Scott Morrison took a risk – no doubt a calculated one – in talking frankly and personally at a conference of fellow Pentecostals – but I am not going to criticise him for doing so. The risk was that he would be criticised for mixing matters of church and state – perhaps in some way of misusing his political position to somehow further the interests of his sect. For some secularists indeed, merely confessing to religious feelings might deepen their personal dislike for him.
On the other hand, Morrison’s simple expression of his faith might have endeared him to others, not least many of what he has called the silent people – ordinary Australians who are proud devotees of a particular religion. Such people, he thinks are not embarrassed about their adherence, but increasingly worried, or made to worry about whether religion generally, or their particular type of it, or their capacity to maintain their own moral and ethical ideas is under attack in an increasingly secular society.
For himself, no doubt, Morrison, who has had a dreadful couple of months, must have found solace in being in the company of people who believe, like him, that he is under divine guidance and that he has been specially chosen by God to lead the community. If the Morrison government was very narrowly elected by the people, it seems, God was inspiring our pencils in the polling booth.
For a journalist, dealing with the religious views of politicians is a tricky task. His religion, and his religious beliefs, are not mine; indeed I have some trouble regarding them as Christian, for all of the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ. I am not, as such, much interested in what he believes – though I respect that he believes sincerely and that he sees himself as guided in his actions by the precepts of his religion. But I spend much of my writing time these days considering the character of our political leaders, and I am very interested in his moral and ethical base, and his values, and what he has to say about how those values guide him in making decisions.
Australian politicians are not much given to discussing their religion or their moral values and base in any sort of abstract terms. In recent decades, indeed, most leaders talk in the indicative sense – describing what is and what is not happening, rather than in any imperative sense – what should happen, and what other people should do. Particularly in a multicultural society, many do not like to sound preachy, or pious, even if they publicly practise their religion. Moreover many mentally separate the personal and private morality, perhaps particularly on matters of sex, they believe they ought to follow, and a more general, more secular set of ethics they think should be promoted and practised in the public square. This sort of secular ethic involves the question of public interest, respect for human rights and human dignity, and a view about the role of government in the community.
If the Morrison government was very narrowly elected by the people, it seems, God was inspiring our pencils in the polling booth
Others refer to their religious beliefs, or sometimes, while eschewing current ones, admit that their ethical stock of ideas come out of religion and what they were taught when they were young. For some, the focus is on social justice values – how government and society ought to be dealing with those who are most disadvantaged. There’s a big focus on fairness, duty and responsibility and on basic human rights.
For others, such as Morrison, social justice matters are somewhat secondary to how one behaves individually rather than as a unit of wider society; the primary focus, apart from the self is the family, and one’s mutual rights and duties within it. While Morrison, as a public citizen does not publicly resist community views on matters such as same-sex marriage, abortion, or the role of women in the family and the wider society, it is quite clear that his personal views do not align with our society’s laws and customs. He believes, moreover, that a good many of his “silent people” share his views.
Morrison once said during an election campaign that he was running for public office, not for the position of Pope. He is said to be supremely pragmatic and flexible – much more focused on staying in power than in using power to achieve any particular purpose.
He may be a master of marketing, as some think, but we never know his rationale, the processes of his thinking, or the long-term outcomes he wants. Still, less has he been prepared to give anything in the nature of a running commentary on his agenda – he is chronically secretive, and almost invariably resentful of those who demand background facts, explanations, or statements of what he knew at particular times.
H.L Mencken once said that one should respect every man’s religion in the same way that one respected his theory that his wife was very beautiful and that his children were of above-average intelligence. That might be witty, and sometimes perhaps apt when people are trying to impose their views on others. But religious and moral beliefs – even the moral beliefs of atheists – are at the core of that private personality that respect for human rights is all about. No one is obliged to believe what another does – but open disparagement or disrespect is for many at least as offensive as the belittling of women, or different races or ethnic groups. Some religions are attempting to build up a constituency for the idea that the right to religious freedom is currently under assault from powerful secular forces in society, and that new constitutional protections are needed to protect the right to religion.
Morrison, indeed, has promised such legislation, though he has discovered that deciding what should and what should not get protection is a very tricky business – as apt to produce further discrimination and disrespect as to protect people from it. I do not think that the case has been made out that there is a big threat to freedom of religion, and I have yet to see how it is threatened by laws about marriage, equality or forbidding discrimination. But the idea of constitutional protection might gain more support if it were phrased as freedom of thought rather than religion – and it was about the right of anyone both to think what she liked and not to be punished for the expression of that thought as a mere idea. While some see this as under threat by an ever more coercive surveillance state, the problem is whether it can protect sexist, racist or offensive ideas, while they are mere ideas.
A good many believing Christians regularly attending churches no longer know or care much about the theological arguments which once caused bitter wars, burnings for heresy or permanent divisions within families. Nor are they much reminded of them from the pulpit. Some religions and sects, moreover, have lost considerable moral authority in recent years — particularly after public scandals such as proof of sexual and physical abuse of children and others vulnerable to people in positions of power, or, in some cases, proof of great hypocrisy by some church leaders – lifestyles at total variance with that which they have publicly advocated. Even some of Morrison’s religious colleagues have been open to such criticism – though they have been far from alone once one looks at more mainstream churches.
But alas for those seeking to understood Scott Morrison by what he says at gatherings of fellow religionists, the ordinary member of the public is not much better informed about what makes him tick. In part, it’s the divide between the private and the public Morrison, with little emerging other than his feeling that he is one of the elect. No doubt this has a powerful influence over his insouciance and indifference to questions about transparency, process and about fairness. A person thinking God is on his side explicitly blessing every decision he makes might think that mere mortals – such as journalists or opposition members – have a cheek in questioning his decisions, his actions, his motives or his judgment. All the more so when a portion of his team also feel that the leader is so blessed.
Morrison’s idea about this divine mandate is not greatly dissimilar from the view that many of the American Christian right developed about Donald Trump. Few, probably, were deceived by Trump’s own personality or moral worth. But many came to think the Trump, for all of his imperfections, had become God’s instrument for doing right – in much the same way that God was thought to have acted through other imperfect people, such as Saul or David to advance the cause of the people of Israel. In a secular society – secular so as to protect freedom of conscience – it’s a dangerous notion, with a serious risk of developing delusion and megalomania.
Just what we need as the usual Australian suspects are ramping up the case for war.