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Mr Morrison’s ACC address: thoughts on our Pentecostal Prime Minister

Wednesday, 5 May 2021  | Paul Tyson




I am a Christian theologian and a sociologist. On 25 April 2021 a Rationalist Society tweet explains that they have ‘found’ what looks like a covert video of Mr Morrison’s address to the national convention of the ACC on the Gold Coast. I watched that grainy 23-minute video (and you can read the transcript here), and took notes. What struck me after viewing it was the two things that the Guardian, Crikey, the Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and other media outlets that I regularly peruse did not see.

The first thing that was not picked up was the striking incoherence of Mr Morrison’s conservative individualism. One of the key arguments put forward by our Prime Minister was that tribalism, or what he called identity politics, is tearing our community apart. Consequently, if we were all individuals we would not suffer from this horrible fragmentation of our community. That is, the advocated alternative to inexplicably waring tribalism is inexplicably peaceful individualism, thus individualism is going to make our communities strong.

On the face of it, this is a profoundly incoherent stance, but I think there is a significant reason why this was not picked up. For secular, religion-averse liberalism is incoherent in precisely the same way that Mr Morrison’s religious conservatism is, and so – if you will pardon the expression – the theology of secular liberalism did not notice this incoherence. Let me unpack this a bit.

Mr Morrison is a true secular liberal. He believes in a kind of Enlightenment framed rational civic body, made up of self-interested, practically active, free individuals. These pragmatic individuals are all merrily going about their daily economic activities without anyone telling them what to do, providentially guided by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand (God, by another name). This is a highly secular and strongly pragmatic theological stance as regards the public sphere. All the hurrah about Mr Morrison violating the separation of church and state is completely misdirected. For actually it was non-conformist Christians – such as John Bunyan and the Covenanters – who separated the church from the state in the first place. It was the shopkeeper evangelicals – excluded from the professional classes – who embraced pragmatic business savvy as a divine calling. Historically, the non-believing secular liberals of our day are lapsed evangelicals. What these lapsed evangelicals do not like about Mr Morrison is not his secular liberalism concerning individual freedoms of personal religious conviction. Rather, it is the assumed collective moral truths of his implicit universalism that they do not like.

Mr Morrison’s public sphere rationalism is a bit complex to unpack, for it is also probably true that Mr Morrison is an emotive intutionist as regards his personal moral and religious convictions. To grasp this dynamic one must bear in mind that the secular liberal has a sharp dividing line in their mind as regards the separation of the public sphere (and its legal, practical, political and policy concerned morality) from the private sphere (and its family and individual moral and religious freedoms). Yet rationalist – in the public sphere – Mr Morrison certainly is. And it is the perception of seepage between his private moral and religious convictions and his assumptions about which public moral truths really matter for everyone that makes the anti-religious secular rationalist deeply uncomfortable. Hence, presumably, a Rationalist Society affiliate sneaking into a national Pentecostal convention with a grungy concealed camera becomes a morally justified action for the Common Good.

On the questions of whose public rationality Mr Morrison upholds, and which public moral truth for everyone Mr Morrison assumes, the anti-religious Rationalist has a point. But it is not necessarily the point the rationalist thinks it is. For all rationalisms are universal in their nature, and are at odds with a genuinely pluralist liberal individualism. And here we notice the strange spectacle of the anti-religious rationalist attacking Mr Morrison’s universalism in a decisively non-liberal manner. For it is in the distinctive signatures of competing tacit collectivist theologies of rational universalism where the real differences between the Rationalist Society and Mr Morrison lie, not in their stated commitments to secular liberalism for individuals.

Let us dig a bit deeper into the theology of secular liberal conservatism, be it Mr Morrison’s public rationalism (possibly shaped by his personal religious commitments) or the Rationalist Society’s anti-religious conservatism.

A conservative is trying to conserve something. The ‘Decent Australia’ conservative of more or less white Christian inflection is trying to conserve the universal norms and common heritage of largely British Isles Anglican and Catholic collective identity. Here, the shared life-world rationality of common sense as regards right thinking and decent behaviour is thus shaped by tacitly Christian behavioural norms, whatever personal religious convictions one may or may not have. This was our cultural norm, probably until the 1960s. In opposition to Mr Morrison, an Anti-religious secularist stance is trying to conserve the universal norms of a vision of liberation from Christian oppression that is native to the 19th century Progressive movement. This Progressive post/anti-Christian conception of assumed public morality has been a vibrant rival cultural force to the older ‘Christian Australia’ norm since the 1960s. These two conservative forces are the two sides of the Culture Wars, united in their mirror-image disagreement about what constitutes normative common sense.

