Some people take offence at the suggestion that Scott Morrison’s religious beliefs influence his political actions. One of the chief objectors is Morrison himself.
“The Bible is not a policy handbook,” he has insisted from the beginning of his prime ministership.
Maybe he’s right. But Morrison’s political virtues and his Pentecostal faith seem to be so of one that it is impossible to figure out where one ends and the other begins. He dabs at it here and there, such as when he talks of Satan lurking in social media.
But the ultimate expression came in April this year when Morrison flew to the Gold Coast to appear on stage at the national conference of the Australian Christian Churches, the umbrella organisation for Australia’s Pentecostal churches.
It was Morrison as you’ve never seen him before — guard down, back home at last, at one with his audience. His address was peppered with the code words and insider references.
He spoke about how he had secretly used the religious practice of the laying on of hands to comfort bushfire survivors. He spoke of a painting he saw at an art gallery — “the biggest picture of a soaring eagle”, as he recalled it — when he asked for a sign from God during the election campaign of 2019. Morrison took this to mean he should “not grow weary”, but rather should “soar like an eagle”. Morrison fused his public and his religious life unequivocally that night.
Taxpayers footed the bill for his travel. What they also paid for was for Morrison to give a public shout-out to his friend and mentor Brian Houston. “Just pay you honour, mate,” the prime minister offered in tribute.
At the time Houston was the subject of a NSW Police investigation into the alleged concealment of information relating to child sexual abuse committed by his father, the late pastor Frank Houston. Can Morrison not have been aware of that? It had, after all, been confirmed publicly by the NSW Police commissioner in parliamentary hearings, and the details leading to the investigation had been very publicly aired at the McClellan royal commission into child abuse years before.
Morrison was joined on stage by senior figures of Australia’s Pentecostal movement — people who had also been aware years earlier of Frank Houston’s crime but had not told police.
There were people watching Morrison’s dance with the religious from afar, though, who knew all of this and were morally repulsed by what they saw. Those observers are an odd collection of folk: believers, nonbelievers, abuse victims and former insiders.
They are united by the idea that the leader of a country should not lend the weight of office to someone being investigated for a criminal offence. They include those who look beyond the narrow legal case to the big, unresolved moral issue hanging over Hillsong — that of the cases of abuse of which Brian Houston is potentially aware, but which happened outside Australia.
Morrison took refuge with old friends at a moment when he was reeling from a barrage of sexual assault allegations against his government. In choosing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Houston and Pentecostal fellow-travellers, Morrison aligned himself with a culture which is overwhelmingly — indeed, archaically — masculine.
Hillsong might be seen as the hip Christian alternative, but it is darkly discriminatory. Its patronising position towards women is built into the fabric of its being. When it comes to who can and who can’t wield power, it’s worth quoting an extract from the constitution of Hillsong’s Sydney Christian Life Centre. Here we learn what qualities are needed to be a “member” of the hierarchy.
The 15 attributes which the member must have include:
As to Family relationships
a) The husband of one wife 1 Timothy 3:2
b) Rules his own house well 1 Timothy 3:3-4; Titus 1:6
Character and Reputation
a) Good reputation (he must be honest) 1 Timothy 3:7
b) Not given to wine 1 Timothy 3:3
c) Not greedy for money 1 Timothy 3:3
The biblical citation 1 Timothy refers to letters sent by the Apostle Paul to advise his younger colleague on how to establish and run a ministry. The advice is alive and well in Brian Houston’s church, where nine of the company’s 10 board directors are men. Out of 27 current and former directors of the board, stretching back to the early 1990s, only two have been women.
There is a point at which Morrison’s identification as a Pentecostal Christian seems to supersede good political judgment, suggesting that he prioritises his religious commitment above sound policy. Why else would a prime minister so publicly identify with such a brutally outmoded culture in 2021, especially when under attack for his handling of issues relating to sexual assault?
His behaviour is also at odds with the tenor of the national apology delivered to institutional sex abuse survivors in August 2018 — almost three years ago to the day. Morrison evinced empathy when he spoke of the “never-heard pleas of tortured souls” who had been “bewildered by an indifference to the unthinkable theft of their innocence”.
Yet in the following year he attended an all-bells-and-whistles Hillsong function with Brian Houston. The move enraged and distressed Brett Sengstock, the man who had been abused by Frank Houston as a child. Despite this, Morrison repeated the dose at the Australian Christian Churches conference in April.
Australia has, in any case, seen a version of this movie before.
It happened to be about former prime minister Tony Abbott and his close confidant of decades, Cardinal George Pell.
Pell is not guilty of any crime, but the McClellan royal commission found that he was “not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy” by the early 1970s, but that “he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.
How is it that two of Australia’s last three prime ministers have been perfectly at ease with these men of religion with their secrets and unanswered questions?
There is a moral betrayal when political leaders ignore the evidence of royal commissions and police investigations.
Political leaders, even accidental ones like Morrison, have a responsibility to find out the truth and preserve the standards of office.
Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800. Further support is available at Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.
Survivors and Mates Support Network (SAMSN) provides support for male survivors of child sexual abuse.
Read more of our reporting on Hillsong here.