Pentecostalism and Scott Morrison

Yakky Duck

In his first major speech as prime minister, Scott Morrison pointed to his heart and told Australians that “I’ve come to talk to you today about what’s in here”. Striding the Albury stage, calling for people to love each other and pray for rain, Morrison looked like the Pentecostal pastor he might have become if his father had not counselled against studying at a Canadian Bible college after university. But the truth is that Morrison has told the Australian public almost nothing about what his heartfelt beliefs actually are.

Secrecy concerning his religious beliefs has characterised his political career. For instance, Australians still don’t know where or when Morrison was baptised in the Holy Spirit. This detail may seem trivial compared with the implications of his unstated beliefs on policy matters, yet it is the most celebrated experience in a Pentecostal’s life. While the lack of disclosure reflects political self-interest, it is also a characteristic of Pentecostalism itself. Little more than a century old, this highly distinctive expression of Christianity has flourished in the spiritual marketplace by selling a feel-good message to seekers while keeping the full truth for trusted true believers. Staying “seeker-friendly” is a formula that has underpinned rapid Church growth and protected many Pentecostal careers.

Even though its vision looks back 2000 years to Pentecost (when the Bible tells us that believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues”), the novel expression of the faith that first emerged in Los Angeles in the early 20th century was an explicit rejection of dogma-based religion. Pentecostals sought to return to a direct personal experience of the power of God to heal, guide and transform lives. There was no need to set out a detailed statement of beliefs as Reforming Protestants did, because the Spirit was immediate, real and accessible to all.

Pentecostalism’s emphasis on individual experience over wordy wisdom has proved well suited to the modern world. In a hundred years, Pentecostal Christianity has gone from being another eccentric religion in America to occupying a position of domination around the world. Europeans and Australians are so familiar with the decline of Christianity that we miss how fast Pentecostal religion has grown in Asia, Africa and South America. There are now about half a billion Pentecostals, with more people attending church in China than in Western Europe. Its largest congregations in the world are not in the US but in South Korea.

Pentecostal gatherings vary enormously, but they share a perspective on Christian life that is largely alien to the Western tradition. The assumption that the prime minister’s Horizon Church in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire can be understood as just another conservative denomination is a major mistake: while Pentecostalism is outwardly conformist and, in its Australian variant, heavily influenced by American evangelicalism, its core teachings are very different from those of the evangelical and reformed churches that it is generally associated with.

The emphasis on personal experience over dogma makes the difference difficult to document. The religion’s starting point is not the written-down teachings of Jesus, the moral code set out in the Bible, or the instructions of the institutional Church. Nor is its essence captured by infamous conservative Christian campaigns on sex, marriage and gender. Even the comparatively well publicised “prosperity gospel” (most Pentecostals celebrate the fact that earthly gifts as well as spiritual ones are available to believers) is not a universal teaching. The essence of our prime minister’s religion is not a set of beliefs at all but a unique perspective on the Christian experience in which God is so intimately present to the saved and sanctified that he can be felt, talked to and heard at any time (an intimacy that is not confined to those who have the celebrated gift of speaking in tongues). Just as real to Pentecostals is the fact that Jesus, their Lord and friend, is not the only divine being. Jesus dominates the public face of Pentecostal Christianity – as Horizon puts it, “Jesus is the centre of our church. We preach Jesus, We worship Jesus. We love Jesus” – but this does not mean that the good news is the only news.

Pentecostalism is obsessed with the Devil to an extent that is heretical to mainstream Christianity. “Satan” is not an abstract idea but a highly personal fallen angel who, through his ability to manipulate and direct nonbelievers, largely runs the “world”. To be baptised in the Spirit is to be personally conscripted into the struggle, intimately experienced in daily life, between the forces of good and ever-present evil.

The 24/7 cosmic drama is made more intense by the fact that the play is soon coming to an end. The Devil is powerful now but he is on the verge of defeat. Only God knows exactly when Jesus will return and banish Satan to Hell, but most Pentecostals are certain that the end times are upon us.

Discussion of Satan, Hell and the Second Coming in Pentecostal churches is usually left to safe settings such as small groups (known in Horizon as Life Groups) and training courses (what the PM’s church calls “discipleship and leadership development”). But Australians are fortunate that Horizon is a signed-up member of Australian Christian Churches (formerly called the Assemblies of God in Australia), as this means there is more accountability than usual for a Pentecostal congregation.

While each member church of the ACC remains autonomous, they all subscribe to a non-negotiable doctrinal statement.