The extended digression on rationalism aside, the first point I have tried to make concerning what the press did not notice about Mr Morrison’s address to the ACC national convention was the incoherence between his opposition to community corroding tribalism and his affirmation of a universally uniting individualism. The second thing overlooked by the kind of broadly progressive media that I typically imbibe, is how sensible and perceptive Mr Morrison was.

We indeed are in the grip of a warring and destructive identity tribalism. The social media environment in which our children socialize is now a real cause of concern to many Australian parents. There is a real confusion in our broader community about common values. Sensitive young people now increasingly wonder whether – in our consumerist, disposable and pragmatic times – values really mean anything at all. These are deep anxieties in the body politic that Mr Morrison is picking up. One does not need to be a Pentecostal Christian, or religious at all, to have these concerns. It is true that Mr Morrison has a distinctly Pentecostal way of understanding these concerns, and at a national gathering of Pentecostal pastors, he is among friends. But he does not have these concerns because he is a Pentecostal Christian. He has them because they are genuine anxieties felt by many Australians.

Having identified two things that were strikingly absent from the more educated and progressive news media I typically read, I would like to conclude this little piece with some brief comments.

Let us turn to Mr Morrison’s conservative individualism first. The relationship between the individual and the community is an inherently complex interdependence. There is no such thing as a pure liberal or a pure secularist. Progressives are right to pick up on the fact that, however much Mr Morrison may espouse a pluralist and secular outlook on both the public square and his own personal religious convictions, and however much of a skilful political pragmatist he may be, his is not a pure liberal secularist. However, neither are Progressives. All conceptions of universal common sense, and of collective norms, cannot be fully liberal and rational in any purely objectivist manner, or fully individualistic. There will always be competing first philosophies about those humanity-defining matters that we share in common. Mr Morrison is not at fault simply because his first philosophy is overtly theologically framed. If Aristotle is correct, all first philosophies are theologically framed. All ultimate meaning horizons are never simply pragmatic. And if they claim to be objectivist and rationalist, this itself is a deeply (and deeply troubling) theological stance.

A sense of insecurity about common meanings and collective norms is increasing. The forces of consumer atomization, social alienation, employment instability, technological change, environmental, geo-political and global economic instability, all contribute to a constant and increasingly frenetic ‘state of emergency’ in our politics. We will see more populist demagogues seeking to harness our fears, and we will see more leaders of religious conviction who have some higher source to draw on as they seek to hold the wheel of the ship of State through the storm. Some demagogues will have religious conviction (though the Trump model of an irreligious demagogue happy to harness religious tribalism is more likely). But a political leader of religious conviction is not necessarily a demagogue. Mr Morrison has an anchor he believes he can trust for his own salvation, and this gives him a kind of momentum and unshakable self-belief that is a key feature of him being a successful political leader.

(Full disclosure: I have to say that as a Christian theologian I have never liked Mr Morrison’s politics. He is not Christian enough for me when it comes to asylum seekers, the dignity of the poor, reconciliation, and care of creation. But politics is the art of the possible, and it is clear to me that Mr Morrison is a skilful political operator when it comes to harnessing the winnable electoral energies of the Australian people.)

What then do we make of having a Pentecostal Prime Minister? Mr Morrison is no political philosopher. He has religious conviction, certainly, but he is not much of a bible scholar and has a very limited theological scope. The manner in which he thinks he can separate his personal religious convictions from his pragmatically necessary political actions frightens me, and I do not see that as the mark of a theologically-rounded Christian seeking to act in the public sphere – Mr Morrison is no Bonhoeffer. And yet he is a secular liberal that no atheist secular liberal need fear. At the same time, his particular type of Christian faith is obviously central to his own ‘identity politics’, which is as distressing to Christians like me as it is to progressive atheists, often for some of the same social justice reasons. So in all, let us have clear eyes – not shrill anti-religious fear or hysterical religious admiration – concerning who our Pentecostal Prime Minister actually is. And for love of mercy, let us not make Culture War attacks or defences out of what he said to a group of Christians at the national convention of his own church.

 

Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He has previously written about Prime Minister Scott Morrison's faith here and here.


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