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Scott Morrison’s Pentecostalism in The Monthly and Eternity: on religion and power in 21st century Australia

Sunday, 17 March 2019  | Paul Tyson

In the February 2019 edition of The Monthly, James Boyce looked at the relationship between Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal faith and his politics. The central argument Dr Boyce made was that Mr Morrison provides us with a significant case study illustrating that ‘Pentecostalism is… the perfect faith for a conviction politician without convictions’. Dr Boyce argued that it takes a particular theological mix to produce ScoMo’s signature unshakable conviction of the rightness of his own convictions, combined with a remarkably hard-edged and quick-footed political pragmatism. ‘Seeker friendly’ marketing pizazz also comes into the religious formation context of Mr Morrison’s political persona.

In the March 2019 edition of Eternity, John Sandeman takes issue with James Boyce. Sandeman’s criticism largely concerns what he sees as serious deficiencies in how Boyce characterises contemporary Pentecostalism. Sandeman locks in on Boyce’s treatment of spiritual warfare and the Devil. Given that Boyce’s piece is titled ‘The Devil and Scott Morrison’, this seems fair. Yet Sandeman does not explore whether Boyce has a valid point in arguing that Morrison’s penchant for surprisingly flexible political pragmatism is married to the personal convictions native to his faith.

In what follows I want to further explore the relationship of Prime Minister Morrison’s faith to his politics. In doing so, I will both agree and disagree with Boyce and Sandeman. With Sandeman, I also think Pentecostalism’s interest in the Devil is a political red herring. Yet I find it very strange that Sandeman seems so entirely disinterested in the combination of pragmatism and personal religious conviction that Boyce describes. I agree with Boyce that there is a deep relationship between inner conviction and outer pragmatism in the context of contemporary Australian power and politically conservative Pentecostalism. But I do not think this dynamic is limited to right-leaning Pentecostals. Modern Australian conservative Christianity in general is pretty comfortable combining self-interested commercial and political pragmatism with personal religious freedom and strong private morality conviction. I can see no fundamental difference between Pentecostal Scott Morrison and Roman Catholic Tony Abbott on that front.

To Pentecostalism first. Sociologists of religion tell us that global Pentecostalism is huge, diverse and rapidly changing. Pentecostalism in the global South is developing in ways that have increasingly separate trajectories to the original modern Pentecostalism of North America. Pentecostals are also very theologically diverse and undergoing something of an intellectual new (maybe first) Spring at present. In Singapore, Simon Chan’s deep liturgically grounded and patristically engaged theology, and in Australia, the brilliant Ben Myers, are internationally recognised Christian thinkers of the first rank, just to name two. And yet, there are ways in which Pentecostalism more generally is native to the globalism of our times. As that globalism is strongly shaped by the modern West, religious ways of living that are native to modern globalisation are often deeply formed by Western concepts of the individual, and deeply formed by modern liberal secularism’s firm disconnect between subjective religious meaning and objective political and economic power. Pentecostalism, as a child of the 20th century, is entirely at home in the contemporary lifeworld. It swims effortlessly in the sea of power generated by the modern secular nation state, contemporary consumerism and the mass media. Indeed, the way in which our present age is defined by marketing and social media, rapacious global raw material and cheap labour exploitation, and transnational financial and corporate power is pretty well invisible to the leadership culture of most Pentecostal churches (and most churches in general) that I am familiar with. Which is to say that one of the obvious reasons that Pentecostalism is so globally successful is precisely that it is a product of our times.

As Marion Maddox has pointed out, Pentecostalism is often entirely at home with the norms of consumer culture due to its very subjective and experiential conception of personal meaning. But those norms are by no means only normative to Pentecostal Christians. The Pentecostalism of Scott Morrison’s conservative mainstream nature is simply successful consumer-era Christianity. This is significant, for it explains why Mr Morrison is able to find strong allies in conservative Christian circles across all communions, even when Pentecostal theology and practice is in a number of ways quite distinct from (declining) mainline Christianity.

Leaving to one side the fact that Scott Morrison is a Pentecostal, what is it about his faith-and-power persona that makes him appealing to politically and culturally conservative voters – many of whom are Christians – in Australia today?

I think the answer to this is that Mr Morrison is a genuine liberal secularist. He is adept at separating out personal morality and private conviction (the liberal arena of freedom) from public facts and pragmatic realism (the management arena of necessity). This means he can be a good Christian family man at the same time as strongly advancing the most draconian and image-controlled indefinite off shore detention centres in the ‘free world’. He has the remarkable ability to justify this on both compassionate (personal) conviction grounds and firm (public) protective grounds. But clearly, the main driver in this policy is political expedience. This is a strategy that works in the electorate like a silver bullet.