The statement affirms belief in “the personality of the devil, who, by his influence, brought about the downfall of man, and now seeks to destroy the faith of every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ”. Those who have not accepted Christ are “depraved and without spiritual life” and destined for eternal torment. The contrast between those “consigned to everlasting punishment” and those whose names are to be “found written in the book of life” is absolute. As is the member churches’ certainty “in the premillennial, imminent and personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ” that will “set up his millennial reign on this earth”.

It needs to be emphasised that making nonbelievers so completely subject to Satan’s whims and wiles, seeing the end times in so certain terms, and ascribing this level of righteousness and sanctification to the saved is contrary to the teachings of the mainstream Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, in these denominations, people in the pews are usually no longer expected to accept at face value all the words that underpin their creed, and even priests are not required to defend or uphold every doctrine. By contrast, the strength and weakness of Pentecostalism is that there is nothing half-hearted about commitment. The whole point of this religion is that the whole package defines one’s whole life. Morrison, to use an example, either carries these core beliefs or he is not a true Pentecostal. To doubt the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, the reality of spiritual war or the imminent end of the world is to fall prey to the temptation of Satan and become a backslider – and there is no evidence that Morrison has ever become that.

It is difficult to accept that affable ScoMo believes in Satan (or even a south Sydney suburban version of him) and is in receipt of daily guidance from the Holy Spirit on how to confront the Devil’s wiles. But there is no evidence for the comforting assumption that age, politics and the struggle for power have moderated Morrison’s religious beliefs. His acknowledgements are regular and straightforward. (“I’m a member of a religious community, and my pastor knows what’s going on in our church community. He would know if there was someone … teaching things that were not in accordance with what our faith believed,” he told the press in November, speaking after the Bourke Street attack in Melbourne.)

The only argument that can be made for not considering the importance of Pentecostalism on public policy is the PM’s growing reluctance to publicly proclaim the importance of his faith to his political career. Whereas his personal biography formerly acknowledged Christianity as the “driving force” behind his belief and values, since 2013 (reportedly following the advice of his colleagues) it only admits that he attends his “local church”.

However, no one close to the PM has ever suggested his Christianity is actually less important to him than it used to be, or is any way fake or contrived.

It is much more likely that since Morrison must believe that he has been called by God to lead Australia, being voter-friendly is akin to being seeker-friendly: a divinely sanctioned means to a godly end. From a Pentecostal perspective, God knows that the enemy would exploit the fact that Australians would fear a too outwardly enthusiastic believer. Given Satan’s power in the world, those baptised in the Spirit understand that being careful about to whom their truth is conveyed is an essential strategy in the ongoing cosmic war.

Scrutiny on this matter is easily deflected by a practised hand. The ignorance about Pentecostalism among the general public is shared by politicians, journalists, writers, academics and commentators everywhere. It is extraordinary how little Pentecostalism has been researched, given its global influence and growth. In this intellectual vacuum, it is not surprising that commentators mistakenly resort to caricatures of conservative Christianity to categorise it.

There are also no templates to apply when asking about this religion: Morrison is the first Pentecostal to lead a national government in the English-speaking world. There is no readily available retort when the PM states that “The Bible is not a policy handbook”, that “faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda” and that there’s no direct connection between his religious beliefs and political perspective.

Whatever a leader’s belief system, there will always be many factors influencing public policy formation. But this does not make foundational faith irrelevant to a politician’s priorities and actions. No Pentecostal quarantines their religion in a churchy quarter of their being, let alone one who has been a passionate believer since his teens and in his first speech to parliament acknowledged Brian Houston, the co-founder of Hillsong, as a mentor.

The unsurprising truth is that an informed understanding of the PM’s political career is impossible without considering his religion. His ability to maintain an unflinching self-belief and sense of righteousness through the dramatic U-turns that have characterised his rise to power reflects a central paradox of Pentecostal dogma and practice. Pentecostalism is in fact the perfect faith for a conviction politician without convictions.

It is obvious enough that Morrison’s idea of what it means to be PM is influenced by his experience of what it means to be a pastor – his constant positivity, enthusiastic hand gestures, fondness for a parliamentary clap and cheer, and wealth-enhancing ethics come straight from Horizon Church. But the analogy needs to be pushed further.

All Pentecostals are fighting on the side of God. But those who are called to leadership positions are a special force – more akin to commandos than priests. Reporting directly to the supreme commander, anointed leaders have the flexibility to deal with the enemy as circumstances require. What from the outside can look like compromise is, from the inside, more like a responsive strategy. Outsiders can shout “hypocrite” all they like, but Pentecostal leaders in all dimensions of life know the endgame.

