Opinion

Tanya Levin
What Scott Morrison’s faith means

On Tuesday night, Australia’s prime minister was praying for some “very important things”. He began to pray “for all of those veterans in our country who are doing it tough”, asking for protection and “peace over them”. His prayer continued: “We proclaim it with veterans. We proclaim it with young people. We proclaim it with people of middle age going through difficult trials, people suffering from mental health, we pray for remote Indigenous communities … [for] your blessing over those communities and we pray, Lord, that you will break the curse of suicide in this nation. And Lord, we pray for all those families and all those people in this nation who live with disabilities – physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities – and we pray for their families and we just pray that you’ll give them peace and an avalanche of love. Lord, we pray for our country and we thank you for it, but more than anything else, we thank you for Jesus and his love and we pray that his love will be shown through your church forever more. Amen.”

This was not a private prayer. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, were standing before 21,000 delegates from around the world at Hillsong’s yearly conference in Sydney. Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston was close by. Morrison tapped him warmly on the elbow, and said, “I’ve got one more thing to pray for. I want to pray for the drought. This Sunday, churches are going to gather and pray for drought. Lord, we just pray for rain. That the rain will fall on this nation and Lord that you’ll restore those communities and that you will see a prosperity in this nation from the rain you will bring. We pray for it and we honour you in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Morrison told the pastor beside him: “A miracle is what the world can’t see but God can see.” He told believers in the room, “My job is the same as yours: love God, love people.”

Morrison has never hidden what he believes in, but the only reason this prayer came to light is because an audience member filmed it. Morrison has repeatedly dismissed ideas that his faith influences his politics, but it was clear from the prayers on Tuesday that his church is the only influence that matters.

Contrary to popular murmurs, Morrison is not a Hillsonger. Hillsong distanced itself from Morrison the previous time he spoke there in 2014, causing divisiveness over his refugee policies. As a former congregant put it: “Hillsong became woke as fuck a few years ago.”

Since Hillsong preaches to a youth demographic, it makes sense for the church to be less conservative and more “seeker-sensitive” – a modern term for avoiding unpleasant topics such as crucifixion and eternal damnation, so as not to alienate newer converts.

Yet Houston spoke openly this week about the fact he talked to Morrison on election night. The prime minister is still close to the man he identified as a mentor in his first speech to parliament. Houston created and presided over the Australian Christian Churches (ACC), an umbrella organisation of more than 1100 Pentecostal churches, which includes Morrison’s Horizon Church. Last year, however, Houston left the ACC to establish Hillsong as its own denomination. Still, his influence on Australian Pentecostals remains as strong as ever, with senior members of Hillsong considering him a modern apostle. Despite being members of the ACC, each church is self-governed, meaning their leaders answer to no one.

Horizon Church’s statement of beliefs links directly to the ACC’s, which outlines the usual born-again Pentecostal ideology. They believe in the Bible as “accurate, authoritative and applicable”, in the Trinity, in healing, in sin, repentance and forgiveness, in water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, that one’s “eternal destination of either Heaven or hell” depends on their response to Christ and that Jesus “is coming back again as He promised”.

As well as this, the ACC believe “God has individually equipped us so that we can successfully achieve His purpose for our lives which is to worship God, fulfil our role in the Church and serve the community in which we live”.

There’s nothing in their entire statement about loving God or loving your neighbour, despite Morrison’s reference to it as everyone’s “job”. Worshipping, to the ACC and Hillsong, is about singing their songs. “Serving the community” is a euphemism for proselytising by way of food hamper.

Perhaps this is why people are confused by Morrison’s Christianity. It has little to do with feeding the hungry or turning cheeks, and everything to do with a “purpose-driven life”, answerable to the church. Morrison isn’t only working for the regular Protestant God. He’s working according to the ethics of the ACC, invented by Brian Houston and his band of pastors.

It was one of Hillsong’s original pastors, Michael Murphy, who first “welcomed” Scott Morrison and his family to what was then the Shirelive church more than a decade ago. Unlike Houston, who espouses political neutrality, Murphy is more pragmatic about any separation of church and state in their religion. He told Eternity News: “My attitude is if I am helping him and Jen to keep focused on why they are doing what they are doing, and their spiritual journey in Christ, then that foundation will form his policy. I know not everyone would agree, but I wouldn’t see my role as inserting influence in policy. Now, as a style of church, we definitely encourage people in the marketplace.”

