Scott Morrison has made a good start to his prime ministership. He has gone some way to rallying his divided and dispirited troops, and he has shown a realization that the Liberal party’s place on the values spectrum is centre-right, not centre-left.
But there is one thing that jars about who he is and what he stands for: his membership of the Pentecostalist religious sect, and its espousing of an exclusivist, charismatic brand of evangelical Christianity.
Morrison is the first prime minister not to be at least nominally a Catholic or a mainline Protestant. His rousing, evangelical sermon to his hand-picked Liberal audience in Albury last week drew on the glory-hallelujah televangelist traditions of amphitheatre churches like his own Horizon Church in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney and the preaching industry that is Hillsong.
The prime minister isn’t afraid of showing that his faith will be part of his leadership style. Talking about the impacts of drought in Albury, Morrison exhorted, ‘I pray for that rain everywhere else around the country. And I do pray for that rain. I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers. Please do that’.
It is good that Morrison has a strong and sincere personal belief system, but it is still worrying that he is an enthusiastic part of an evangelical movement that is not mainstream, believes its members are special of God, and essentially denies that anyone not ‘born again’ are Christians. That presumption in itself excludes the great bulk of his own party room, let alone the mainstream Liberal membership and supporter base – although in states including Victoria, the push is on to recruit more Liberal members from fundamentalist churches, which means in time their growth in numbers and influence will ensure their prevailing non-mainstream social and moral views may become the party’s prevailing views.
If it is to stay relevant in the darker days that, if Newspoll is right, soon will be coming, the Liberal party must stay firmly in the centre-right, and be generally secular conservative in its social and moral values but not puritanical and intolerant. A religious movement that is the latter-day descendant of the puritanism that ripped Europe part in the Wars of Religion, Pentecostalism has a Calvinist view of its own members’ elect status and a traditional suspicion of mainstream Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and largely disapproves mainstream community views on moral issues such as abortion and marriage. That is not necessarily a good thing for the country.
There is nothing wrong in our political leaders having strong religious beliefs and trying to live by them. But ours is a secular state. Most of us don’t wear our religion and our moral beliefs on our sleeves, and thanks to the Founding Fathers’ foresight we have no established church in Australia. The religious sectarianism of the last century mostly has given way to not only tolerance between Christian churches, but tolerance of non-Christian faiths as well. This ‘live and let live’ approach to religion is a very good thing, and in itself has become a bedrock community value.
As he settles into his new role, Scott Morrison would do well to consider the precedent of Tony Abbott. He may be a self-described, ‘Captain Catholic’, but Abbott as a minister and party leader was never in your face about his religion and moral views. As health minister, it was he who supported free parliamentary votes on embryonic stem cell research and removing the ban on abortifacient drug RU486. And lately, it was he who opposed gay marriage but still celebrated the wedding of his sister to her female partner for which his own plebiscite policy paved the way. Unlike the great Pharisee, Kevin Rudd, Abbott showed a leader can be religious yet not impose his personal views on others in discharging his secular office.
To reassure the doubters that he will be a secular leader in a secular Australia, Morrison should find an early opportunity to deliver a speech like that John F Kennedy gave to protestant ministers to address fears about his Catholicism in the 1960 presidential election campaign. Kennedy famously declared, ‘I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all’. Good words for any political leader in a secular democracy to live by.
If Morrison does that quickly, he is more likely to achieve success in the painful but necessary process of bringing the Liberal party back to the mainstream but secular centre-right after the Turnbull years. Indeed, that transition itself will be a test of how well he can reconcile the outlook of his own faith with the more low-key moral religiosity of the wider Australian community and, indeed, reassure the nearly one-third of Australians who now declare they have no religion at all.
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