COMMENT:

It seems oddly appropriate that the trial of Bible-bashing footie star Israel Folau before the high priests of Aussie rugby will kick off as the Easter holidays draw to a close.

The Jesus trial, 2000 years ago, was as much about politics as theology. God knows what the Folau carry-on is all about. Sure, Folau's hit list of sinners doomed for hell sparked it off. But just as importantly, one suspects, was the coded message from Qantas and other financial backers of the sport, that lucrative sponsorship deals were in jeopardy if he was not muzzled — or worse.

If only, the Aussie rugby bosses must be muttering, Folau had followed the example of All Black captain Kieran Read and restricted his religious activities to beaming out a full-page Salvation Army advertisement, backing the Sallies' annual Red Shield charity fund-raising campaign.

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Yet it's not as though Folau's hidden his views in the past. In the past year alone he's pumped out 43 warnings to his 313,000 Instagram followers advising, with, he insists, love in his heart, that sinners — gays, fornicators, criminals, idolators, liars, atheists, drunks etc — are doomed to a fiery fate unless they repent.

Joining in the fracas on this side of the Tasman is Green co-leader Marama Davidson, who is pushing for his "bigoted" comments to be labelled "hate speech" and be included in proposed anti-hate legislation.

This talk of anti-hate speech legislation to outlaw the "word of God" flushed out Destiny Church Bishop Brian Tamaki, who declared "this will be war if you call the Bible hate speech when any verse in it is quoted." He told the Herald the Bible was the word of God "and we will not accept it being censored in any way".

As a non-believer for as long back as I can recall, I agree with the Bishop for once. To my way of thinking, the more often Folau and Tamaki publicise their fire and brimstone fundamentalism, the quicker their brand of religion will be laughed out of existence.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Christian diaspora, church leaders seem to be keeping their heads down and, like Qantas and the rugby bosses, anxiously trying to tend to their sagging brand appeal.

When I saw the All Blacks captain beaming out of the advert, I initially thought the association unwise, given the Folau furore and the Sallies having opposed homosexual law reform in the mid-80s.

But it seems the Sallies have changed their tune, publicly apologising in 2011 for the hurt they caused during the homosexual law-reform debate. Now, like a growing number of churches, they seem to be trying to discard the fundy image, throwing the Bible open to all sorts of interpretation. Even the existence of hell and heaven, and what they are, seems up for grabs.

It's the churches' rearguard action to give the Christian brand a makeover and arrest the exodus out. It hasn't worked, in this country anyway. Between the 1996 and the 2013 Censuses, those ticking the "no religion" box jumped from 25.5 per cent to 41.5 per cent. In the same period, those claiming to be Christian fell from 63 per cent to 49.1 per cent. In 1956, more than 90 per cent claimed to be Christian.

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The 2018 Census was expected to reveal a further decline in religious belief. But with that exercise a fiasco, with one in seven New Zealanders failing to complete a Census form, we won't really know, even when the results do trickle out. No doubt the decline will have continued.

Meanwhile, on the fringes are the likes of Tamaki and Folau. To me, the wise course is to leave them to their own devices. Cut out the free publicity. I'm amazed at the attention this current furore is attracting.

But dumping Folau, and trying to ban their antique views by way of newly minted hate laws not only threatens our free-speech tradition. It also risks creating new Christian martyrs complete with the fame and attention they crave.