What Scott Morrison’s really saying by aligning with Pentecostals

Jan 9, 2022
scott morrison acc conference
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at the Australian Christian Churches conference. (Image: Supplied)

We have every reason to expect that Scott Morrison should exemplify the moral teachings of Jesus, but that’s not the way the church game is played.

This article was first published on September 16, 2021.

In a recent article for Pearls and Irritations, Australian social psychologist Hugh Mackay raised a number of pertinent questions about the apparent gap between the prime minister’s declarations of Christian faith and his daily practice of politics.

Under modern social conventions Mackay’s words would normally be considered inappropriate, since it is widely agreed a person’s faith is an intimate and subjective matter, and nobody else’s business.  Scott Morrison removed that privacy barrier, however, the moment he invited a camera crew into his Pentecostal church to film him at worship.

In so explicitly aligning himself with the Pentecostal camp, Morrison is saying a lot more than the average Australian might realise. Members of his sect believe they are “called out” from among the pagans, and numbered among a chosen few – relative to those who have ever lived – who are pre-destined by God to enter into Heaven after death where such people will live happily ever after. World without end. Amen.

This audacious – albeit quaint – elitist affiliation was bound to draw criticism from some circles, but Morrison remained predictably unperturbed and nonchalant; two emotions which also describe his attitudes towards the downtrodden, marginalised and suffering who exist under his government.

Before I go any further, I should declare my qualifications to write on this subject, having formerly spent 14 years as an ordained minister in an American Evangelical church. (Trust me; despite all you have seen and heard, American Evangelicals are not all myopic, racist, bigots. Some are worse. Fortunately, some are also reasonably normal human beings.)

This brings me to the main point of Mackay’s article. He understandably assumes that any person claiming to be a devout Christian might rightly be expected to exhibit the values modelled by Jesus of Nazareth which we find in the gospels: honesty, integrity, compassion, kindness, and fairness. Mackay is not alone. Thousands of Australians over the past decade have wondered about this moral disconnect between Morrison’s claim to be a devoted follower of Jesus, on the one hand, and his glib dismissal of the need for compassionate, merciful and humane policies, on the other.  His recent matter-of-fact abandonment of those Afghans – now targeted for death – who offered aid to Australia is a grim example of this.

The confusion stems from the noun, “Christian”.  I was only 21 years old when I entered a seminary and immersed myself in the American-style Evangelical Christian sub-culture, but I quickly learnt that it is one thing to call oneself a Christian, yet another thing entirely to live a life marked by integrity, consideration, respect, and empathy. Some Christians will tell you, “We’re not perfect, just forgiven.” Unfortunately, my experience has taught me that, on balance, Christians are no more likely to live by the “golden rule” than anyone else. In fact, a colleague in the ministry once lamented that the Christian church is the only army that shoots its wounded. So much for modelling mercy and compassion.

Frankly, I was not one of those who expected Morrison to be anything other than what he is simply for claiming to be a Christian. Before anything else, he is a politician, and it is extremely rare for career politicians to be bastions of moral purity. Philosophically, the two are mutually exclusive, in the same way a thief cannot be law-abiding. Politics is rife with dishonesty, betrayal, false accusations, and back-stabbing. It is an arena that rewards and caters to the disingenuous and duplicitous, and sadly, one that seems to suit Morrison quite well.

Not surprisingly, Katharine Murphy of Guardian Australia discovered when she interviewed Morrison some months ago that he quickly bristled when pressed on the specifics of his faith with the blunt, shut-down response, “It’s such a personal thing.” My years in the ministry taught me to interpret hollow euphemisms like that as, “I don’t have a very well-defined theology, but going to church gives me pleasure.”

Morrison is well-versed in these dismissive responses. We first encountered them during the dark ages when he was immigration minister, as daily he attempted to evade – or ignore altogether – questions from those aggravating journalists who had the impudence to inquire about the wellbeing of the asylum-seeking humans in our care. I could not help but think the reason for his characteristic insolence – a classic controlling technique – was due to the indefensible nature of his iniquitous policies. People who are unable to argue their point with considered, convincing reasons and evidence will avoid having to put their point forward at all. Knowing they are unable to defend their stance, they simply shut down the opposition.

I recall those compassionless, priggish “nothing to see here” TV appearances quite vividly, because his lack of emotion contrasted so vastly with my own. Having been so moved by the suffering I saw among refugees on Manus Island in 2013, I publicly denounced Australia’s punitive offshore prison system on SBS’s Dateline.

All attempts by the media to gain information during this time were routinely truncated or stone-walled with ambiguous claims of “operational security” or a flat refusal to comment about “on-water matters”; language echoing the secrecy surrounding the Normandy invasions. According to Morrison, Australia was – and still is – at war.

It must be clearly understood that according to Morrison and his Christian ilk there is a literal spiritual war being waged over Australia – a war between good and evil, a war being fought in the heavens between angelic and demonic powers. Morrison’s own language confirms this as evidenced by his speech at the Australian Christian Churches conference on the Gold Coast in April. Social media, he warns is a, “weapon used by the evil one.” (I am not making unsubstantiated accusations; I was myself indoctrinated by Morrison-style church culture for many years.)

This ardent belief system explains – in part – why Morrison, as immigration minister, introduced a host of dictatorial and ruthless changes to Australia’s immigration policy, the like of which this country has never known. But, as an Evangelical Christian he was doing God’s work, keeping “those types” out of this Christian nation. One of his first moves was to bar all media coverage of the maritime arrivals on Christmas Island, making it easier to implement his cruel and unusual new edicts.

Morrison’s claim to be called by God “for a time and a season” might be a recent revelation to the Australian public, but make no mistake; he likely believes this mandate was “given” to him many years ago.

During my seminary years but, more generally, throughout my life in the US, I encountered Morrison-esque types on a regular basis. Those coming from a conservative political position or an Evangelical Christian one were, alike, motivated by an underlying belief that the world was on a downward spiral and faced imminent ruination at the hands of the “evil, pagan hordes”. The tacit message was that, without the Messianic efforts of fear-mongering politicians and conservative Christian leaders, we were doomed. Armageddon is coming, but if we will only trust and have faith in our conservative leaders we will be saved. Fear is the obvious catalyser for this message to spread. John Howard, the quintessential politician, demonstrated that perfectly with his carefully thought-through children overboard propaganda.

It may seem counter-intuitive that Bible-believing, born-again Christians are among the most heartless beings to walk the earth. How can this be? Any agnostic or atheist can tell you how Christians are supposed to act, and yet Christians themselves are typically dismissive, even aggressively so, of any talk that smacks of “legalism”, or “works-righteousness”. Remember, they are forgiven, not perfect.

In fairness, Morrison is no different to the millions of Christians who have preceded him over the years for whom their faith is personally engaging but socially irrelevant. Disparity between the message of love and the loveless messenger is nothing new. In fact, Marcellinus wrote of the First Council of Nicaea in 325CE that, The enmity of the Christians towards each other surpassed the fury of savage beasts against man”. And if this is true of “the family of God” – and it is – then what hope do the outsiders have of ever experiencing compassion and mercy and extravagant love from the Church?

Furthermore, schisms exist in the Church, worldwide, precisely because empathy, sympathy, tolerance, kindness and selflessness are not the norm. They are the exception. Even Morrison, despite his heartless attitudes towards those Australians he considers insignificant and peripheral, is still capable – I assume – of occasionally showing the kindness and compassion of Jesus, the man he claims to follow.  These are, after all, the qualities Jesus expected.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). The problem is these qualities are primarily reserved for Sunday use. Come Monday, it’s a different story all together. It is a classic case of “compartmentalization” whereby God, ego and social responsibilities are swapped according to the objective of the moment.

Mackay has every reason to expect that Morrison, as a professing Christian in a Bible-believing church, should exemplify the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, but the fact is, that’s not the way the church game is played. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it a game, because it’s more like a hobby, or a club where regular people gather for the enjoyment of one another. They speak in code-words that the uninitiated don’t understand like “unction” and “sanctification” and “propitiation” and “Atonement” and so forth. Behaviour is modified and monitored within the walls of the church building. Music peculiar to each group is played and songs are sung. It’s fun. But come home-time the club membership generally forgets those biblical mandates to love foreigners, and show kindness to the aliens in their land or to love justice and do mercy. The meek might inherit the earth, but until then it’s the assertive who get things done.

Thomas Jefferson aptly said, “Morality refers to conduct that is proper between members of society. Respect for the equal rights of every citizen becomes the foundation of morality and justice in a free society. Rightful government necessarily reflects this proper relationship in its policies and in its dealings with its own citizens and with other nations.”

Or, as the former bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway warned, “Without empathy we rob people of their humanity; they become mere objects to be used. The loss of empathy is a form of death and persons without empathy live on within themselves becoming increasingly narcissistic. Inevitably, the human heart loses its ability to share in the sorrow of another and when that happens we not only rob others of their humanity, we begin to destroy ourselves.”

I could give many examples of the inconsistencies between faith and practice among Christians, but Scott Morrison has done that job for me.

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