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The South Australian Liberal Party has frozen new memberships after an apparent Pentecostal takeover, but the move speaks to a vulnerability both feared and exploited in conservative politics. By Mike Seccombe.

How the religious right is trying to take over the Liberal Party

Rob Norman, senior pastor of Southland Church in Adelaide, delivers a sermon last Sunday.
Credit: Vimeo

In these times of declining involvement by the citizenry in politics, you might think a party whose membership had increased 10 per cent in a matter of months would have cause for celebration. Yet that very situation is tearing apart the South Australian Liberals.

A couple of case studies from this past month show why. First was the annual general meeting of the electorate conference for the state seat of Elder on May 30, at which the incumbent president was defeated by a political novice. In a complaint to the party’s state executive, her opponents claimed the new president, Belinda Crawford-Marshall, had been a member for only three months.

Crawford-Marshall is a Pentecostal pastor who, according to her Field of Dreams church website, “delights in partnering with the Holy Spirit” and “is also passionate about seeing the Church engage in government”.

Last Sunday, at the annual general meeting in another state seat, Badcoe, the same thing happened: the incumbent president was ousted in favour of a member with little prior political experience but with strong conservative religious connections.

Faith Brohier, whose father is the state director of the Australian Christian Lobby, gave a speech so heavy with references to her faith that one of those present told The Saturday Paper, “I didn’t feel like a Christian anymore, because I’m only an Anglican.”

The religious right is on the march in South Australia, literally putting the fear of God into party moderates.

Since the start of this year, the membership of the party has grown by more than 500, with most of the new joiners coming from the state’s Pentecostal churches.

So troubled is the party hierarchy that earlier this month it demanded some 400 aspiring members sign statutory declarations pledging support to the party constitution and its candidates. The party’s concern was founded on suggestions the new members were intent on supplanting party candidates and officials with people of like faith to prevent or reverse progressive social and economic policy.

In the face of protest from the party’s right wing, the statutory declaration demand was dropped. But last week the party’s state president, Legh Davis, announced a pause on new memberships. They will not begin again until the conclusion of an inquiry into “serious allegations which, if proven, may amount to material breaches of the party’s constitution”.

Regardless of the outcome of that investigation, the intentions of the religious right is clear. They are obvious to anyone who goes to the website of Southland Church and views a series of sermons given and recorded this month by senior pastor Rob Norman, the man credited with being a main organising force for Pentecostalism in politics.

One sermon emphasises the “persecution” of believers – a common theme among religious conservatives – and critiques those who do not wear their faith courageously enough. A second focuses on power: “A church without power is a church without God.”

In a third sermon, published on June  1, titled “Christians and Politics”, Norman acknowledges: “Whenever there is an intersection between faith and politics, people tend to get a bit anxious, and arguments abound around the historical problems of Christendom and the principles of Separation of Church and State.”

“It might shock you,” he continues, “but the Christian call to politics is fundamental to the great Commission.”

In his 30-minute sermon he calls for congregants to take on the “mission” – to get active in party politics and use their numbers to influence policy and the selection of candidates. Norman celebrates the outcome of the May 2019 federal election, and the man who led the Coalition to its narrow victory.

During the campaign, he says, a “massive leftist attack” was mounted against Scott Morrison, prompted by the fact “all of a sudden we had a prime minister who was an overt Christian, who expressed his faith in similar ways to what we did this morning. And so we saw images of Scott Morrison with his eyes closed, hands raised, worshipping Jesus.”

The fact that Morrison, a man who is “right out there” in expressing his Pentecostal faith, defied the attacks and won, Norman says, goes to show that Australians are not as “bent out of shape” about the mixing of politics and religion as is widely believed.

In his sermon, Norman gave a one-sentence disclaimer, saying his church was nonpartisan. Liberal opponents challenge that claim, asking why hundreds of Pentecostals are piling into their party rather than the other side. And why are conservative Liberals being invited to speak to his members?

