Scott Morrison took a risk - no doubt a calculated one - in talking frankly and personally at a conference of fellow Pentecostals - but I am not going to criticise him for doing so. The risk was that he would be criticised for mixing matters of church and state - perhaps in some way of misusing his political position to somehow further the interests of his sect. For some secularists indeed, merely confessing to religious feelings might deepen their personal dislike for him.
On the other hand, Morrison's simple expression of his faith might have endeared him to others, not least many of what he has called the silent people - ordinary Australians who are proud devotees of a particular religion. Such people, he thinks are not embarrassed about their adherence, but increasingly worried, or made to worry about whether religion generally, or their particular type of it, or their capacity to maintain their own moral and ethical ideas is under attack in an increasingly secular society.
For himself, no doubt, Morrison, who has had a dreadful couple of months, must have found solace in being in the company of people who believe, like him, that he is under divine guidance and that he has been specially chosen by God to lead the community. If the Morrison government was very narrowly elected by the people, it seems, God was inspiring our pencils in the polling booth.
For a journalist, dealing with the religious views of politicians is a tricky task. His religion, and his religious beliefs, are not mine; indeed I have some trouble in regarding them as Christian, for all of the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ. I am not, as such, much interested in what he believes - though I respect that he believes sincerely and that he sees himself as guided in his actions by the precepts of his religion. But I spend much of my writing time these days considering the character of our political leaders, and I am very interested in his moral and ethical base, and his values, and what he has to say about how those values guide him in making decisions.
Australian politicians are not much given to discussing their religion or their moral values and base in any sort of abstract terms. In recent decades, indeed, most leaders talk in the indicative sense - describing what is and what is not happening, rather than in any imperative sense - what should happen, and what other people should do. Particularly in a multicultural society, many do not like to sound preachy, or pious, even if they publicly practise their religion. Moreover many mentally separate the personal and private morality, perhaps particularly on matters of sex, they believe they ought to follow, and a more general, more secular set of ethics they think should be promoted and practised in the public square. This sort of secular ethic involves question of public interest, respect for human rights and human dignity, and a view about the role of government in the community.
Others refer to their religious beliefs, or sometimes, while eschewing current ones, admit that their ethical stock of ideas come out of religion and what they were taught when they were young. For some, the focus is on social justice values - how government and society ought to be dealing with those who are most disadvantaged. There's a big focus on fairness, on duty and responsibility and on basic human rights.
For others, such as Morrison, social justice matters are somewhat secondary to how one behaves individually rather than as a unit of a wider society; the primary focus, apart from the self is the family, and one's mutual rights and duties within it. While Morrison, as a public citizen does not publicly resist community views on matters such as same sex marriage, abortion, or the role of women in the family and the wider society, it is quite clear that his personal views do not align with our society's laws and customs. He believes, moreover, that a good many of his "silent people" share his views.
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Morrison once said during an election campaign that he was running for public office, not for the position of Pope. He is said to be supremely pragmatic and flexible - much more focused on staying in power than in using power to achieve any particular purpose.
He may be a master of marketing, as some think, but we never know his rationale, the processes of his thinking, or the long-term outcomes he wants. Still less has he been prepared to give anything in the nature of a running commentary on his agenda - he is chronically secretive, and almost invariably resentful of those who demand background facts, explanations, or statements of what he knew at particular times.
H.L Mencken once said that one should respect every man's religion in the same way that one respected his theory that his wife was very beautiful and that his children were of above-average intelligence. That might be witty, and sometimes perhaps apt when people are trying to impose their views on others. But religious and moral beliefs - even the moral beliefs of atheists - are at the core of that private personality that respect for human rights is all about. No one is obliged to believe what another does, but open disparagement or disrespect is for many at least as offensive as the belittling of women, or different races or ethnic groups. Some religions are attempting to build up a constituency for the idea that the right to religious freedom is currently under assault from powerful secular forces in society, and that new constitutional protections are needed to protect the right to religion.
Morrison, indeed, has promised such legislation, though he has discovered that deciding what should and what should not get protection is a very tricky business - as apt to produce further discrimination and disrespect as to protect people from it. I do not think that the case has been made out that there is a big threat to freedom of religion, and I have yet to see how it is threatened by laws about marriage, equality or forbidding discrimination. But the idea of a constitutional protection might gain more support if it were phrased as freedom of thought rather than religion - and it was about the right of anyone both to think what she liked and not to be punished for the expression of that thought as a mere idea. While some see this as under threat by an ever more coercive surveillance state, the problem is whether it can protect sexist, racist or offensive ideas, while they are mere ideas.
A good many believing Christians regularly attending churches no longer know or care much about the theological arguments which once caused bitter wars, burnings for heresy or permanent divisions within families. Nor are they much reminded of them from the pulpit. Some religions and sects, moreover, have lost considerable moral authority in recent years, particularly after public scandals such as proof of sexual and physical abuse of children and others vulnerable to people in positions of power, or, in some cases, proof of great hypocrisy by some church leaders - lifestyles at total variance with that which they have publicly advocated. Even some of Morrison's religious colleagues have been open to such criticism, though they have been far from alone once one looks at more mainstream churches.
But alas for those seeking to understand Scott Morrison by what he says at gatherings of fellow religionists, the ordinary member of the public is not much better informed about what makes him tick. In part it's the divide between the private and the public Morrison, with little emerging other than his feeling that he is one of the elect. No doubt this has a powerful influence over his insouciance and indifference to question about transparency, about process and about fairness. A person thinking God is on his side explicitly blessing every decision he makes might think that mere mortals, such as journalists or opposition members, have a cheek in questioning his decisions, his actions, his motives or his judgement. All the more so when a portion of his team also feel that the leader is so blessed.
