05 September 2014

Public Expressions of Devotion

by Dr Philip Church

I usually enjoy reading Chris Rattue’s sports columns in the NZ Herald. He is unafraid to differ from received wisdom and his opinions are often well-founded and penetratingly expressed. His column a few weeks ago was no exception as he critiqued (perhaps former) All White Tommy Smith for turning his back on international football so as to devote his energy to his English club. I say it was no exception, but actually, I took umbrage at his last paragraph, unrelated to the Tommy Smith saga.

It started with a sub-heading that was actually a prayer. I am unsure to whom it was addressed - “Spare me from this,” he prayed. This paragraph referred to the formalities after a secondary school rugby game he had watched on TV, where, in the closing interviews “the first thing one of the players did was thank the Lord” (NZ Herald, Thursday August 14, B16). He continued,

I’m tired of sports stars parading their religious beliefs about in interviews or via signals to the heavens.
If the Big Guy in the Sky [interesting use of upper case letters I guess, Mr Herald editor] is your thing, go for it. But it is unbelievably arrogant to keep shoving your religious beliefs down other people’s throats.
There are plenty of opportunities to offer praise … in private.

There are a number of things that can be said about this outburst. First, I find it odd that a person’s thanks offered to God (either in an interview or by way of a gesture after scoring a try) should be classified as “shoving religious beliefs down other people’s throats.” Indeed a comment in an interview with a third party (not addressed to Rattue in any way) seems far less objectionable than his demand addressed to religious rugby players that they cease from expressing their Christian faith. His response seems to me to be rather more arrogant.

I can’t help thinking of some of the overtly Christian sportspeople who have gained the respect of all sorts of people because of their skill and devotion to their sport. Eric Liddell comes to mind immediately. He famously said “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Other more recent examples include Michael Jones, Keven Mealamu and Brad Thorne; to name just a few. Such people might find Rattue’s outburst objectionable. Michael Jones is a case in point. He may not have pointed his finger to the sky after scoring a try, maybe even after that memorable try in the first World Cup final, and he may not have told an interviewer that he was thanking the Lord for a victory, but his expression of religious devotion was overwhelmingly public when he refused to play on Sunday – and he was widely respected everywhere rugby was played for that stand. God made Michael Jones the best flanker of his day, and I am sure God was pleased when he excelled in his sport.

But what really gets to me is that Rattue’s (lack of) Christian belief (I am sure he is taking a dig at Christians, since public displays of Islamic or Buddhist religious devotion are quite acceptable and it is not PC to criticise any religion other than Christianity) is OK for publication far and wide in NZ’s largest circulation daily newspaper, while the Christian beliefs of others are to be confined to the private sphere.

This was the subject of Andrew Bradstock’s article in the April 2014 issue of Stimulus, and it repays a careful read (it is available online at https://www.laidlaw.ac.nz/stimulus/april-2014). As Bradstock says (on a different but related topic), “[i]t is a matter of simple justice that the ‘religious’ should not be the only contributors to public discussion required to translate what they say, to behave as if they were ‘agnostic’ about their beliefs” (p. 9). In terms of the present discussion is it not also a matter of simple justice that a deeply religious Christian rugby player should be required to conceal his beliefs and his devotion, while a person who appears at least on the face of it to be deeply irreligious, can publish his unbelief in a daily newspaper and, indeed, ram it down the throats of the Christian rugby players?

I think the discussion is really about that most intolerant of virtues, tolerance. Unfortunately, for some people tolerance only operates in one direction. To quote Bradstock again, “one finds in the media, hostility, or at best indifference, toward religion.” This is a case in point. And the media can get away with this intolerant hostility, while the accused rugby players have no right of reply.

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