I have been barracks for the Essendon football team since I was young. Among my childhood memorabilia is a collection of football cards featuring the champion players of the day – Barry Davis, Russell Blew, Jack Clarke and Ken Fraser. I continued to follow the Bombers over the decades, through years of victory and periods of defeat – including through the so-called “supplement saga”.
Australians have adopted football players from all walks of life, ethnicities and faiths. Like the millions of others who follow the game, I am interested in the skills of the players and their values of courage, perseverance, sportsmanship and humility. This latter quality often seems lost in the modern game, but football fans still respect players who are not only skillful, but modest. Watch the reception of newly retired Geelong captain, Joel Selwood after this year’s Grand Final.
When Sir Donald Bradman was inducted as the first member of the Sports Australia Hall of Fame, he said: “When considering the stature of an athlete, or for that matter any person, I attach great importance to certain qualities, which, in my opinion, are essential in addition to know-how. They are that the person leads his life with dignity, with integrity and above all with modesty. These are completely compatible with pride, l ambition and the will to compete. I like to see people with personality and character, but I totally hate the philosophy of those misguided people who think that arrogance is a virtue. It is only supported by the public – not appreciated.
How many of us who – reluctantly – continue to cheer on Nick Kyrios, wish he would grow up and show greater sportsmanship and humility?
Essendon’s recent treatment of its newly selected CEO Andrew Thorburn by the club’s board reveals a new ugliness in Australian society. Indeed, Thorburn was sacked because he retained a governance role in a Christian church, whose pastor had made statements supporting Orthodox Christian views on abortion and marriage in a 2013 sermon found on the site. Church website. There are hundreds of sermons and resources on the website – many of which are podcasts that would require hours of listening to find the passages in question. Either the sportswriter who wrote the original story – or more likely someone else – scoured these resources to find the few sentences complained of. Mr. Thorburn has received an ultimatum from the club: leave your church or lose your job. Where was due process, let alone respect for freedom of association and religion? Despite his religious affiliations, Thorburn had run a major bank that had supported diversity programs, including the AFL’s “Pride” matches.
Instead, the Essendon board effectively sacked Thorburn. The explanation given was appalling: ‘I want to stress that neither the board nor Andrew were aware of the comments from the 2013 sermon until we read them this morning,’ the club chairman said , David Barham. The president admitted that it would have been illegal to ask Thorburn about his religious views before employing him, but acted once he later learned of the sermons. Apparently these religious views had not stopped Mr Thorburn from leading the external review of the club’s football department, including the search for a new chief executive!
Bigotry was rampant in Australia a century ago. I remember my father, born in 1911, telling me about the fights between Catholic and Protestant school children in the small country town when he was growing up. It was an attitude that my parents – one Catholic, the other Anglican – had rejected when they married in 1949. Their union encountered opposition from their respective families. As children, we were raised to judge people by their character and actions, not by their religious, ethnic or other beliefs. Bigotry never completely disappeared, but it declined significantly after World War II. Unfortunately, it has reappeared over the past decade, partly as a result of neo-Marxist influence in our education system, which has now spread to most levels of the public, professional and corporate sectors. The so-called “reveilleism” exposes the new intolerance. It’s no surprise that this culture has spread to big sport, including the AFL, as the governing bodies are filled with executives from companies where the culture is prevalent. The “diversity” advocated by the AFL is very selective. The Essendon saga blatantly displays a totalitarian drive and a new intolerance, especially towards Christians.
One of the foundations of the plural liberal politics that we have been fortunate enough to inherit is being undermined by the new totalitarians. Three centuries ago, philosophers like John Locke sought to define the limits of political power in relation to beliefs. In his Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689, Locke sought to distinguish the affairs of civil government from those of religion. Writing at a time when controversy surrounded the idea that Catholics should be able to practice their religion in Protestant England, or that Jews or Muslims enjoyed religious freedom in a Christian nation, Locke argued that the state and the Church had distinct functions. He sought to find ways for people of different religious beliefs to live together.
As the late Jonathan Sacks wrote, tolerance “aims not so much for truth but for peace.” It is a political necessity and not a religious imperative, and it arises when people have experienced the alternative: the war of all against all. Hence the political separation of faith and power; of Church and State. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “No one will be compelled to support a religious worship, but everyone will be free to profess their religious opinions”. This separation does not resolve religious differences, including with those who have no religious beliefs. The state permits diversity of opinions, beliefs and practices in the name of national peace and social harmony, not religious preference.
As Sacks warned, “when political liberalism is combined with moral relativism, it reconnects morality and politics, which liberalism is supposed to avoid.” Religious belief is now swept away from the political realm, as evidenced by the gratuitous interventions of the Victorian Prime Minister. Rather than employing rhetoric to unite and heal, the Prime Minister’s words provided balm to the bigoted and intolerant who hide behind their woke agenda; and allowed authoritarian excesses. Why does the Prime Minister’s verdict of guilty by association for Mr. Thorburn not apply equally to himself, who claims to be a Catholic?
I doubt the Essendon board understood what they were getting into when they hastily dispatched Andrew Thorburn; it was rather a thoughtless application of the zeitgeist. His actions demonstrate how the pillar of tolerance has been eroded in Western civilization. This way leads back to the “war of all against all”.