One consequence of having Scott Morrison as Prime Minister will be that the place of religion in Australian politics will continue to be fraught. The conservative faith communities reckon they are under siege and being chased out of the public square. Many were on the losing side of last year’s same sex marriage decision. Yet now one of their own again holds the highest political office.
Morrison’s religious faith is a well known and central part of his identity. Biblical quotations pepper his language. He and his wife are strong members of his local Pentecostal community and in his major public speeches, including his first parliamentary speech in 2008, he has emphasised his biblical faith in a very personal way, including his reflection on his wife falling pregnant after many years of waiting.
In policy terms religion forms the basis of his social conservatism, including his opposition to same sex marriage. But he distinguished himself from some other religious social conservatives by pledging some respect for the popular decision on same sex marriage legislation when it came before parliament. He was one of 10 MPs to abstain.
Nevertheless, he has strongly argued for increased protections for religious freedom following the marriage equality campaign, on the grounds that those of faith, especially Christians, needed protection. Last December, when he alleged that some Greens were mocking Christmas, he pledged to call out discrimination and to stand up for people of faith if their religious festivals were denigrated.
The religious protections he sought then included the ability for parents to withdraw their children from schools if they were taught about same sex marriage and protections for religious organisations that currently have tax-deductible status or receive public funds.
Just what that means for religious freedoms policies after the report of the Ruddock inquiry into freedom of religion, which has suffered a strategically delayed release, is unclear. It is one area where the difference between Morrison’s values and those of Turnbull may make a policy difference. Nevertheless, he is on record as saying that “the Bible is not a policy handbook”, which my own research into The Faith of Australian Prime Ministers for the Australian Prime Ministers Centre in the Museum of Australian Democracy showed is almost never the case anyway.
He may conclude that debating religious freedom in the first months of his leadership, while offering a bridge to conservatives, could well be a recipe for damaging culture wars within Liberal and Coalition ranks in which he would run the risk of being outflanked by more extreme religious conservatives.
It is not at all rare for Australian political leaders to be Christians, despite the fears of conservatives. Paradoxically, given the falling number of Christians, it may even be more common now than among past leaders. One of the best recent compendiums of such leaders' beliefs is contained in the recent book by Greg Sheridan, God is Good for You.
While Sheridan does not profile Morrison, his interviews with past and present national leaders of various Christian persuasions include Kim Beazley, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull. Other current federal MPs interviewed included Kristina Keneally, Penny Wong, Peter Khalil and Andrew Hastie. The list includes all the major traditional Christian denominations, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists and Uniting Church, as well as growing minorities like Coptic Christians and Pentecostals.
With Howard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison making up five of the last six prime ministers, the atheist Julia Gillard being the exception, Christians have no justification for feeling unrepresented. It is non-believing Australians who may rightly feel left out. Christians should have no fear of powerful allies in public life, as none of the above list are backward about their beliefs. But that does not mean they will inevitably be on the winning side because Australian society has changed.
While the list is bipartisan, including many Labor figures, the predominant image of God in the public square is conservative. This may have been dictated by the focus of recent debates, including same sex marriage, where there has been prominent religious opposition.
Also important in framing public perception has been the noticeable number of conservative Christians among those opposed to Turnbull, including Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz. A letter to The Sydney Morning Herald observed that Turnbull the Catholic was torn down by fellow Catholics on the extreme right.
At the same time campaigns for asylum seekers and refugees, increased foreign aid, raising unemployment benefits, defending the environment and many others have all had a significant Christian contribution, sometimes leadership. There is an active Christian Left to match the Christian Right with representation right across the political spectrum.
Not all Christian politicians are overt about their religious beliefs. Some of that may be strategic when building bridges across social divides, but it may also reflect a belief that faith is a personal matter not to be paraded in public. That is an Australian tradition, reflecting past sectarianism between denominations more than a divide between belief and unbelief.
When conservative Christians feel that their values are overlooked in public discussions, or within the Liberal Party as Senator Fierravanti-Wells alleged when resigning from the Turnbull ministry, then they should remember the many other failed campaigns supported by progressive Christians. They should also remember the non-Christian faithful, like Muslims and Jews. Christians are winners and losers because that is the nature of a pluralist democracy.
Christianity is so diverse that overall it is not a reliable marker of political positions. Morrison will be judged as one individual whose social conservatism has religious roots.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University