As church attendance in Australia drops off, its God-bothering prime minister declares he’s there to do God’s work.
There’s never been a more religious prime minister than Scott Morrison. We’ve long known he is a devout Pentecostal, a regular congregant at the Horizon Church (née ShireLive) in Sutherland, and met his wife Jenny at a Christian camp when they were teenagers.
But yesterday we got an astonishingly clear-eyed insight into Morrison’s religiosity after a video of his impromptu address at the Australian Christian Churches conference surfaced online. In it he says he was called to do “God’s work” in Australia. He rails against the evils of social media and identity politics, and describes literally putting his hands on people and praying for them — apparently without them knowing.
To the audience of Pentecostal faithful gathered at the Gold Coast conference last week, the speech was a show-stealer. But in a secular Australia, where church attendance has been dwindling, and we generally expect our leaders to keep their religiosity toned down, Morrison’s speech struck an odd chord.
What he believes
Since Morrison invited the media into his church during the 2019 election campaign, and later called his shock win a “miracle”, he has kept his religious and political lives relatively separate.
But those worlds collided in his speech last week.
In a rambling, often animated address, he praised the growing “band of believers in Canberra” providing “encouragement and fellowship” to each other, described social media as the work of “the evil one”, and hit out at the “absolutely corrosive” impact of identity politics, which he said was dividing society into warring tribes.
“They [people] think of themselves as the things they can describe and collect them with others,” he said. “One’s ancestry, one’s gender, where one’s from. If you’re from the Shire, well that’s great, you’re starting ahead of everybody else.
“But there is a tendency for people not to see themselves and value themselves in their own right.”
He then outlined engaging in the Pentecostal practice of “laying on of hands” by praying for people at disaster centres by touching them.
“I’ve been in evacuation centres where people thought I was just giving someone a hug, and I was praying, and putting my hands on people … laying hands on them and praying in various situations,” he said.
Things got even more bizarre when he described having a kind of epiphany while looking at a picture of an eagle at the Ken Duncan gallery on the Central Coast during the 2019 campaign.
“The message I got that day was, ‘Scott you’ve got to run to not grow weary, you’ve got to walk to not grow faint, you’ve got to spread your wings like an eagle to soar like an eagle.”
What does it all mean?
Pentecostals are one of the fastest-growing religious denominations in the world, but church attendance is still declining in Australia. In the 2016 census, just over half the country identified as Christian, compared with 88% 50 years earlier. About 30% identified with no religion.
And we are, legally speaking, a secular country. Section 116 of the constitution blocks the Commonwealth from making laws establishing a religion, or prohibiting free exercise of a religion.
But Morrison’s address wasn’t targeted at the atheists or unbelievers. Nor was it an attempt to impose his religious will on the country. It was a message targeted with laser-like precision at the narrow sliver of Pentecostals who make up a small but influential fringe of the evangelical movement.
Clinical social worker and former evangelical insider Josie McSkimming says the speech was absolutely “talking to the in crowd”. Many of Morrison’s claims, seemingly weird to outsiders, had more deeply coded meanings familiar to those in the Pentecostal world. His warnings about social media and identity politics, for example, are a reminder to believers of the primacy of Jesus.
“This is about saying people have their worth in Jesus and the church community rather than in the LGBT community or whatever other identities you might have,” McSkimming said.
“Social media can be used to undermine the basic message of the gospel, and that message is your worth is in Christ.”
Morrison’s references to laying on of hands, a bizarre crossing of boundaries for outsiders, is a common practice among Pentecostals who believe believers can use the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“He sees himself as being able to be used by God in this way,” McSkimming said.
And for those outside the church, the speech gives us a kind of guide to Morrison’s real worldview, the beliefs he deeply holds about life, morality and faith when he isn’t performing for the cameras.
“He’s saying, unless you’re a Christian and have your faith in Christ, you’re being used by the evil one. That’s his worldview,” McSkimming said.
Does Morrison’s faith put him at odds with the rest of the country? Write to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.
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Editor-in-chief of Crikey