In response to the controversy surrounding footballer Israel Folau’s comments that all gay people will go to hell, Lyall Mercer, managing director of Mercer PR, suggested that religious organisations across the country are feeling “attacked” by businesses taking up social causes.
“Christian organisations feel the goalposts have moved since the same sex marriage (SSM) vote and that the right of Christians to express their faith and take a position they believe to be biblical, is under threat,” said Mr Mercer.
“Churches, ministries and faith-based organisations are watching corporate Australia starting to aggressively rally behind causes and issues and threatening to withhold funding, and they see this as an unacceptable attack on religious freedom and the beliefs Christians have held for thousands of years.
“They are fearful that there will soon be pressure on churches to stop teaching some of their traditional doctrines, or threats of funding cuts to Christian schools and charities because they adhere to traditional and mainstream Christian beliefs.”
However, withholding funding is not a one-way street, as evidenced during the same-sex marriage debate last year.
During the campaign, then-Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton suggested those against marriage equality could boycott pro-equality businesses, and the Catholic Church publicly threatened Telstra if the telco giant did not pull back from its public support for the reform.
The comments also overlook that many businesses questioned or withdrew their support of various institutions, religious and otherwise, following the extensive allegations raised by the royal commission into child sex abuse, and not because of religious beliefs themselves.
Add to this that many Australians feel uneasy that religious organisations demand freedom to express and practice their own views, in defiance of public laws, while receiving public funding support in the form of tax-exempt status.
What Mr Mercer did say to which there can be little disagreement, though, is that businesses should be wary of “the polarising effect of social activism”.
Sadly, it seems in today’s society that “agreeing to disagree” no longer exists. Anyone with a different viewpoint is no longer different, but automatically wrong, and deserving of retribution and vilification.
While I personally may disagree with Folau’s comments, I stand by his right to hold them and to state them. Similarly, I think it is wrong to publicly threaten and call for boycotts of people, businesses or organisations simply because they express a difference of opinion or belief.
We have personal choice – if something or someone doesn’t align with our own beliefs, we can choose not to support them. Publicly lambasting them does nothing positive, and merely puts everyone on the defensive.
Of course, thinking life could be such is utterly naive. People are judgemental. Social media has allowed rumours, accusations and even hate speech to spread like wildfire. And it is because of this that Mr Mercer’s comments are so relevant.
Businesses should be wary of the polarising effect, not just of social activism, but of every communication they make. It could be deliberate actions, such as expressing support for marriage equality, or inadvertent oversights, such as retailer H&M’s recent controversy over “racist” advertisements.
However, businesses, unlike religious organisations, are bound by public laws, and as such must not discriminate, regardless of the personal beliefs of the company’s leaders or staff.
As such, perhaps it is better for business and religion to co-exist at arm’s length rather than be intertwined.
After all, I’m a big fan of the saying “the three things you should never discuss at the dinner table are religion, sex and politics” – and surely the same could, and perhaps should, apply in business.