Peter Lynas: Today’s secularism leaves no space for Billy Vunipola... or Ashers
As an Ulster and Irish rugby fan, I'm not naturally inclined to support Billy Vunipola. But as someone who believes in free speech and freedom of religion, I have to speak up.
Vunipola, the English rugby forward, is in the midst of a social media storm for 'liking' a post by Australian rugby player Israel Folau. Vunipola's "crime" was to post Bible verses and articulate the orthodox Christian position on marriage. He made it clear that he himself is far from perfect and that he does not hate anyone. But even that doesn't appear to matter to the new fundamentalists. Israel Folau has been fired by Australian rugby for his original post. I wouldn't have posted what Folau did. He missed a great opportunity at Easter to emphasise the forgiveness and hope found in the Cross. But I wonder if Folau had just mentioned adulterers, drunkards and atheists, would he have been in so much trouble? His "sin" seems to have been to challenge the current "sexual orthodoxy".
Channel 4 has axed Vunipola from promoting its Champions Cup coverage because it is an "inclusive broadcaster". The irony of the comments seems to be lost on it - no room for orthodox Christians, or other faiths with similar beliefs. The RFU doesn't support his views. Is that all Christian views or just certain ones? And what is the full range of the RFU's beliefs? We have reached the bizarre point where supporting marriage is more likely to land you with a disrepute charge than having an affair.
However, some of the subsequent commentary is even more worrying. Rugby pundit Stuart Barnes commented that he always "loathed the way those Islanders formed a circle post-match and give their praises to what I regard as a fabrication". He went on "but I am a child of the enlightenment; fortunate enough to have the benefit of a reasonable education". The insinuation seems clear, the problem is these islanders and their made-up God. If only they had the benefit of a proper education. It is as patronising as it is arrogant.
There are worrying hints of colonialism in the progressive agenda. They seem to believe they have a new enlightened view on sex. The solution when it comes to "those Islanders" is not inclusion or diversity or respect for those with different views. Instead we repeat the sins of previous generations forcing our new ideas on others. This new secular orthodoxy, as one commentator put it, will not be stopped.
Is Vunipola being disciplined for quoting Scripture? For holding orthodox Christian beliefs or just for expressing them? Do rugby players have freedom of religion or is this another faith-free zone? As rugby celebrates diversity and inclusion, does this allow for orthodox Christian beliefs, or is that the one view you must not have?
I am a firm believer in a plural public square. This allows for a variety of views, including religious belief, but does not give dominance to any one view. The problem with much of what passes for secularism today is it privileges the absence of religion. It leaves no space for Ashers the bakers, Tim Farron the politician, or Billy Vunipola the rugby player. Folau has lost his livelihood. Vunipola seems to have survived, perhaps due more to pragmatism than principle. The warning is clear - if you really must have a faith, keep it private. But there is no such thing as private faith. Christianity is either the story of the whole world or it is nothing. As CS Lewis reminds us, when it comes to Jesus Christ: "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God."
Folau and Vunipola have made their choice. They have paid a price. At Easter we remember that Jesus paid the ultimate price for each of us - so what will you do with Jesus?
- Former barrister Peter Lynas heads the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland