Scott Morrison likes to see signs of God at work in his life. Who could forget the painting of the dirty big eagle that Morrison took as a message from God that he just had to keep going when all seemed lost in the 2019 campaign?
Or the “miracle” birth of the Morrisons’ first daughter, Abbey, on the seventh day of the seventh month of 2007 after years of IVF. In Parliament, Morrison said the date told him that God had “a very good sense of humour in reminding us of his faith in us”.
It is passing strange that out of the 8 billion people on the planet God has twice gone directly to Morrison, although to be fair perhaps the odds tighten somewhat if you only count Christians of the Pentecostal persuasion as being in the running.
But if Morrison has been paying close attention to signs from God, then surely the fall of his friend and mentor Brian Houston just six weeks ago when he was forced to relinquish all Hillsong roles must have weighed heavily. The rise of Morrison to the top of Australian politics has had its parallel in the rise of Houston to the pinnacle of Pentecostal Christianity.
Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox
What is striking is the role of women in exposing the flaws of both Morrison and Houston — two of a kind who are defined by their religious conviction that females serve while men lead. Women feel things. Men do things.
In that sense the two are peas in a pod: public leaders with 1950s-era views of gender roles who have been clobbered by the realities of 2022.
Morrison has been fully and brutally exposed for his inability to match it with women — a design flaw in the prime minister which now sees him swamped by a tide of female independent candidates, so dominant that they have created zones where he fears to tread. And that is not to mention the phalanx of Liberal women who can’t bear the man.
Less well known is the impact of a young women’s movement in the unravelling of Houston and Hillsong.
Earlier this year Monique Rafton, who was once a Hillsong follower — an “ex-vangelical”, as she puts it — completed a masters dissertation that described the exodus of young women like herself from Christian fundamentalism.
Rafton’s work found young women were leaving because of intellectual doubt over the veracity of Christianity’s claims and due to “moral criticisms” of its teachings and norms, particularly related to women and the LGBTQIA+ community.
Her work argued that fundamentalist Christianity had wielded the “patriarchal tool” of “male headship” to maintain its grip on power in the face of an increasingly secular and feminist society. The movement to leave, she concluded, was now large enough to undermine the social and political power held by evangelicals.
At the same time a blog post titled “Losing My Religion and Leaving the Church Behind” by Ruby Claire, a former Anglican church follower, went viral among Christian women with its depiction of religious-based oppression.
“Every Sunday a picture was painted of the life that the Christian Church had planned for me,” she wrote. “I was to meet my lover in the row behind, or on a beach mission, or serving at a conference. He would be kind and full of grace, Godly and servant-hearted. We would date for a year, two years and questions were asked (‘What is your intention? Are you going to pop the question soon?’) and then we’d marry, the temptation of sex greatly impacting the timing.”
Of her post-church life Ruby wrote: “I get drunk sometimes. I believe in same-sex marriage. I don’t think you have to go to church to have a genuine relationship with God. I believe women should be paid fairly and have an equal role in a church setting (let them preach, for God’s sake).”
“I know that my mission, whether God-given, inherent or driven by my own sense of character, is to love fiercely, to protect those facing injustice, and to respect the environment that continues to prove its immense power over all of humanity,” she concluded.
The various crises to hit Hillsong, which Crikey has reported on over the past 12 months, have a common thread.
In Australia the indecent assault of a young Hillsong College student, Anna Crenshaw, ultimately became a rallying point for other Hillsong women who watched an unfolding injustice. Crenshaw attempted to deal with her grievance the right way, using Hillsong’s internal complaint processes, but ran into a thicket of connections between the older generation of men who control the church. One of those men was the father of the young man who assaulted Crenshaw. His connections to the Houstons tracked back to the earliest days of Hillsong.
A subsequent review of the Hillsong College culture revealed entrenched discrimination and favouritism towards those connected to the old Hillsong cronies.
In the United States the Crenshaw case fed into a growing list of church scandals. As Crikey revealed, a woman’s treatment at the hands of a New York pastor had been swept under the carpet and only came to light after she made a formal allegation years later that she had been raped.
Houston’s hold on Hillsong became untenable in March this year with revelations of his behaviour with two women, in 2012 and in 2019. The transgressions were known to the men who run Hillsong and who have known the Houstons for decades. They had elected to keep it quiet until word leaked out late last year. For some younger Hillsong women, the extent of that coverup broke their faith in Brian Houston and his band of old mates. They were glad to see him go.
Houston’s 2019 transgression occurred at Hillsong’s annual conference, at the end of a long day. Houston, drunk and apparently feeling the effects of anti-anxiety medication, took the lift up to his room. Unable to find his key he apparently knocked on the door of a woman who was a Hillsong supporter and stayed in her room for 40 minutes. Or so he says.
Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, had attended the very same conference. On stage with Brian Houston and at the pastor’s urging, Morrison made a public pledge in front of more than 20,000 Hillsong followers that he would enact religious freedom laws in the current term of Parliament.
Houston is gone. Morrison clings on, still fighting for the laws he promised his friend.
If there’s another painting of a soaring eagle out there, the minders will need to get it in front of Morrison quick smart. And it’ll need to be a massive bird this time.