There has been a disquieting number of photographs recently circulating of Prime Minister Scott Morrison coloured with purple and green disco lighting, raising an arm and praying into a microphone.
This is a familiar scene to me. The pictures bring back the gut-punch disappointment I felt when tagging along with a friend to an annual Hillsong conference. She’d described the event as a “massive concert”, but what I found was an ocean bed of teens swaying to mournful Christian-rock ballads in between lengthy lectures from 40-year-old grifters telling kids that Jesus “needs” their money.
This is, of course, a reductive way to view one of Australia’s fastest growing churches. In a country where the religious population is in a steep decline, the attendance figures for Pentecostal megachurch Hillsong are climbing, up by over 10,000 in the last two years alone. The church has 2.2 million Instagram followers, its livestream viewership is rising, and it even snagged Justin Bieber as a mascot.
It was here, in front of a 30,000-strong crowd, that the PM prayed for Australia last week — the same week he announced his commitment to pass a religious discrimination bill through parliament this year.
“So I speak about my faith,” he said. “Because I want everyone in this place to feel comfortable talking about faith in this country. It’s not a political agenda, it’s who we are.”
This was perhaps an attempt to depoliticise, or passivise, what is a deeply political moment for Morrison. The PM’s openness in his Pentecostal worship is a hallmark of this branch of Christianity, prone to grandstanding and spreading the gospel in modern, media-savvy ways. It also seems unprecedented, even after Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, who are considered by some to be “two of the most overtly religious party leaders Australia has ever seen”.
Of course, we have seen a great number of prime ministers pray — and even involve themselves with churches. Labor’s historical connection with Catholicism stands as evidence that the Australian separation of church and state has sometimes been quite thin. Nevertheless, it is rare — if not unheard of — to see a sitting prime minister preach.
What exactly is being preached?
In spite of recently fanning the flames of my atheism by watching too many episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, I consider myself a rational person. I can recognise the significance of religion for Australians, and that practicing a religion can be valuable and culturally enriching for many. I can also understand a desire for protections, especially for marginalised faiths and communities subject to considerable discrimination.
I think of the Muslim community who have been impeded from building schools and places of worship by local communities and counsels, and even conspired against to prevent them from buying homes for their families.
As Chief Justice John Greig Latham said during Adelaide Co of Jehovah’s Witnesses Inc v Commonwealth in 1943:
The religion of the majority of the people can look after itself. [Freedom of religion] is required to protect the religion (or absence of religion) of minorities, and, in particular unpopular minorities.
To overturn a 1941 ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Menzies government, Chief Justice Latham invoked Section 116 of our constitution which states the Commonwealth cannot prohibit the “free exercise of any religion”.
Section 116 was also invoked in the “Stolen Generations Case” of 1997 to argue that a 1910 act which forcibly placed stolen Aboriginal children into colonial religious institutions was unconstitutional, denying them their right to the free exercise of their own spiritual practice. This argument was rejected by the High Court, claiming the laws were not enacted with this purpose in mind.
After the Morrison government released its proposal for a religious discrimination bill, the PM insisted the bill will have a similar design to other anti-discrimination acts. But following the sacking of former Wallabies player Israel Folau, the debate over Morrison’s religious discrimination bill has been regularly centred on freedom of speech. Far-right politicians have called for further protections of religious expression, which in this particular case means the ability to publicly condemn homosexuality without consequence.
Equality Australia has in turn advised that if there are to be protections of religious expression, there needs to also exist safe-guards for the LGBTIQ community and exemptions for hate speech.
Protecting the minority
There is no clear proof that Scott Morrison is using this religious discrimination bill as an attempt to enshrine homophobia into law, as some critics have hypothesised. He has promised, for example, that amendments will be made to prevent the expulsion of LGBTIQ kids from religious schools. He has also stated quite explicitly that the religious discrimination bill is intended to protect the non-religious as well.
It is concerning, however, that the church in which our PM prayed for Australia this week has been described by actress Ellen Page as “infamously anti-LGBTQ”. Hillsong would prefer to call itself “welcoming” of gay people — despite the fact that it’s advocated against homosexuality, openly refused to give LGBTIQ people any leadership or paid positions, and has been accused of institutional homophobia by a number of former members. This is not even to mention its anti-abortion stance, its history of alleged child abuse, and affiliations with the Trump administration.
It is concerning, too, that Morrison’s strongest push to campaign for religious freedom laws came in the wake of the marriage equality survey. Morrison proudly advocated against marriage equality, and when the results didn’t fall in his favour, he spoke of his fellow No voters as a “minority” whose “traditional” views deserve protection. The recent legislation proposal seems to reflect this, announcing potential amendments to the Marriage Act.
It is clear that Morrison has long considered himself a religious advocate within politics, asserting his voice as a religious one. Strange, then, that he would tell a 30,000-strong crowd of fellow worshippers that there is no “political agenda” in this work.
While some have applauded his religious openness as “transparency”, it is worth noting, as James Boyce points out, the lack of transparency in how Morrison’s Pentecostalism is informing his policy making. And of course there is the question of whether, in a free society, a specific religious belief or organisation should be informing policy at all.
Pentecostalism is indeed the fastest rising religion in the country, and with our prime minister standing as its champion, there is really no telling how far it might go.