from the school’s overriding mission.

Let me summarise what I have been arguing for thus far. Conservative Christian schools (or Jewish, or Muslim) can be said to be characterised by two defining features: the inherent requirements pertaining to staff responsibilities, enjoining them to embody and articulate a certain set of religio-ethical values (including those pertaining to sexuality); and behind this, the constitutive nature of the values they espouse.


Contrast this with RA and its stated commitment to a culture of “inclusion”. Whatever one says about the concept, it is implausible to claim that: a) “inclusion” is a constitutive part of RA’s mission or identity; and b) that there exists a clear, rational relationship between a rugby player’s role and conformity to that particular value. RA was established for the express purpose of administering the game of rugby union in Australia. As a body charged with governing a professional sporting code, RA’s founding had little to do with the promotion of a certain set of ethical values. Excise all reference to “inclusion” from RA’s communications and official statements, and its fundamental aims remain largely unaffected. Moreover, the concept itself is one of near-limitless elasticity, the meaning of which is deeply unstable; trying to divine the function of so vague an idea within the institutional architecture of RA is fraught with difficulty. It simply isn’t an inherent component of a sport’s core business in the way that certain views of (e.g.) sexual conduct are for the identity and purpose of orthodox religious schools. At best, “inclusion” is a non-essential (though non-conflicting) adjunct to an institution created long before the concept’s emergence within late-modern culture.

Similarly, while the specific purpose of a faith-based school rationally grounds an employee’s obligation to act as a conduit for her employer’s tradition, the requirements of an Australian rugby union player like Israel Folau are largely limited to competent execution of his on-field responsibilities – not deference to an ill-defined concept only tangentially related to his normal professional duties. While he may have been required to refrain from behaviour deemed manifestly disreputable (e.g., criminal acts), his chief role was to play his chosen sport to as high a standard as possible. Folau’s function within the enterprise of Australian rugby union was therefore qualitatively different from that played by an educator in, say, a Christian high school – precisely because the two institutions are qualitatively different in nature, constitution, and goals.


The upshot of all this is that glib denunciations, such as those slung by the likes of David Marr and Peter Van Onselen, simply ignore the crucial distinctions I have tried to outline. The charge of hypocrisy – whatever its rhetorical power – is of no substantive use, being little more than a category error. What I have raised here means that one can, without a whit of hypocrisy or privilege, hold simultaneously the views in question. If critics weren’t so willing to allow their anti-conservative animus to trump logical acumen, they’d be able to recognize this.


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