Despite claiming that his “faith is not a political agenda”, the prime minister’s religious values are evident in his speeches and policies. Scott Morrison talks about his Christianity all the time. Listeners might not be faulted for absorbing his analogies and colloquialisms as metaphors. For Morrison, however, they are facts. The Pentecostal faith does not describe itself in the abstract: a miracle is literally a miracle. His language is full of references to evangelical fundamentalism and the supernatural.

On election night, Morrison opened his speech with, “I’ve always believed in miracles.” He wants you to believe, too, as “friends, friends, friends”, that God gave him victory. He knows there were plenty of factors behind the outcome, but he immediately threw religious convictions into the analysis. Instead of seats won, there were “all the other miracles out there”. If you voted for Morrison, you made the right choice because God is on his side.

Faith, family, church, his public and private roles, are all one for Morrison. When the prime minister described child sexual abuse as “an abomination” during his apology speech to victims, he let evangelicals know that he sees it on par with the other most famous “abomination” preached about in those circles: “to lie with a man as a man lies with a woman”. His abstention from the marriage equality vote was most likely a nod to the seeker-sensitive Pentecostals not to rock that boat or lose that market. The “mantle of leadership” Morrison says he has taken on is a reference to the Old Testament spiritual and physical cloak of responsibility held by kings and prophets. When he says that a job is what “releases people out of poverty” he is using the language of an exorcist as Jesus “released” people from demonic possession.

And poverty, a direct result of idleness, is akin to wickedness for Morrison. Prosperity theology is explicit in its assertion that wealth demonstrates God’s approval. The prime minister believes that “the poor you shall always have with you”. It is understood that if you are not financially successful, you have not tithed enough, prayed enough, or been holy enough. Morrison clings to the Protestant work ethic and prosperity theology underpins his policies on the undeserving poor. “If you have a go, you’ll get a go” is layman’s talk for “if you give to God, you’ll be given back a hundredfold”. Even the National Disability Insurance Scheme has been set up for people to “make a contribution, not take one”.

At other times, like Houston and Hillsong, Morrison’s words are deliberately vague. Speeches that start with pledges to work for “all Australians” wind up being about “those Australians who choose to have a go”. That’s got Hillsong’s “Everyone’s Welcome” all over it. “Everyone” has its exceptions. Even the whole “How good is…” speech has Houston trademarks. Houston detests negativity and negative people. “How good is God?” Houston would tell us. Scott Morrison is doing the same.

Morrison signals his theology throughout his speeches. Talking to journalists about Nauru he told them to “let the scales fall from your eyes”, referring to Paul on the road to Damascus, blind as the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers. He knows he’s in the right. Those who disagree with him and, by extension, God, are the unbelievers who just can’t see it yet. Like the miracles.

He signals his faith when tax cuts are a priority. It proves prosperity theology true. “You get to keep more of what you worked for,” he says, meaning “as a man sows so he shall reap”. With his dogma, you get back more than from an ungodly source. It serves as a reminder to those unwilling to work that they “shall not eat” and may be “put to forced labour”, or Work for the Dole. It’s fine to take the $158 billion in tax cuts from public resources, because he’s prayed for suicide’s curse to be broken and for the host of social and health issues that depend on secular funding.

Morrison believes, as the Pentecostal Church teaches, that no authority is present apart from what God has established, and that means him. His role as prime minister is inextricably entwined with God’s will, which is why he sees so much of what he does, such as announcing the royal commission on disability, as being “above politics”.

“I don’t care about the politics,” he tells the journalists arguing with him about the medivac law, “I don’t care … I’m about keeping Australians safe.”

It is difficult to argue with someone who believes they are superior to the confines of their own arena of debate. It’s a clever move, but it’s also sincere. Morrison doesn’t answer to anyone but his church and his God. The United Nations can’t tell him what to do.

His version of Christianity is about keeping the bad guys out and the good guys pure. In his maiden speech, Morrison attributed “the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness” as traits he has gained from his faith, a word he mentions 13 times, as well as “[recognising] an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil”.

The prime minister believes in a spiritual evil, a real burning hell, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. When he considered moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, it wasn’t for the Jewish community of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, or just as a nod to Trump; it signalled to evangelicals everywhere, who believe that “all of Israel will be saved”, that Morrison is aware of how important Israel is to their end-times beliefs. Jesus is coming back as He promised.

Morrison’s life is his faith. He says the Bible is not a policy handbook, but his every move as prime minister has been informed by it. He is a literalist and he believes his office to be a reward from God. He is the first Pentecostal to lead a nation. What comes next is God’s will.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Hillsong and a prayer". Subscribe here.

Tanya Levin
is a social worker and author of People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong.