“God bless Australia.”
Scott Morrison chose these three words to close his acceptance speech on winning the ‘miracle’ election’. In doing so he has taken Australia into unchartered territory.
Morrison is by no means the first Prime Minister to be a person of faith. As Judith Brett explores in her recent biography of Alfred Deakin, our second PM and forefather of contemporary Liberals, was a spiritualist and Christian. Prime Ministers Fisher, Cook, Scullin, Lyons, Forde, Chifley, Howard, Rudd and Abbott were all religiously observant.
It is also true that the few agnostics and professed atheists among our Prime Ministerial ranks were the products of deeply religious homes. Bob Hawke’s father was a Congregationalist minister. Gough Whitlam’s parents were firm Presbyterians. Julia Gillard’s parents were Baptists.
While agnostic PMs may be scarce, Emeritus Professor John Warhurst in his study of the religious beliefs of our PMs calculates that less than half of Australian prime ministers up to Gillard took their religion seriously.
So what is it about Scomo’s religiosity that is proving unsettling?
The public perception of a Hillsong-led Pentecostal explosion simultaneously feeds, and feeds off, the attention being given to our first Pentecostal Prime Minister. Morrison himself propagates confusion.
While religious PMs have traditionally left the media at the church gate, Morrison invites them in to witness him at worship. He uses religious language in his political rap. He believes in miracles and these are apparently very common occurrences with the most famous being the miracle of his 18 May election victory. He has a rather idiosyncratic definition of a ‘miracle’: “A miracle is what the world can’t see but God can see” he confided to the Hillsong worshippers to rapturous applause.
The Hillsong exchange with Pastor Houston at the annual conference also gave the PM an opportunity to rhapsodise about love: “This country needs more love, less judgement”.
There is nothing inherently wrong in such musings and it was a relaxed conversation in a religious setting.
However, as Morrison told the worshippers (and us) he’s not a pastor, he’s a Prime Minister. He should be conscious of the meaning (and the import) in what he says and we should be prepared to take what he says seriously. A Prime Minister’s musings should not be left hanging, the PM should be open to explaining what he really means.
Pentecostals tend to be literal but we simply do not know whether Morrison is asking us to take him literally. The ‘miracle election’ was a close thing on the raw numbers: a modest 436,233 of the 11,253,393 votes cast separated the LNP and Labor. Some 48.47 percent of Australian voters rejected the LNP outright and god knows how many of the rest actually believed it or simply went along for the ride. Then some allowance needs to be made for those who were either too scared to trust Labor or were of the Anyone-But-Shorten brigade.
The victory is open to earthly explanation so what is the Prime Minister asking us to believe: that God saw Queensland as the path to victory when no one else did?
Scomo’s gift is said to be that he sounds great as long as you don’t think too much about what’s he’s actually saying. He is reminiscent of the Hillsong music machine. Slick. Highly professional. Predictable. Emotive. And talking to the heart not the head. His tele-evangelist style is more Jerry Falwell than Billy Graham: the folksy charm, the stories (’How good’s Gary’), the good-bloke decency and the neighbourly humour. Scomo has an easy way with words. He doesn’t stumble. He exudes confidence, makes you feel safe and offers certainty in an uncertain world. She’ll be right, mate.
The fact that he doesn’t actually say anything simply underlines his core offer: leave it to me and my team, you just get on with getting on. God bless Scomo.
We do not know the extent to which the public feels ill-at-ease with Morrison’s religious beliefs.
A good part of the electorate doesn’t appear to be too bothered. It is clearly not God alone that binds the Scomo fans together. It is materialism. Whether it is clothed in the prosperity gospel or simply aspiring to move up in the world, it is something many voters understand.
Yet we should be concerned if only because we do not yet know just what might be at stake.
It is worth asking whether the ill-ease that does exist is not so much with Morrison’s religious beliefs but with the exploitation of those religious affiliations to political ends.
Warhurst notes that towards the end of his life Curtin would end his speeches with “God bless you”. There is a stark difference though between Curtin’s invocation and Morrison’s.
Curtin was shepherding the nation through the darkest days of World War II. His words were an offer of comfort to those individuals who stood before him. Morrison is invoking an American-style triumphalism in which the nation is set apart. The implication is clearly that “God is on our side”. This is dangerous stuff.
The danger stems not so much from any religious implication but from the whistling it is to Australian nationalism. The sort of nationalism that can turn its back on the poor within and the desperate souls beyond our shores who seek support or possibly refuge. The sort of nationalism that, as Eternity implies (see Part 1), makes a mockery of a professed Christianity.
The former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Dr George Browning, has asked whether the PM, is out of step with biblical values. This is a reasonable question for those who are of the Christian faith. However, it is not necessarily the right question for the citizenry.
Morrison is the one who has chosen to very publicly witness to his faith and it is perfectly reasonable for Australians to expect that he would offer a more substantial understanding not simply of what that means to his public life but, perhaps more importantly, what it means for Australian political life. How are we to interpret reports that Morrison wanted Brian Houston at the White House dinner table?
The issue is not the rise of Pentecostalism nor the religious beliefs of our political leaders. It is whether religion is being exploited for political ends and, if so, by whom and just what those ends might be.
Eric Sidoti is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Western Sydney University