As Allan Anderson, one of the leading scholars of Pentecostalism, has documented, it is the flexibility of Pentecostalism that has been the key to its cross-cultural success. The faith has been able to adapt equally well to the streets of Lagos and the beaches of Sydney. In deft hands, this adaptability is suited to politics too. Mutability co-exists with conviction because the conviction is genuine: Jesus is always in charge. Policy changes and loyalty realignments can be proclaimed with self-righteous certainty because the proclaimer knows that Christ is always present.

Consider the issue that first made the PM a future leadership contender. The political impact of Operation Sovereign Borders was underpinned by the ethical certainty with which the then immigration minister promoted the policy. Some Australians were understandably perturbed about how Morrison could be so enthusiastic about “turning back the boats”. Why would someone who followed the teachings of Jesus want to stop asylum seekers from attending a family funeral? How could a committed Christian keep children locked up while helping his daughter leave a present for detained kids under the church Christmas tree? These were legitimate questions, but the common answer that Morrison was a hypocrite was almost certainly wrong. Given how Pentecostal Christianity understands evil, it is much more likely that Morrison’s conviction came from the fact that he genuinely believed that the military deployment and harsh punishments for these unauthorised arrivals were the will of God. The likelihood is that, for Morrison, Operation Sovereign Borders was not just like a “war”, it was one. Faith was not being put to one side in favour of political self-interest but was being rigorously upheld.

Belief in Satan and the imminent return of Christ also helps explain the prime minister’s less-than-passionate response to the most pressing environmental issue of our time. It is not surprising that Pentecostal activism about climate change is non-existent – the end of the known world is not a matter for mere mortals to decide. When Morrison proudly showed off a piece of coal in parliament, there is no reason to doubt that he believed what he held in his hand was a gift from God.

It is also likely that Morrison has a level of scepticism about empirical science in general. One of the core doctrines of the ACC is that “all original life forms, including humanity, were made by the specific immediate creative acts of God … and that all biological changes which have occurred since creation are limited to variation within species”. In other words, humans and other animals were created by God in their essential form. If Morrison does not believe this, it should be easy enough to say so.

Because Pentecostals also generally believe that specified events outlined in the Bible have to occur in Israel before Jesus can return, the decision by President Trump to move the American embassy to Jerusalem has been widely interpreted as a concession to his evangelical supporters. Securing Jewish votes in Wentworth is an incomplete explanation for the PM’s rush of blood regarding the Australian embassy. It would be most surprising if Morrison’s uncritical embrace of the short-term political advantages of an embassy shift did not accord with what he has long believed to be the will of God.

The question of salvation is the most sensitive of all these matters. In the Pentecostal world view, there is a clear delineation between those who are saved and those who are not, those who are accepted by God and those who have spurned his offer of salvation. This is an outlook that encourages a “them” and “us” understanding of human community. It is because this world view is easily reconciled with that of right-wing populists that our PM’s religion is such a potentially dangerous one.

Pentecostalism cannot fully explain any particular policy position, but Morrison’s highly distinctive religion explains the self-righteous conviction that he sustains through every shift in loyalty, every reform in policy and every promotional gesture. His irrepressible bounce is grounded in his faith that the cosmic cause is always larger than the earthly battle.

On October 28, 2018, as Scott Morrison’s nascent prime ministership was descending into unholy chaos in the wake of the Wentworth by-election, one of the pastors of Horizon Church, Jackson Moore, preached an unusually frank sermon entitled “Stand and Watch God Fight”. Moore invoked one of the favourite Pentecostal passages, Ephesians 6:13, to call his congregation to put on “the full armour of God”. His theme was that the true follower of Christ must be ready for the “perfect storm” when everything will seem lost and “the Enemy” appears triumphant. What is asked of the believer when the Evil One seems to be in control? Just to “stand firm and see the deliverance”. The only possibility of defeat comes from succumbing to the Enemy’s attempt to “intimidate” and “distract”. If a believer resists Satan’s assault, God fights not just with you but for you.

The polls suggest that Scott Morrison will not survive his perfect storm. But if he pulls off a victory so improbable, there is little doubt that he will also believe that the miracle came because God delivered him victory.

If for no other reason than this dangerous delusion, Australians deserve to know more about what the leader of our country believes. Pentecostalism might not be a cult, but in terms of what ordinary people have been told about its true teachings, it may as well be. Those charged with scrutinising our politicians should put aside the national discomfort about discussing religion, and do what they would if a political leader subscribed to any other little-known ideology. Morrison must be made to tell us more about the faith that has shaped his life: What does he really think of the Devil?

James Boyce is a writer and historian.

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