 

As first reported by the Adelaide news site InDaily only a few weeks ago, three right-wing state MPs and a federal senator, Alex Antic, attended a Pentecostal service that was live streamed on Facebook. The video shows one of the state members, Environment Minister David Speirs, criticising his more progressive party colleagues and telling the congregation to “forget” the concept of the separation of church and state.

The rift deepened at last weekend’s state council meeting. Tony Pasin – one of three federal members seen to be involved in the religious right insurgency – was booed and heckled when he spoke. So was Antic and the member for Boothby, Nicolle Flint.

Last week, in the federal party room, conservatives were demanding immediate intervention in the state branch on behalf of the suspended members, claiming a “power grab” by moderates.

The response from the moderates’ senior member from South Australia, Senator Simon Birmingham, was that the audit of the membership of hundreds of people linked to the churches was “prudent” in light of evidence they were planning to campaign against endorsed candidates.

Both sides claimed the disunity could see the Liberal Party lose Boothby, the most marginal Liberal seat in the state. Flint is retiring at the next election and a moderate, Rachel Swift, won a bitter preselection battle to replace her. The subsequent installation of the two new religious right-wingers as presidents of the Elder and Badcoe branches, both of which fall within Boothby, is seen by moderates as payback for selecting Swift and as evidence of a plot to white-ant her.

But the real issue here is much bigger than what has happened in Elder, or Badcoe, or Boothby. The questions is, why has this all blown up now?

The proximate cause, says Dr Rob Manwaring, senior lecturer in politics and policy at Flinders University, is a couple of recent changes to legislation by the South Australian Liberal government.

“One is the decriminalisation of abortion,” he says. “That legislation went through about a month or so ago. It was really significant because we were the last state to have it in the criminal code.

“Even more recently, last week, the house passed legislation introducing a form of assisted suicide or euthanasia in the state. Again, it’s a red rag to the conservative base.”

The voluntary assisted dying legislation has subsequently passed through both houses. Beyond that, Manwaring says, the party’s right wing also has suffered a decline in influence, partly due to its own misbehaviour, having been caught up in scandal over the misuse of expenses, “which took out three cabinet ministers and the president of the state council”.

The right has become “inflamed” by its own sense of powerlessness, he says, and members of the right agree.

“There’s not one conservative within the state cabinet,” one right-wing state Liberal tells The Saturday Paper. “And that’s a real issue. Conservatives feel incredibly marginalised and essentially oppressed by the dominant moderates.”

While social issues such as abortion and euthanasia encourage new members to join, the right’s frustration is far broader, relating to several economic reforms in areas such as mining, property tax, licensing fees and others.

“So,” Manwaring says, “they are trying to reinvigorate the conservative base,  particularly through the Pentecostal churches – and tapping directly into having Morrison as the prime minister.”

In so doing, they are showing again the vulnerability of Australia’s shrunken political parties, whose memberships have become so tiny that relatively small numbers of people can join a party branch and significantly influence political outcomes.

John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University, says the trick is to “get hold of a unified group with good networks, tightly knit”.

Conservative religious groups, he says, “have all those qualities, which enable you quickly to round them up and get them into branches. They’re organised. They’re joiners. They’ve got money. And the conservatives feel embattled, too – which is strange, given that they’ve got the prime minister on their side.”

 

It’s not only the prime minister. The parliamentary ranks of the Coalition parties are heavy with religious conservatives. The core group around Morrison – Alex Hawke, the PM’s factional fixer in New South Wales; Queenslander Stuart Robert, who Morrison calls “Brother Stuie”; and Western Australian Steve Irons – are bound by shared faith and pray together regularly.

Together they planned Morrison’s takeover of the prime ministership. Indeed, as long-time Canberra journalist and former Liberal staffer Niki Savva revealed in her book about Morrison’s ascension, Plots and Prayers, the last thing he did before he went to the party meeting that voted him leader was pray with Robert “that righteousness would exalt the nation”.