Morrison's idea about this divine mandate is not greatly dissimilar from the view that many of the American Christian right developed about Donald Trump. Few, probably, were deceived by Trump's own personality or moral worth. But many came to think the Trump, for all of his imperfections had become God's instrument for doing right, in much the same way that God was thought to have acted through other imperfect people, such as Saul or David to advance the cause of the people of Israel. In a secular society - secular so as to protect freedom of conscience - it's a dangerous notion, with a serious risk of developing to delusion and megalomania.
It's all very well to have a prime minister who believes that he has been anointed by God for his task, and is thus above some of the checks and balances imposed by law and by custom on the mere mortals who have preceded him. Experience and the career so far of Donald Trump suggest, however, that a day of reckoning will come when either human chicanery or an act of omission by God deprives him of his mandate. Even assuming he goes with good grace, it is doubtful that the structures and styles he developed in government can or should endure.
A reversion to constitutional government involves the end of government by decree - the spending of money by ministerial whim, authorised not by appropriation and the processes laid down by law, but by ministerial discretions inserted into legislation. The deviation from proper practice was greatly potentiated by pandemic economics, and the determination of government that money put into the economy would go through the private sector - generally through mates and cronies of government - rather than through the public administration and the processes it has developed to ensure wise stewardship of public funds. It involves a reversion to accountable government, subject to administrative law and freedom of information legislation. And it involves proactive measures to ensure the probity of government action, whether by ministers, by public servants or public officials - sometimes even by people and structures, such as the political parties, given access to public funds, resources and rights.
One of the problems for a reckoning could well end up being relations between government and church organisations - not least some of those, such as Morrison's Pentecostal movement, which have secured tens of millions from discretionary grants by government. The artificial labels put on some of these subventions might be argued to prove that these were not direct subventions to religion. But a critical constitutional court might well find that in practice they breach fundamental principles of the separation of church and state. If that happens, the consequence of a brief period of Morrison rule may well end up being the compromise of some of the temples he has helped establish.
The Australian constitution protects freedom of religion, including freedom of being of no religion if one wishes. The Commonwealth - and I think the states, though this is not entirely certain - are not allowed to establish any particular religion as the official religion of the country; perhaps, as in Britain and many places in Europe with a paid clergy.
Government cannot ban any religion, for example, Islam, or any particular religious cult or sect, for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses. Nor can it set any sort of religious test as a qualification for government office.
The United States has a similar section in its constitution, and the interpretation there is slightly different from ours. There are some folk who think that the freedom of religion provisions originally meant that one could not discriminate against different protestant sects, but that one could discriminate against Catholics, or Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. As in Australia, the US has readily approved measures which benefit all religions -- without favouring any in particular. The obvious example involves very big tax breaks for religious organisations, including offshoots involved in education, health care or foreign aid.
The Australian Catholic church considered as a single unit spends more money from government than the state of Western Australia.
But the American courts are far more wary about schemes that produce excessive "entanglement" between Church organisations and the state. If, for example, governments give subsidies to both government and religious schools to advance some proper purpose - such as literacy - a system of requiring all schools to acquit their grants, show how they have spent it, and what results they have achieved, might be regarded as producing excessive entanglement.
Various religions in Australia receive enormous support from the state, if never directly so as to advance a particular religious agenda, ideology or system of belief. Major religions, such as the Catholic church, receive government subsidies in maintaining schools and school systems, in providing hospitals and health care, in providing aged care and care for children in institutions and the community, and in providing welfare services for people in need. The Catholic church considered as a single unit spends more money from government than the state of West Australia. That's on top of exemption from rates, goods and services taxes, income from investments and taxes on surpluses - never, of course, called profits in non-government institutions. Its agencies get their money because they are providing services - generally, although not always, without discrimination - that otherwise governments state and federal might have to provide.
Some churches have also been adept in obtaining government grants - including through increasingly discretionary funds administered directly by politicians - for projects such as sporting facilities, building and grounds security, or for providing, under government contracting out, services administering unemployment, disability and welfare services. Often the terms of such sub-contracts involve clear arrangements that would be in difficulty under the American entanglement doctrine, as where, for example, taking the money involves a duty not to criticise the government.
Long before sects of American origin, such as the Pentecostals, arrived on the Australian scene, there was vigorous debate about the role of religion in the public square. It was, for the first 60 years of federation complicated by intense sectarianism, particularly against Irish-Catholics. Many believed that "state-aid" for schools was constitutionally forbidden, even under schemes where aid went equally to all groups.
There is lasting bitterness about the pattern of distribution of government money, particularly to non-government schools, many of which are obviously far better off than even the best state schools, yet still receiving enormous subsidies. But there may be a special type of anger going for payments to groups such as the Pentecostals. First, although they have become incredibly influential within the Morrison government, the total number of Australian adherents is very low - less than 0.2 per cent of the Australian population. There will be an inevitable tendency to think that the generosity has been more a matter of inside connections than any intrinsic merit. Other, bigger, and more mainstream faiths may have little to complain of, in terms of the money they have been receiving, but they have not received funds through the same pipelines. And the worldliness and opulent lifestyles of some of the leadership - as well as scandals affecting leaders of some congregations - reinforces a sense that need was not the primary consideration.
Some have suggested that any sort of Labor attack on such relationships will backfire. It would be used to argue that Labor does not respect the morally conservative views or the beliefs of ordinary decent "quiet Australians" who attend church and are worried about the long-term impact of "permissive" laws, such as on same-sex marriage. But neither the beliefs nor the lifestyles of such people are under attack. The revenue and the power are as ever going to the top.
- Jack Waterford is a regular commentator and former editor of The Canberra Times firstname.lastname@example.org