The attention given to the Prime Minister's religious style and Pentecostal affiliation is both surprising and completely understandable. At a time when religious affiliation has been in decline for some time and the non-religious community growing steeply, debate around church-state issues has taken a non-traditional turn centred on Scott Morrison himself.
Australians, unlike Americans, have traditionally taken a laid-back attitude to religious belief, other than the bitter Protestant-Catholic sectarianism which dogged our social history and shaped most of our party politics until the 1950s and 1960s. Look at the biographies of earlier Australian prime ministers and, with very few exceptions, you won't find much about their personal spirituality and religion. That is either because they didn't give it much attention themselves or because it was considered a private matter, unrelated to public life.
Australian prime ministers, including atheists and agnostics, all had their background in the major Christian denominations - Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics. They were mainstream with a couple of exceptions, and few were defined by their religious belief in the way Morrison is becoming so.
In the Australian tradition of no discussion of sex, politics or religion over the dinner table, most prime ministers played their religious beliefs down. Even on a big issue like government funding of private religious schools, the approach of prime ministers has largely not been defined by their religious beliefs or denomination. The Catholic Labor prime ministers kept right away from the issue because it was seen as divisive and self-interested. Eventually it was a combination of Menzies the Presbyterian and Whitlam the agnostic who set up the current framework for supporting private schools, against both secular and some Christian opposition.
Over the past 20 years, however, religion in public life has started to take on a higher profile. When I began teaching a university course about religion and politics two decades ago, it was in the context of the Howard government and the internal Liberal Party politics featuring the Lyons Forum, a pro-family conservative Christian ginger group.
Ten years ago, when I was awarded a fellowship by the Museum of Australian Democracy to study the faith of Australian prime ministers, the focus was on Kevin Rudd, who defeated Howard in 2007. Rudd tried to change the attitude of Labor towards religious voters, whom his research had shown had disconnected from the party at the 2004 election. Part of this project was Rudd openly defining himself as a religious person and debating Howard on platforms provided by the Australian Christian Lobby. Rudd was notorious during his time as prime minister for his church-door interviews.
Julia Gillard, publicly atheist, soon displaced Rudd, and thus began another interesting twist to the religion in politics story. Eventually she was replaced in turn by Tony Abbott - known as Captain Catholic - who once again elevated prime ministerial religious belief to centre stage in battles over abortion and same-sex marriage.
The focus was not only on the extent of Abbott's capacity to divorce his religious beliefs from public policy, but also, in matters of immigration policy and stopping the boats, on his failure to be true to his beliefs. Christian critics, as well as other opponents, accused him of hypocrisy. Catholic audiences might have backed him on sexual morality issues, but were often utterly unimpressed by his stance on refugees and asylum seekers. Abbott was also wedged by his nominal spiritual leader, Pope Francis, on climate change and the environment.
Malcolm Turnbull, a self-described "imperfect Catholic", lowered the temperature somewhat on religion and politics, but took plenty of heat from within his own denomination over his support for same-sex marriage. There are similarities here with Joe Biden and the treatment he has received from some in his own church.
Much of the discussion of Morrison needs the context of religion and politics in Australian public life over the past 25 years. The framework is not new. On the one hand there is concern that his religiosity is impacting on public policy inappropriately. Same-sex marriage, which Morrison opposed, is part of this story. The 2019 federal election was also another occasion, like 2004, when elements of the religious community in western Sydney apparently disconnected from Labor and supported the Coalition.
On the other hand, Morrison, like Abbott, is accused of hypocrisy because of an alleged gap between his Christianity and his public policies in relation to asylum seekers, refugees and climate change. It cuts both ways. He is too Christian for some, and not Christian enough for others.
There is also the issue of Pentecostalism and his personal style. Morrison is the first Christian Prime Minister from outside the major denominations. As well as values such as the prosperity gospel, he shares with his Pentecostal brethren a religious style which involves demonstrative worship and a particular language and imagery. When he invites the media into his worship, and when he speaks to Christian groups, he is different from any PM who has gone before him.
The difference is noticeable to other Christians as well as the curious general public. Whether they see it as authentic, quirky, scary or just his own business is unclear. It is also unclear whether Morrison cares how it is perceived.
He is such a calculating political figure in other respects that it would be surprising if he had not thought about the impression he creates. My guess is that voters worry about his policies more than his style. For all those who are put off by the latter, there may be equal numbers who are attracted by it.
In the end it is policies that matter - and that is how the electorate will judge him and his government.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.