In Canberra, if not yet South Australia, it’s not the religious conservatives who are embattled; it’s the shrinking number of moderates.

So where is the religious left in politics? It exists in the community, but not in the parliament.

Says Warhurst: “They are out there, active. You see them at Palm Sunday rallies and a range of other things. I think that they probably are more active in the community in, let’s call them, secular organisations. They’re spread out through councils of social services and other organisations.”

He can offer no further explanation, though, of why they are not more overtly involved in politics.

Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University, widely held to be the leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics in Australia, has an explanation. It involves Pastor Norman’s observation that Australians no longer seem to get as “bent out of shape” about the mixing of politics and religion as they once did.

Why does it go so little remarked that the country is led by a man who surreptitiously “lays hands” on constituents and literally believes in miracles, who says divine intervention installed him as prime minister, after giving him a “sign” on the campaign trail, and who attempted to take his prosperity gospel “mentor” with him to visit Donald Trump?

“The reason it doesn’t seem like such a big deal now,” Maddox says, “is because Howard and Costello normalised it … way back in the 1990s.”

It was, she says, a careful strategy by John Howard and, to a lesser extent his treasurer, Peter Costello, to cultivate conservative churches and marginalise progressive ones.

“They, particularly Howard, perceived that what are often called the mainline churches, like the Anglicans, Uniting Church and the Catholics, were at that time very strong critics of significant aspects of Howard’s program – on human rights, on environment, on economic issues, on Indigenous rights.”

So Howard went about addressing the problem by leaning on the leaders of the mainstream churches to “keep their noses out of politics and get back in their box”. Maddox says he did this by “binding them to compliance” through gag clauses inserted in government funding arrangements with religiously based welfare agencies.

“And the third prong was to cultivate the more neoliberalism-friendly strands of the Christian family – the Pentecostal tradition particularly – that were more open to the message of individual aspiration and less interested in looking for structural causes of inequality and injustice.”

There is one more aspect of the story, Maddox says: religion itself has evolved in the quarter-century since Howard and Costello started courting the Hillsong crowd, and Pentecostalism has been a key beneficiary.

“The Pentecostal traditions are the ones that are growing,” she says, and their growth has led even some mainstream churches to draw on “aspects of Pentecostal ecclesiology and Pentecostal worship”.

In religion as in other businesses, it seems, competition for market share has driven change. The logo atop the home page for Norman’s Adelaide Church reads: “Southland Church. In the marketplace.”

Perhaps Australian society has grown more accepting of the prosperity gospel that underpins Pentecostalism and holds that virtue is rewarded not in the afterlife but through wealth in this life. Even as economic inequality has increased over the past decade, donations to charity have fallen. Morrison’s mantra of aspiration, that “if you have a go, you get a go”, certainly seems to have served him well. But at what point does aligning the party with the religious right become an electoral liability?

Such considerations are weighing on moderate minds in South Australia. Several of those who spoke to The Saturday Paper this week referenced what has happened to the Republican Party in the United States, where conservative Christians, Pentecostals in particular, have moved the party radically to the right, opening up fertile ground for conspiracists such as QAnon and leaders such as Donald Trump.

Some raised the situation in other Australian states, where there were attempts to recruit large numbers of religious conservatives to party ranks.

“Western Australia has been a train wreck,” said one, who followed up with a dossier of newspaper clippings documenting the takeover of WA branches by a couple of Pentecostal churches. She noted how attempts by the Victorian right to stack in members of conservative religions – in that case, Mormons along with various minor ethnically based congregations – “blew up” the party and resulted in the expulsion of 150 members.

Another member of several decades’ standing was so angry their voice shook: “This is not the party I joined. I joined Menzies’ party, which said, we will march down the middle of the road.”

They added: “And now there is this great push to drag us so far to the right, we won’t recognise ourselves.”

Well, not if the religious right can help it. That’s the whole point.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "How the religious right is trying to take over the Liberal Party".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.