An Australian pastor leading an evangelical church in Iowa has become an unexpected kingmaker in Republican presidential politics. By Elle Hardy.

The Australian pastor swaying US politics

A mean wearing glasses speaks to a crowd with his hands raised.
Pastor Jesse Newman speaks at Eternity Church in Des Moines, Iowa, last month.
Credit: Eternity Church

In late May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis held the first in-person rally of his campaign to lead the Republican Party in the 2024 presidential election. Although a practising Catholic, it was no surprise DeSantis chose to hold the rally in the Pentecostal Eternity Church in Des Moines, Iowa. DeSantis’s narrow path to victory over Donald Trump involves peeling away the evangelical vote from the former president, and a suburban megachurch gave the governor the opportunity to speak to thousands in the state that holds the nation’s first primary. More of a revelation, however, was the man selected to lead the rally in an opening prayer: Jesse Newman, an Australian pastor with an accent as broad as the Nullarbor.

“Lord, I pray for unity in the GOP,” the 40-year-old father of five told the enthusiastic crowd, “that together as we fight against globalism and socialism, and the ideas that morals and virtues are progressive.”

Two days after DeSantis’s visit, Newman was among a group of Iowan pastors invited to meet former president Donald Trump. “I wish I could say it was special,” Newman said of his meeting with the man he labelled America’s greatest ever leader. “All I got to do is shake his hand.”

As DeSantis’s fortunes continue to plummet ahead of the Iowa caucus on January 15 next year, Newman remains among a minority of church leaders standing by the Florida governor. Their backing is vital. In Iowa, Trump has the support of 50 per cent of white evangelical voters, compared with 75 per cent nationwide, according to The New York Times polling. DeSantis is also faring better in the state than the rest of the nation, suggesting his charm offensive is paying dividends.

Newman’s rise from obscurity to the national political stage in his new homeland isn’t something that has sat easily with the preacher. “Man, it’s just so distracting,” he told me from his home in Des Moines. “We’re just tryin’ to run a church … and then there’s this world of news reporters. We didn’t see that comin’.” After initially doing interviews with outlets, including The New York Times, Newman was spooked by the media attention and refused all further requests. But as a “fellow Aussie, lol”, he agreed to speak to The Saturday Paper.

How Newman ended up as a key figure in what promises to be a bitterly fought primary campaign came about by “winging it” – and a fair bit of praying, too. Arriving in the state in 2011 to speak at a youth ministry event, Newman had been quietly struggling with his calling to be a minister. Only turning to the Bible when he needed sermons, he “didn’t really have a relationship of my own with God anymore”. Newman says that after the Holy Spirit led him to feel a connection to this strange new city, he returned home to his wife, Lauren, and two children with a crazy idea to start over in flyover country.

In the past decade, Newman has transformed the small suburban church from a dwindling, indebted congregation of 30 into a thriving megachurch with an espresso bar in the lobby and a membership of 4500. When asked about the secret to his success, Newman says he’s “not wildly smart” but believes in “showing love no matter what”.

Life in Des Moines is a world away from Newman’s difficult childhood in rural Victoria. The third of eight siblings raised by a single dad, he “grew up everywhere”, or, more specifically, wherever his father’s itinerant construction work took him, from “rental to rental” to a caravan park for a time. When Newman was 10, his paternal grandparents were born-again and the family started attending Pentecostal churches wherever they found themselves.

Attending high school in Kyabram, a small town outside Shepparton, Newman says he “wasn’t particularly good at it”. Pressure from family and church friends saw him attend the Bible college connected to Adelaide’s Paradise church, now known as Influencers Church. Despite his theological training, Newman said he never really “took faith seriously” until he became lead pastor at Eternity.

Along the way, he acquired all the affectations of the new breed of Pentecostal preachers, including visible tattoos, baseball caps and trendy stubble. “Love ya heaps”, Newman’s unofficial slogan, is printed on the bottom of Eternity Church letterhead. Delivering sermons in a relatable vernacular, he recently described a conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis as “what are you talking about, bro?”

