Scott Morrison’s personal religion is entirely his own business. However, given recent public statements about his beliefs, by himself and in the media, it is legitimate to ask about Pentecostalism in Australia and its relationship, if any, to politics and politicians.
Two odd bedfellows in contemporary politics are the preachers of neoliberal economic policies on the one hand, and pentecostalist preachers of the prosperity gospel (or gospel of affluence) on the other. The religious doctrine advocated by the latter asserts that wealth, good health and general wellbeing, as well as social status and political power, are likely bestowed upon certain individuals by God because they adhere to literalist (fundamentalist) readings of the Old and New Testaments (see, for example, Brian Houston, You Need More Money: Discovering God’s amazing financial plan for your life, Send the Light Publishing, 2000).
If neoliberalism needed a religious justification, the contemporary pentecostalist movement has one readily at hand. Clearly, these economic and religious dogmas are ideologically compatible. The freedom that neoliberalism espouses is what J.S, Mill defined as “self-regarding” (advancing one’s self-interest) in the context of what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty” (freedom from regulation). According to this doctrine it is the rich who inherit the earth, not the poor, which is what the prosperity gospel seems to be saying.
The advocates of the prosperity “gospel” present a disquieting account of the contemporary world which they judge to be beset by crime, sexual promiscuity, pandemics like HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, drug addiction, domestic violence, family break-ups, high divorce rates, the proliferation of single-parenting and same-sex parenting, and the alienation of people – especially young people – from church-based communities. For them, the secular world is God-less, stalked by the devil. For most pentecostalists, secularism’s doctrine of the separation of church and state is meaningless. They claim that the “evil one” is rampant at work in our late-modern societies. Viewed through this prism, it’s not money that is the root of all evil, it’s the devil himself.
Two of the more provocative doctrines that hold sway in much pentecostalist theology are the “End Times” and the “Rapture.” The End Times doctrine is a prophecy that the end of the world is nigh bringing utter chaos to it (for example, wars, civil conflicts, pandemics, natural disasters). This, it is claimed, will be the prelude to Jesus’ return to earth when he will separate the sheep from the goats – that is, true believers who have repented as opposed to recalcitrant sinners. The Rapture is a belief that following the End Times, all true Christians will be taken up by Jesus into heaven, leaving unbelievers to their fate (presumably hellfire and brimstone).
What is disturbing about these apocalyptic views is the apparent endorsement of catastrophic war as a necessary means for achieving imagined religious ends. The danger here is that this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy – where, for example, beating the drums of war in the face of China’s assertiveness could be a deliberate strategy for provoking a horrendous war in the Asia Pacific to accelerate the End Times and the Rapture.
In some American pentecostal circles, the End Time is believed to be well and truly nigh, as evidenced in the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust. On this view, policies to cut or stop nuclear weapons stockpiling are therefore recondite at best, and doomed to fail. In a sense pentecostalism seems to be saying “Bring it on!” Its proponents think too that Jesus’ return prior to the Rapture will occur in the Middle East, hence preparing for that event means supporting Israel for whom Jesus will at last be acknowledged as the true Messiah.
Those who hold these cataclysmic worldviews are suspicious of government intervention in the economy. They regard the “free market” as a sacred space where the faithful will be rewarded for their commercial entrepreneurialism. At the same time, however, the prosperity gospel advocates believe that the state should provide legal protections for their version of religious freedom. This can mean, inter alia, having the right to publicly denounce people they judge to be sinners.
For example, in an Instagram posted on 10 April 2019, pentecostalist rugby player, Israel Folau warned that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters” would all go to hell unless they repented of their errant ways. He also stated that last year’s horrific bushfires in eastern Australia were God’s punishment for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion in Australia.
Many of Mr Folau’s fellow pentecostalists would agree with him. Their God is a fearful fellow whose anger seemingly knows no limits when it comes to punishing sinners. Only complete repentance – abandoning one’s sinful ways – will assuage his wrath.
The advocates of the prosperity gospel mostly pledge allegiance to right-wing politicians and political parties whose social policies echo the religious right’s moral dogmas. Viewpoints held in common include affirmations that marriage is a sacred estate exclusively contractable between and a male and a female; same-sex marriages are regarded as anathema. They strongly oppose a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. They laud women committed to the domestic sphere, while believing that the public sphere should mainly be the preserve of males. Denialism in regard to the science of climate change is high on their political agenda. They preach creationism over evolution theory. They regard capital punishment as a guarantee of God’s justice. Their theology is frequently intolerant of other religious systems, especially Islam, but also other Christian denominations, especially Catholicism.
The alliance between the religious right and right-wing politics persists even when those right-wing politicians publicly contravene the moral constraints that the religious right would impose on other “lost souls”. Moreover, when those politicians promote policies that fail to address the suffering of specific groups (for example, asylum seekers), their fellow pentecostalists overlook the
hypocrisy involved in supporting the “sinner” because of the “greater good” that they can provide (for example, stacking the US Supreme Court with conservative judges who may find against legalised abortion).
Donald Trump is a stand-out example: despite serial adultery, dubious business practices, multiple bankruptcies, boastfulness, extraordinary rudeness, and an infamously mendacious political style, he continues to be lionised by the religious right in America, despite his obvious ethical failings.
The appeal of the prosperity gospel is evident in the political influence wielded by Pentecostal mega-churches in the United States. Off-shoots of those mega-churches are colonising other parts of the developed world and the Third World. They attract large numbers of worshippers to their various services and related activities, some of which are run as specialist commercial enterprises deploying advertising and marketing strategies used by secular marketing companies. Many are able to offer their pastors salaries and perks commensurate with CEOs in large corporations.
In Australia, the principal representative of contemporary pentecostalism is the Hillsong Church corporation with campuses scattered across the country. Its original and most famous campus is in Baulkham Hills in Sydney. Its Bible-centred theology is based on a firm belief in the inerrant authority of the Old and New Testaments. It has an extensive outreach based on its interpretation of Christian theology.
Mainstream Christian churches in Australia (for example, the Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting churches) have an ambiguous relationship with their pentecostalist cousins. In Sydney, the Anglican archdiocese has much in common with the pentecostalists. Other churches around the country tend to be scattered along a pentecostalist-orthodox continuum. Those closer to the orthodox end of the spectrum reject the prosperity gospel and the fundamentalist readings of the Bible preached by pentecostalist pastors. They are also suspicious of the cult-like characteristics of many pentecostalist communities. They would prefer J.S. Mill’s definition of freedom as “other-regarding actions” – concern for others (“do unto others”) aided by what Berlin labelled “positive liberty” (for example, governments ensuring that everyone has access to the means necessary for maximising their liberty).
How does this affect contemporary Australian politics? Pentecostalism is clearly towards the illiberal end of the Australian political spectrum. Its members are likely to vote for right-wing candidates. In the NSW and Victoria Liberal parties, for example, there is evidence that Pentecostal activists are joining branches (perhaps branch stacking) to ensure the endorsement of like-minded candidates for political office. The preferred policies are closely aligned with the economic conservatism of neoliberalism and a reactionary form of social conservatism requiring the winding back of “progressive” social reforms achieved over recent decades.
In the real world of politics however, the extent to which pentecostalist politicians will try to impose their religious beliefs on public policy will be governed by whatever access they have to political power. Like all politicians, when controversial push comes to pragmatic shove, their religious convictions will take second place in order to gain, or remain close to power.
Even so, in a healthy democracy, where the church and the secular state must be clearly separated from each other, we should be wary of true believers from a minority of the population whose actions suggest that their desired religious ends will be justified by political means, whatever it takes.