(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

So who was it who leaked the videos of Scott Morrison at Christian camp?

Was it you, Jesus? You are naughty. Was it some disgruntled happy clappy? (Are there such things? They all look so joyous.) Was it some Labor mole? Or was it the Libs themselves in some culture war standard double-reverse-squeeze play, which seems to be the fashion these days?

The thinking would go like this, I imagine:

  1. Scomo is revealed to be a happy-clappy who is, erm, unrepentant about his happy-clappiness, having kind of downplayed it for a while
  2. The just-so stories and secret laying-on of hands, etc, strike a lot of people as a little weird and creepy
  3. Progressives react with predictable outrage to this secret takeover of the country by God’s warriors
  4. The reaction is so extreme that the mainstream reacts to the scorn by identifying with Morrison because they, like him, are accustomed to being scorned by progressives for their beliefs
  5. ScoMo comes to seem not merely one of the people but a little Jesus-like himself, suffering the baying of the mob for our sins
  6. Labor looks like it is the choice of a bunch of arrogant progressives
  7. People return, reattach to ScoMo as the nation’s daggy dad
  8. Votes!
  9. Victory!

There are a couple more loops in it, quite possibly, but that’s the gist. You think that’s too mad a strategy to be real? You need to catch up with Australian politics as it is now. Or Coalition politics at least. Someone in ScoMo’s office may well have diagrammed this all out. 

Since his elevation to the office, Morrison and his team appear to have kept a careful hold on how much of his religiosity leaks out, since early revelations made him look distinctly odd and played against the image of Scotty from the shire. But that was quickly and successfully modified — or just happened by drift — and Morrison’s faith was plugged into nationalism.

In the 2019 election the Coalition rolled out its notion of “quiet Australians” and “the promise of Australia” and “have a go to get a go”. Did this work? Did it make any difference? We don’t know, but Labor didn’t have anything like it and the Coalition won.

I don’t think anyone was crocheting home samplers with “have a go to get a go” circling Scotty’s head. Many may have found it twee and embarrassing, but that wouldn’t have stopped it working. It may well have given it cover to work at a deeper level.

Public relations “spin” was invented by Edward Bernays around the time of World War I. He was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and he pretty much applied Freud’s theories in reverse to come up with modern messaging.

Kitsch imagery and naive sentimentalism can thus work as cover for a deeper message. The conscious mind rejects the topmost message, which allows the unconscious to accept an underlying message more fulsomely.

Yes, no one is fooled into thinking that Scotty builds all those damn cubbyhouses. But the image acts as a metonomy for what’s really being talked about: the positive imagery is some notion of home, groundedness, the real. The underside of it is, of course: our home. Our place. Us, not them. You, not they. 

Morrison’s message thus draws on religious notion of a covenant and secularises it. Australia is the promised land. The promise is that there is some real relation between effort and reward. Which is a promise that you will be protected from the caprice of fate. The message can be sold so sincerely because Morrison believes it — which is the best way of faking it. Possibly because of his background in tourism peak bodies — which involves, what else, but selling a promised land to the world — Morrison and his team understand the power of concrete imagery, visual messaging, and the power of the simple and repeated symbol. 

Maybe someone has decided that now was the time to torque it up a bit. Or not.

The revelations are not without political risk, for all the reasons spoken of here yesterday, but the notion that they would certainly damage Morrison in an increasingly secularised society is simple-minded.

There may be a decline in organised religiosity — especially of the “mainline” churches — but both the evangelical churches and a more general vague spiritualism continue to grow.

Morrison and his cohort would be horrified to see themselves lumped in with the crystal healers and people who believe that there is some generic “force” in the universe but I suspect it would be the case that many people could find something to admire in the strength of his faith.

They may identify also with the suburban non-establishment character of that faith. Morrison is apparently a member of “a church” started by his father, a cop, and it doesn’t really get much more “ordained” than that. Such people, if they go out into the world, learn the trick of living among the faithless. Such churches descend from absolute notions of the saved and the damned of Baptism and Calvinism, and such people — if they go out into the world at all — learn to dissemble, because they regard the world as currently under Satan’s sway.

To dissemble and to proselytise. Morrison was doing this from the start, as your correspondent noted soon after he gained power and told the audience at the National Science Awards that science begins with belief. Which is a rather perfect inversion of how science actually works. But it allowed him to spruik the faith, to bear witness — which his sect instructs, indeed demands, that he do.

The suggestion that he has seen normal prime ministerial meet-and-greets as an opportunity for the “laying on of hands”, the direct infusion of faith, reinforces the possibility that he regards prime ministerial duties as equally split between running the country and spreading the faith.

The least important part of all this is the “prosperity gospel” angle, which is the one that has attracted most attention from progressives. Whatever role this plays behind the scenes, Morrison’s quasi-religious message to the country is the opposite of the individualist, anti-state message that similarly aligned American preachers spruik.

Instead, Morrison’s message fuses national collectivism with a sense of immanent presence to give a lustre to ordinary lives. The kingdom is with you because you live in a land of promise, whether you are defending our borders or building the kids a cubbyhouse.

I don’t really understand why progressives don’t understand what is happening here. Perhaps you need to have had a religious education to understand it from within, that even our secular life is shot through with Christian understandings of the world, of the power of myth, that modern politics is founded in parable.

The common progressive reaction — that “this is all crap” — is an expression of incomprehension of, and envy at, its success. Labor, founded on a mix of Methodism and Marx, used to understand this. It has ceased to. Its only full success since 1996 came when it was led by a man who mixed Methodism and Mao.

It talks about going to the suburbs, and then offers them a focus on campaigns tackling reconciliation and violence against women — progressive substitutes for a religious-national faith. Its dominant reaction is a barely concealed exhausted exasperation, with people for whom Morrison’s message provides some succour.

Without a parallel message, it may well sneer its way back into opposition all over again. Or the Australian public may throw this mob out.

Who knows? Jesus does, but he’s not saying. Not on the ballot? You’ve got to be kidding.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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