Reading Time: 4 minutes

Andrew Thorburn resigned as CEO of the Essendon football team in Australia less than 24 hours after taking on the new job due to widespread backlash over his other job: chairing a Christian church that promotes anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion views. Those bigoted ideas stood in stark contrast to the more progressive values of the football club, and Thorburn couldn’t convince the public he had their best interests at heart.

Thorburn is the chairman of the all-male City on a Hill board. The church movement holds standard (and predictably hateful) conservative Christian views on cultural matters. It believes homosexuality is a sin, which is evident through a 2013 sermon titled, “Surviving Same Sex Attraction as a Christian.” It also says abortion is comparable to “concentration camps” during the Holocaust.

Even though Thorburn became the church’s board chairman after those sermons were delivered, and even though he’s not personally known for repeating those views, no one’s buying the idea that he’s oblivious to them. Of course he believes this shit. At no point has he ever said those views are wrong, and why would he? He can’t seriously act surprised when the conservative Christian church movement he leads is revealed to hold all the hateful views we’ve all come to associate with conservative Christian churches.

On the other hand, the Essendon Football Club (a.k.a. The Bombers), part of the Australian Football League, says it’s a “safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club for our staff, our players, our members, our fans, our partners and the wider community.” They can’t say that with a straight face when giving a promotion to someone whose church opposes those values.

While the club had no problem appointing a Christian to a leadership position, they couldn’t expect fans to continue supporting them when the guy in charge is on a mission to spread faith-based bigotry.

So yesterday, Thorburn announced that he would step down from his new role. He naturally pretended to be a victim of religious discrimination:

“Yesterday was one of the proudest days of my life. To be offered the role of CEO of the Essendon Football Club – who I have followed since I was a boy – was a profound honour,” Thorburn wrote.

“However, today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. People should be able to hold different views on complex personal and moral matters, and be able to live and work together, even with those differences, and always with respect. Behaviour is the key. This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society.

“Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced, the media and leaders of our community had spoken. They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a Church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.

He’s lying. No one cared about his faith. No one cared that he held a leadership position in a church. They cared that the religion he celebrates believes women should be forced to give birth against their will, that being gay or lesbian is a problem, that being trans isn’t even a thing, and a whole host of other potential ethical problems. It’s not the Christianity; it’s what that Christianity means to him.

It’s easy for Thorburn to act like he simply holds a difference of opinion because he’s not personally affected by his church’s cruelty. This isn’t about raising taxes. This is about people’s lives and their civil rights, something his church clearly doesn’t give a damn about. If Thorburn promoted racism the way his church so casually promotes other kinds of bigotry, maybe this would be more obvious to him. It’s telling, though, that Thorburn didn’t think his church’s beliefs would have any affect on his ability to do a job outside the church. The fact that he believed he’d be welcome with open arms despite his hateful beliefs just shows you how insulated some conservative Christians can be.

It’s also a business decision for the football team. There’s no good reason to hire someone who will automatically alienate some of the team’s biggest fans before making a single decision about the team itself.

For example, one local politician (not a powerful one, for what it’s worth) even said he was resigning his family’s membership from the team, saying Thorburn’s appointment was “spitting in the face of every queer Essendon member.”

He later added that “the issue isn’t Christianity. It’s bigotry.”

After Thorburn resigned, that same politician was right back to supporting the team:

Tim Baxter wasn’t responsible for Thorburn’s resignation, but his statements are indicative of what so many others were feeling. When your favorite team, in any sport, becomes known for its bigotry off the field than the players on the field, there’s bound to be a problem. We’ve seen similar kinds of backlash in the United States with former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and former Las Vegas Raiders Coach Jon Gruden.

Had Thorburn remained in his position, the team’s reputation would have taken a permanent hit. The fear wasn’t that he would discriminate against gay athletes, something Thorburn insisted he wouldn’t do, but rather that elevating someone like him would normalize those hateful views. His hiring sent a message to LGBTQ people and women that their rights were an afterthought to the team’s leadership.

The pressure for Thorburn to resign wasn’t an act of religious discrimination, as some conservative critics are alleging. In a role where there’s no shortage of qualified applicants, there’s just no reason to select someone whose religion celebrates the oppression of others. (For what it’s worth, plenty of Christian schools have fired coaches who were in same-sex relationships. The same critics never say the schools just need to be more tolerant.)

Thorburn has every right to hold whatever views he wants. He doesn’t have a right to be rewarded for it or avoid the consequences of his church’s hate. He had every opportunity to set the record straight about his own beliefs regarding homosexuality and abortion rights if he disagreed with the church’s positions. His refusal to reject those stances made it clear he’s not truly bothered by them.

The team can do much better than Thorburn. His church, however, can keep him.

Avatar photo

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.