On social media, Newman opines frequently about politics and culture. Agreeing with a Facebook commenter that “getting and being rich is not a sin”, he replied, “Nothing wrong with being rich at all”. Newman dabbles in the usual conservative talking points about guns and abortion, but also frequently sets his sights on gay and gender issues. “Oddly enough the Trans movement has made me something of a feminist,” he tweeted in July. More recently, he posted that rainbow-affirming churches were “false prophets” and that “the ideologies they teach will lead people to hell”.

This public bombast is at odds with a man who is deprecating to the point of bashfulness in private. “I don’t wanna come across like I think I’m important,” he said in a voice that runs hoarse after giving sermons on Saturday night and twice on Sunday morning. Palpably uncomfortable speaking about himself, he lists names of other Australian Pentecostal pastors in the United States, suggesting I interview someone with a bigger congregation. Detailing a long history of doubts about his faith, he admits that, as a younger man, he wanted the title of the pastor more than the calling to minister, not “wanting to live for the Lord” so much as “enjoying the benefits”.

It’s a parable straight from the book of Brian Houston, the Hillsong founder who launched the careers of many Australian Pentecostal pastors overseas before he fell from grace at home. While Newman did not come up under Houston’s tutelage, his church was at one point a member of the Hillsong Leadership Network. In March 2020, Newman declared on Facebook that “Hillsong has been a great friend of Eternity Church”. In the intervening, scandal-plagued period of Hillsong, Newman said he can’t remember when, or if, they actually left the umbrella group. Either way, “I don’t want to be part of it,” he said, “because I don’t like the way they treated Brian”.

“Your a legend mate!” Newman tweeted to Houston in February this year, as the Hillsong founder was awaiting the verdict of his trial, in which he was ultimately acquitted on charges of concealing his father’s paedophilia. On Twitter at least, Houston has never returned the faith. While Newman believes the Hillsong founder “made some dumb decisions”, he isn’t happy with the way he was ousted from the church he founded. “We should still be kind and gracious to people,” he says.

Departing from these values himself, however, has helped Eternity bloom. About five years ago, Newman dispensed with the Hillsong model for “doing church”, which holds that commercially minded pastors should create a broad church and avoid ruffling political feathers. As the Trump era ushered in increasing political polarisation in the US, Newman decided to remove the shackles and become more outspoken about his conservative beliefs. The shutdown of churches during Covid only sent him further to the right, and he’s been overtly political since – a decision he said had been vindicated in both “bums in seats” and increasing donations to the church.

Despite his newfound bravado, endorsing Ron DeSantis is something Newman says he’ll be doing from social media, rather than the pulpit. Of Donald Trump, Newman says he still has “issues and frustrations” with the Covid lockdowns that occurred during a Republican presidency, even though many restrictions were introduced by state governors. “With Ron DeSantis I get most of the same policies, without some of the nastiness,” he said of the governor who has gone to war against Disney, librarians, schoolteachers and the queer community, to name a few. “We could probably do this a little nicer.”

As a proud “Christian Nationalist”, Newman has bought into DeSantis’s “war on woke”. Taking up the mantle of preacher-in-chief, DeSantis has done so in expressly evangelical terms. His standard stump speech promises to “put on the full armour of God”, speaking to the Pentecostal doctrine of “spiritual warfare” against demonic forces intervening in our daily lives. It’s part of a wider shift in evangelical thinking, where the narrative has moved from salvation to conquest. “People aren’t coming to church to be told, ‘Do whatever you want,’ ” Newman said. “They’re coming because they want to know a better way, to live by a code.”

People who come to Newman’s church are “either going to hate it on day one or be intrigued and want to stay”.

For a preacher whose personal faith journey has often been in reverse, speaking about political certainties and spiritual doubts is all part of helping people to live a better life, he says. He should know: it’s taken the Aussie country kid who never felt at home anywhere into the warm embrace of the most powerful people in America.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "The candidate whisperer".

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