Last week I argued in an Irish Times column that political, or civic, secularism is a good thing for the Church and for society at large.
Doctrinal secularism refers to the desire to eradicate religion from the public sphere altogether. Political secularism, however, refers to the ideal of the separation of Church and State. By this definition, secularism refers to a society where religion is afforded no special privileges, but nor is it subjected to any special restrictions or penalties. In this understanding of secularism, the religious should have the same rights and opportunities as would similarly-sized groups of vegetarians, atheists, or any other voluntary associations. History demonstrates that Evangelical Christianity thrives in societies where there is freedom for all and a level playing field.
FIFA, the governing body of world football, has in recent days become a by-word for crass corruption, arrogance and incompetence. Now they have demonstrated an appalling inability to understand free speech and how secular society operates.
Neymar, the Brazilian striker, together with Luis Suarez and Leo Messi, is one of Barcelona’s celebrated trio of goalscorers. He was one of the nominees at FIFA’s prestigious Ballon d’Or ceremony in January. As reported by the Spanish Evangelical Alliance’s excellent Evangelical Focus news service, a video of Neymar, celebrating winning the Champions’ League, was censored, airbrushing out a “100% Jesus” slogan from his headband.
So why did FIFA think that a reference to Jesus was unsuitable for public consumption? The answer lies in their Code of Ethics which says people linked to the organisation, “may not offend the dignity or integrity of a country, private person or group of people through contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason.”
So how does Neymar stating that he is a Christian offend anyone’s dignity or integrity? How can saying you are 100% for Jesus ever, even in the craziest of worldviews, be seen as contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory?
If an athlete identifies as a man then does that offend the integrity of women? Does the display of one’s national flag mean you are contemptuous towards other nationalities? When Arsenal’s Chilean forward, Alexis Sanchez, speaks of coming from a background of grinding poverty then has he offended the dignity of rich people? If an athlete comes out as being gay then is that seen as denigratory towards heterosexual athletes? Of course not! The whole point of such a non-discrimination clause in a Code of Ethics is to ensure that the participants in a sport can be seen to come from a wide range of races, colours, nationalities, genders and religions. The aim is not to pretend that we are all the same, but rather that we celebrate our differences.
So why was Neymar singled out for censorship? It demonstrates that FIFA have totally failed to understand a basic principle of living in a modern secular society. Religion should not be accorded special privileges, but neither should it be subject to special restrictions! FIFA are, in essence, treating the expression of religion (a basic human right) as a special case that is somehow dangerous or insulting to others.
We don’t want religion to be given a privileged place in sport. We don’t ask that a priest or an imam conducts prayers in the centre-circle at the Emirates Stadium before kick-off! But neither should a player’s statement of religious belief be airbrushed out of history.