ERIC SIDOTI. God Bless Scomo Part 1: The Pentecostals Are Coming?

Scott Morrison’s billing as Australia’s first Pentecostal PM has generated torrents of commentary. Much of the interest is driven by an assumption that the PM’s religious preferences herald the rise of this strange, big C conservative megachurch steamroller as a wielder of political influence. The first thing to say is that the attention to Morrison’s Pentecostalism has tended to be over-simplified and risks missing the point.

In spite of the tendency to conflate Pentecostals under the Hillsong brand, Pentecostals and evangelicals more broadly are a diverse group. They indulge in bickering as much as any denomination – or political grouping for that matter.

These shifts are evident in the recent history of Pentecostal churches. In Australia, Pentecostal churches though enjoying considerable autonomy were gathered under the umbrella of the Assemblies of God Australia (AGA). Hillsong’s founder Brian Houston served as President of the AGA from 1997 to 2009. Consistent with Hillsong’s own success Houston oversaw the re-branding of the AGA which became the Australian Christian Churches (ACC) in 2007. Hillsong expanded internationally, eventually going it alone in September 2018. (“We no longer see ourselves as an Australian Church with a global footprint, but rather a Global church with an Australian base.”)

Then you can add Evangelicals and charismatics in the ‘mainstream’ denominations into the mix.

No matter the public perception of a single conservative Christian voice, in reality there are theological arguments and differing views on a raft of issues. Pentecostal churches are ‘planted’ and reflect the leanings of the founding fathers (or founding couples as with Hillsong). The ‘prosperity Gospel’ is not necessarily a shared perspective and Pentecostalism is not immune from the currents of the contemporary world. Some would be surprised to learn that there is an emerging progressive strain that sees younger members rejecting homophobia and taking a stand on social issues including the environment. The more successful Pentecostal churches tap into these changes by an increased emphasis on social justice and welfare issues.\

Whether as a nod to his youthful congregation or otherwise, Brian Houston chose to walk a more nuanced line on marriage equality. He opposed marriage equality but censured the use of Christianity to “alienate and even condemn those who are gay and dismiss their desire to pursue happiness”. Indeed, there are hints of a post-Vatican II Catholic view on conscience: “I will always teach and preach according to Scripture and my personal convictions, but I cannot make other people’s choices for them. God created humanity with a free will, and I care about all people including those who believe differently to me”.

A January article in Bible Society Australia’s national news service, Eternity, “Pentecostals join the middle class”, profiles highly influential Pentecostal Stephen Fogarty, President of Alphacrucius College. Fogarty argues that Pentecostalism in Australia is changing from its working-class roots, tradie-trained ministers and its pre-occupation with apocalyptic eschatology. Contemporary Australian Pentecostalism is a ‘little unique’: “I think Pentecostal churches are shifting from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks right into the middle of aspirational, middle-class societies”. Alphacrucius is emblematic of the change being on track to becoming Pentecostalism’s very own university.

Among the commentary following Morrison’s appearance at Hillsong’s annual conference another article appeared in Eternity under the heading “The PM is a good Pentecostal but is he a Good Samaritan?”. The thrust of the article is evident in its opening:

“The following morning, just a short distance away, as the PM’s Hillsong visit made headlines, another Pentecostal pastor stood, trembling and shackled by mechanical handcuffs, and made a similar plea.

“But there were no standing ovations for the second Pentecostal. Caught in Australia’s immigration laws, the pastor was returned to immigration detention to continue waiting to find out if a claim for a protection visa would be granted, allowing the pastor to live with friends in the Australian community and have their request for asylum processed.”

Morrison isn’t every Pentecostal’s, let alone evangelical’s, poster boy.

Moreover, the attention Pentecostalism receives masks the fact that it is small even in aggregate terms.

It is true that Pentecostalism has grown since the 1970s. This has been driven by several causes including the transfer of worshippers from the charismatic currents of more mainstream denominations. Andrew Singleton of Deakin University has highlighted the significance of Pentecostal immigrants in the relative growth since 2001. That growth has plateaued.

The 2016 Census tells us that a mere 1.1% of Australians identify as Pentecostal. The most that can be claimed is that Pentecostals held their ground as there was no change since the 2011 census. This is in contrast to the declining share of almost every other Christian denomination: Catholics dropped 2.7%; Anglicans 3.8%; Uniting Church 1.3%. There are more Australian Buddhists (2.4%) than Presbyterians and Reformed (2.3%).

All Christians combined barely maintained a majority: 52% in 2016, down from 88% when Robert Menzies left Parliament in 1966.

Most telling is that the single largest group of Australians (30%) are now those of ‘no religion’ snatching the top spot held by Catholics at the previous census. In what is a lengthy and accelerating trend those of ‘no religion’ jumped 7.8% in just five years.

Australian Christians are literally dying out with the current numbers significantly dependent on those aged 65 and over.

By contrast, younger Australians are increasingly shunning religion in general (39% of 18-34 year olds claim ‘no religion’) and Christianity in particular (12% identifying with non-Christian religions). In other words, a majority of young people (51%) do not identify as Christians.

The real genius of the Houstons of Hillsong and their ilk is their ability to create an energised and close knit following. These adherents actually show up at worship each week, turn up in numbers at the big events and put their hands deep into their pockets. The Hillsong music enterprise is an extraordinarily successful cash-cow. Hillsong is a masterclass in blending personal human interaction with all that modern communications have to offer.

The PM praying before more than 20,000 worshippers looks impressive and may say something but just what it says is not quite clear. This was a large gathering even by Hillsong standards but it is worth remembering that there are multiple sporting events attracting crowds of that size each week.

While there are legitimate questions to be asked and challenges to be made by those of a progressive inclination, it is critical to retain a sense of perspective at the risk of jumping to and acting upon the wrong conclusions.

The growth of Pentecostalism is an illusion helped along by all the free attention. There may be a strongly conservative streak within contemporary Pentecostalism but it is more likely to be a reflection rather than a driver of conservatism. Indeed, it is worth asking who has captured whom when looking to confront the so-called “Christian right”.

Eric Sidoti is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Western Sydney University

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