Mr Morrison’s immigration policy puts the Coalition ahead of the ALP by harnessing the invasion fears of the polity, and by providing a scapegoat for the polity’s discontent. Squeezed middle Australia and ‘bottom gear’ dwellers of our two-speed economy need not look to the aggressively competitive norms of the neoliberal era as the cause of their insecurity. Instead, ‘illegal’ losers who are more vulnerable than ourselves are easy resentment sinks for our own sense of insecurity and diminished opportunities. Denouncing those despicable people smugglers who are drowning people in the ocean enhances our own moral superiority in relation to such low-life (though, don’t read de Crespigny’s The People Smuggler) as we become ever more self-concerned and unkind as a nation. Hence, Mr Morrison can sing the people a song of compassion, responsible firmness, justice and moral strength in the very act of making indefinite detention a non-negotiable pillar of national security. This works like a charm with the electorate. Once we have abstract yet despicable scapegoats to lock out – those illegal queue jumping economic-immigrants/paedophiles/terrorists/people-smugglers (but what about Behrouz Boochani? what about Abdul Aziz Muhamat?) – we need not notice how the privileges of unassailably powerful ‘legal’ winners, in comfortable alliance with our government, exploit us for its own profit in a cushy game of mates.

It is likely that our Prime Minister has never read political philosophy, and yet Mr Morrison is a devotee of a secular liberalism deeply indebted to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. The first truth about human motivation assumed here is that we are all self-interested maximisers of our own personal advantage. Without the state that has a monopoly on violent power, there would be a war of all against all. Peace, understood as the absence of lawless violent conflict, is produced by a powerful state, firm borders, a strong army and strong law and order. The ‘peace’ such power produces is not moral as such (power is just about power really), but there could be no private morality and no personal belief freedom for individuals without firm overarching power. Once laws are set in place and vigorously enforced, then working out how you can use those laws for your own advantage enables people to pursue their own interests with safety. Winners in this game feel entitled to whatever advantage for themselves they have been able to secure, provided only that it is legally secured. In this way morality is separated out from law and power, for the power of the state exists only to secure a space for private individuals to pursue their own interest, choose their own values, and hold their own beliefs, without interference. The individual is sovereign over all matters of personal value and meaning, and these are private matters over which the laws and coercive powers of the state have no valid authority. So the concept of modern religion – as a personal zone of subjective belief conviction that alone governs individual salvation and private morality – fits very neatly with an objective and public world of brutal political realism, self-interested economics and manipulative pragmatism, provided only that one’s actions are legal (and this has a lot to do with how well you understand the law and how much you can afford in legal fees).

Christianity in this country was firstly associated with the official religion of British imperial power. Power and religion have been tied together from the beginning in Australia. As the interests of the powerful have become less overtly connected to the interests of religion, and as the Catholic church has grown in size and influence, the original relationship between power and the state religion has dissolved into a more tacit relationship between power and privileged (white Anglo) ‘Christian’ respectability. As respectable cultural norms have fallen out of the grip of religious authority, particularly from the 1960s on, wealthy conservative individuals have looked to conservative politics to preserve their interests and ‘hard won’ privileges. The relationship between Christian faith and power is now very tacit. And yet it is still there. Here, the separation of personal faith and private morality from self-interested political and commercial power invites the rise of what Mr Boyce calls ‘conviction politicians without convictions’. The connections between President Trump and Franklin Graham, and Prime Minister Morrison and Brian Houston, are not incidental. Explicitly modern forms of Christian religion (Evangelical and Pentecostal) are entirely at home in the secular world they have helped create – a world were personal religious freedom and private morality are intimately entangled in the shop keeper commercialism of the privately free, profit-pursuing, burger class.

But there is more. In the spectacle world of modern democratic politics, it is necessary to manufacture conviction. The projection of personal moral and religious convictions, as Machiavelli saw, is a necessary public relations tool of power. But true pragmatists and honest realists don’t do moral conviction well (recall the Banking Royal Commission). It actually takes someone with a vital inner religious life – or the ersatz religion of narcissistic self-worship illustrated brazenly in The Apprentice – to produce the politically useable energy of inner conviction.

Modern Christianity, operationally defined by Hobbes’ all powerful law-and-order state, Locke’s religiously neutralised toleration and Mill’s absolute individual sovereignty, couples personal religious conviction and private moral sentiment in a powerful alliance. This alliance ensures that the public arena has no room for any genuinely moral conviction or any transcendently referenced commitments. This alliance has a potent political effect. The effect is – as A.J. Conyers put it – to ‘make the world safe for power and profit’. Scott Morrison’s religion and morality is wonderfully personally quarantined from his political policy imperatives. And yet this is not politically irrelevant, as his public persona is of the good Christian and morally upstanding family man – great brand currency in the conservative electorate. His religion is a vital element in the way his pragmatism and opportunism is politically marketable, and yet his actual actions and policies are without any obvious moral or religious limits…

Should this concern Australian Christians? Should this concern voting Australians?

Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.


Phillip Carson
March 22, 2019, 6:21PM
This seems a little harsh, Paul.

The issues and nuances of refugees and national security are complex and multifaceted and an ongoing dilemma for nations and their leaders. I am not so convinced that Scott Morrison’s 'religion and morality is wonderfully personally quarantined from his political policy imperatives'. Being a position of power necessitates making decisions. These decisions are informed by multiple conflicting factors. I would think it is possible to have both a highly developed personal and public/societal morality and consciousness and still have to make odious choices in complex matters. In a take of Gough Whitlam's words, it is easy to be pure when one is impotent.

In the heaving, messy business of our fallen world a leader who is unable to be pragmatic even while informed by real conviction and understanding can not be a leader in a democratic state.

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