Will Scott Morrison really be able to exercise the office of Prime Minister properly while belonging to a Pentecostal church that is said to have a prosperity gospel that promises wealth and health to believers? Guilt by association is always a bad place to start. Nothing is wrong with facts that are relevant. Actually, this is an issue for us all about the freedoms and constraints by which we live in this nation.
Scott Morrison is not the first Prime Minister to have an overt christian faith. Furthermore he is more open about his faith than most have been and at a time when religious adherence is on the decline in Australia and the public standing of the churches has been diminished by the revelations at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In his maiden speech to parliament he set out the most important influences in his life. His parents laid the foundations. “They demonstrated through their actions their Christian faith and the value they placed on public and community service. In our family, it has never been about what you accumulate that matters but what you contribute.”
“My personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda. For me faith is personal, but the implications are social – as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message.”
He claimed that to articulate and to seek to practice such a faith publicly is possible because Australia is a free society. “Australia is not a secular country- it is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.”
From this faith he derives “the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfill their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family. We must recognise an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil.”
These values are clearly Christian in character and tone and they would find a resonance in the main Christian traditions.
For Morrison faith teaches values and values enable political vision.
My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous: strong in our values and our freedoms, strong in our family and community life, strong in our sense of nationhood and in the institutions that protect and preserve our democracy; prosperous in our enterprise and the careful stewardship of our opportunities, our natural environment and our resources; and, above all, generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.
This is a remarkably clear declaration of the connection between his Christianity and his view of politics and the role of parliament in his thinking. He sets out the steps that led him from his personal beliefs to formulate social values that are implied and from that basis to frame a political vision for Australia. It does not move directly from faith to politics. It sets out what he meant when he said his faith was not a political program. It is pattern of argument well known in the broader Christian traditions of social thought. It is certainly not peculiar to Pentecostals.
Are Australian Pentecostals prosperity gospelers?
Antonio Sparado SJ describes the prosperity gospel as dangerous and different. “At its heart is the belief that God wants his followers to have a prosperous life, that is, to be rich, healthy and happy.” They can obtain this directly by active faith.
In her history of the movement Kate Bowler points to four points about the prosperity gospel
(1) Faith is an activator, a power that unleashes spiritual forces and turns the spoken word into reality.
(2) Faith is palpably demonstrated in wealth and
(3) Faith can be measured by both your wealth and health making material reality the measure of the success of immaterial faith.
(4) Faith is to be marked by victory.
From the point of view of more mainstream forms of Christianity this is a very strange inversion of theology and values. In mainstream Christianity God is the initiator and sustainer of faith and material belongings are to be used for good purposes in the light of identifiable christian values not simply personal acquisition.
There may be some pastors in the Pentecostal churches in Australia who preach a form of prosperity gospel and some like Brian Houston who is reported to have once flirted with this idea but dew back from it. However on the Statement of Faith of the Australian Christian Churches, which is the federation of Assemblies of God Pentecostal churches in Australia, there is nothing to suggest anything like a prosperity gospel.
In any case to assume that the congregation automatically accepts the preacher’s sermons is beyond belief. Influence over time – perhaps. Automatic acceptance – no.
It seems to me quite unconvincing on the public evidence available to think that Scott Morrison is a prosperity gospeler and that this inspires him to embrace neo-liberal economic policies.
But the very way in which this proposition is formulated assumes that values derived from a Christian faith, automatically tell you what to do in public life. That is patently not true. They provide a basis for decision making in specific situations. We all live in institutional frameworks that involve benefits and obligations. We are not entirely free to do what we personally might wish to do. This is especially true of work environments where we are part of an inter-related community in which decisions are rarely taken by one individual.
The Prime Minister is almost an extreme form of this. The government has policies that it seeks to implement. Let us assume that the policy is proposed on the basis honorable moral values like generosity or fairness. The problem for the government in these best of circumstances is that no one policy is likely to meet everyone’s wishes or even interests or perceptions even if they agree on the values involved.
The process of making a decision for institutional action will be a matter of debate, compromise and change. One person’s values on entering such a process, even if that person is the Prime minister, are unlikely to be automatically final.
In any case the Prime Minister as indeed all ministers and parliamentarians take an oath that commits them to serve under the terms of the constitution and laws of this nation. If such a person finds for reason of moral principle, however founded, cannot do that then of course they should resign. Morrison has identifiable limits on how far he can give expression to his Christian faith and its values in his role as Prime Minister. Those limits are eminently defensible from a Christian point of view. They serve the good of the country. It is however good that Morrison has told us what his values are. It would be good if other parliamentarians did so as well.
However there is one point at which a minister or Prime Minister has a little more discretion, and that is the way in which the policy is administered. For example successive governments have had a bi-partisan policy on dealing with refugees who come by boat to our land. As recently enunciated by the Prime Minister (and former Immigration Minister) – if you come by boat you will never be settled in Australia.
At the practical end of the policy there is more discretion for a minister. As a consequence how such asylum seekers are held in detention is susceptible to the values of the minister concerned. While a lot of Australians strongly oppose the policy many more are revolted at the conditions in which these people are held and the inordinate delays in resolving their future. The responsible minister could do something about that. Conversely it is reasonable to think that what a minister does in that context must presumably to some degree represent his personal values.
A similar point applies to the way a policy is presented. In the case of incarcerated asylum seekers one might expect the terrible consequences for them to be reflected in some sympathy for their lot in the presentation of the broader border control policy. However the public statements by ministers on both sides of politics in recent years have not been expressed in anything like that spirit. Sometimes it has seemed as if the lot of detainees should be made horrible in order to underline the commitment to the policy. That has always been less than satisfactory for most Australians and has not suggested serious reflection of humane values, Christian or otherwise.
Scott Morrison has done us a favour in setting out his faith and its implications for him. It gives us a point of reference to measure his actions. It might be a good idea if other ministers and parliamentarians provided a statement of their personal values as they apply to their work in parliament. Maybe it would help raise the consciousness of the moral framework in which our politicians work.
Morrison has also done us a favour in drawing attention to the complexities of acting out our personal values, whatever they are, in a social or political context. It is not simple or straightforward, but that only means that it should be done with some transparent integrity.
The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye, Adjunct Research Professor, Charles Sturt University.