Opinion

James Boyce
Scott Morrison and Pentecostalism

The release of an unauthorised video of the prime minister preaching at his church’s national conference last month has given Australians a glimpse of an unknown man in another world. Here was a leader clearly at home with his people, using mysterious metaphors to encourage fellow believers in a spiritual war in which Satan and the spirit of God are fighting it out for the souls of our nation’s young people.

Even those familiar with traditional church services will not easily understand the nature of Scott Morrison’s fellowship with his scandal-prone but always forgiven cabinet colleague “Brother Stuie” Robert, “a great brother of mine over a long period of time”. Nor may they comprehend the divine healing disguised in a prime ministerial embrace: the fact he has been “in evacuation centres where people thought I was just giving someone a hug and I was praying”.

No one who has heard this sermon – so starkly different from that which might be heard in a suburban congregation or even a traditional evangelical church – can continue to accept the pretence that the prime minister’s Pentecostalism is so conventional it needs no further explanation or is just a private religious matter of no public relevance.

Commentators who have discounted the political significance of Morrison’s faith, because of his ambivalent commitment to narrowly defined “religious issues”, have been shown that the man himself does not do the same. Of course, there never can be a direct connection between the prime minister’s beliefs and government action. Public policy is always determined by a range of influences. Yet how a leader interprets the world and frames experience remains profoundly important.

To see Morrison as an exception to this truth because of his obvious pragmatic bent has been a mistake. The faith expressed in Morrison’s sermon needs to be explored not to mock cultural difference but because it is always important to take seriously what a prime minister believes.

The starting point for understanding Pentecostalism is its distinctive history. Unlike the mainstream Protestant denominations that have their origins in the European Reformation or British evangelicalism, Pentecostalism grew out of the fiery fringes of early 20th-century America. In recent decades, it has grown with extraordinary speed, but its novelty is still such that no other nation in the English-speaking world, with the exception of Zambia, has ever had a Pentecostal leader.

Unlike more familiar versions of the ancient faith, Pentecostalism has been less defined by delineated doctrines than by an intense and unmediated personal encounter with the Divine Spirit, and a never-ending war with the “Evil One”, his own belief in which Morrison has now finally named.

While the Divine can always be directly experienced by the Pentecostal, Satan is equally near and personal. The enemy is always on the prowl, probing a believer’s weakness, exploiting doubt and despair, with much of the “world” his domain. Nevertheless, there is no need to fear, for as long as the believer stays close to God, protection and victory is his. This ongoing spiritual encounter is given gravitas by the belief that it is part of a larger cosmic fight between God and the “Enemy”.

In his sermon, Morrison depicted one of the “weapons” of the “Evil One” as social media. Yet like every other form of communication, this is also a “weapon” of God. The fight against Satan is not only focused on Sunday worship; it defines every dimension of life.

It is because of his confidence in the victory won by Christ that Morrison can soar “like an eagle” and see God-given signs that kept him “strong” amid a seemingly hopeless election campaign. By staying faithful, he returned to the “banquet” permanently available to believers.

The dangers that come when individuals forget God is also experienced by nations. Morrison, Bible in hand, reflected with his congregation on a time in Jewish history when its king “did not inquire of the Lord” and a return to obedience was required to save the nation.

The religious calling of every believer thus has, Morrison emphasised, a community dimension. The paradox for the prime minister in appropriating arguments of the late Jonathan Sacks for his claim that a “tribal” identity is a “very evil thing” – saying so to large cheers from his own tribe – would have been as evident to the revered rabbi as it would be to most YouTube viewers.

The seeming contradiction is explained by the fact that, for Morrison, there is always an open door to truth and salvation. The PM made the point that he cannot personally reach out to “each and every Australian” – that is “not my job but yours” – and asked his brothers and sisters to “keep building community in this country”. But what he meant by this is clear from the Biblical passages cited: a society that rejects individuals having any self-identity, except the one bequeathed by God.

The importance of the personal spiritual fight is amplified because it is an integral part of a divinely ordained narrative that will culminate in the return of Christ. While most Australian Pentecostals do not pretend to know exactly when this will occur, it is essential to be prepared as we are already in the End Times. Every believer is “called” to fulfil their role for, as the PM put it in the classic Pentecostal phrase taken from the Book of Esther, “such a time as this”.

This distinctive vision explains Morrison’s relaxed response to the climate emergency. Conviction on global heating depends on how the future is seen: Are the catastrophic predictions of scientists to be taken seriously or not?

A non-negotiable doctrine of the Australian Christian Churches, which has always been central to the Pentecostal tradition, is belief in the “imminent and personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ to gather his people to himself”. As member churches sought a more “seeker friendly” image in recent decades, most placed less emphasis on graphically depicting the end of life as we know it. However, it is clear that the conviction that God is in control of the planet’s future, in a much more immediate and comprehensive way than is understood in mainstream Protestantism, is undiminished. For the Pentecostal, it is effectively a denial of the sovereignty of God to believe that the ultimate fate of creation will be determined by the burning of fossil fuels rather than Christ when he remakes heaven and earth.

It is no coincidence that despite there being nearly 500 million Pentecostals in the world, there is virtually no Pentecostal interest in climate change. All the mainstream Protestant denominations, including evangelical groupings, as well as the Catholic Church, have expressed grave concern about this global emergency. Pentecostal silence is not typically Christian; it is extraordinary.

Pentecostalism’s inherently apocalyptic mindset also means Australians will need to carefully monitor the prime minister’s approach to China. Again, there will be many influences in play, but our leader will be inclined to see international tensions in terms of a larger struggle between good and evil. The unfolding of world events will have a higher meaning. Without being alarmist, it is dangerous to assume that Scott Morrison’s now transparent belief in the spiritual fight with Satan is quarantined from how he sees conflict in this world.

That said, the problem with Morrison’s Pentecostalism is not his faith but the secrecy surrounding it. Of course, the prime minister has a right to believe whatever he wants. Many belief systems, including secular ones, can seem strange to outsiders. But it is disrespectful and dangerous for the PM to continually highlight to the Australian people that he is religious – even to the extent of having television cameras in church during the election campaign – but not answer questions about his religion. Why the subterfuge? After Katharine Murphy gently pushed him for more information on “the fundamentals of his religious belief” for her Quarterly Essay, The End of Certainty, he replied: “I don’t want to go into those … It always becomes an issue if I talk about it … no matter how I explain it, it will be misinterpreted.”

The president of the aspiring Pentecostal university, Alphacrucis College, Stephen Fogarty, defends this silence on the basis that public statements “would immediately be misunderstood, misconstrued, and ultimately misrepresented by religiously ill-equipped journalists”.

Let’s be clear about what is being said here: Australians can’t be trusted with the truth, and as such our political leaders have the right to hide what they truly believe.

For journalists to accept this logic is not to respect religious faith but to trivialise it. What is required of the media is no different from the approach that would be taken with a politician proclaiming adherence to any other value system – have its teachings transparently communicated, so that people can understand what their representative believes.

Maintaining a distinction between public image and doctrinal belief has been an effective strategy for both Pentecostal growth and prime ministerial success. Seeing Morrison preach has confirmed the dangers of this. The argument that it is necessary to hide the full truth except from those who are considered ready to receive it is a slippery slope to cultism in both its religious and political dimensions. To question and critique is not, as Fogarty has argued, to be part of an inquisition; it is to participate in democracy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "The Father, the Morrison and the Holy Spirit".

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James Boyce is a Hobart-based historian and the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World.