When the New York Times ran an article with the headline “Scott Morrison is a New Kind of Australian Prime Minister: An Evangelical Christian,” many of us Australian Christians groaned. We groaned because we suddenly had a prime minister who was serious about his faith, and the last thing he needed was to be tagged by an American newspaper as an “evangelical.” For ordinary Australians, all they know about evangelicals is that they exist in America and they voted for Donald Trump. Simplistic, I know, but we are a long way from the US here in Australia and only get the media narrative. Australia has evangelicals. I am one of them. But the label here is more about a theological perspective, in the British mold, than about a political perspective. If we are being accurate with our terms, Scott Morrison is a Pentecostal—the first time we have had one as our prime minister. Ironically, Pentecostals have historically not been particularly engaged in politics. They provide some support for the Australian Christian Lobby, the peak lobby group active in the national capital, but Pentecostal leaders are not known for speaking out on moral issues. Scott Morrison may or may not change that. As the fifth Australian prime minister in eight years, his biggest challenge is to stay in office.
Wets and Dries—A Fluid Party
No doubt Morrison himself would consider the evangelical tag very heavy baggage because he doesn’t need the public judging him by media caricatures. He came into office amid a difficult faction fight between various wings of the Liberal Party. The Liberals, with the rural-based National Party, form the conservative coalition in Australian politics. Recently, there has been tension between what used to be known as the “wet” liberal/progressive side of the party and the conservative “dry” members of Parliament. The previous prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had been falling in the opinion polls, and together with wet-dry tension, that fall led to Peter Dutton challenging him. Dutton was too dry and too unpopular for many, and they saw Scott Morrison as the compromise candidate. That was correct to some extent, as Morrison’s opinion poll rating as prime minister is six points ahead of his opponent. But his party’s rating is 12 points behind the opposition Labor Party. Under Australia’s party, not presidential, system, Morrison would lose office if an election were held now. In our heavily egalitarian society, Turnbull lost public support for being a millionaire lawyer and businessman who lived in a harborside mansion in Sydney. Morrison is a more down-to-earth, sports-loving, shrimp-on-the-BBQ politician. His suburban Pentecostal church is in a moderately well-to-do area, but is nothing fancy. Middle Australia. His real challenge is turning some of his personal charms into votes for his party. The leadership battle has shown Australians the internal brawling of the ruling coalition, and they don’t like what they see. They don’t like Australian democracy being compared to Italy—which in the last two decades has averaged a new leader every two years.
What Does It Mean for Christians?
The evangelical tag might be inaccurate in Australia, but that doesn’t mean our country isn’t facing everything that besets “progressive” Western democracies elsewhere. The fallout from same-sex marriage, church-state controversies, rising secularism, gender confusion, abortion—we have it all Australian-style. Scott Morrison’s personal approach is pragmatic. He knows middle Australia well and plays on it. He promised he would not be a “culture warrior,” yet in answer to fears that the politically correct brigade might curb Christmas celebrations in schools, he said, “Like anyone else, they should be able to do Christmas plays, they should be able to talk about Easter. That’s our culture. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Morrison’s own government put curbs on a course called “Safe Schools,” which purported to be anti-bullying but was revealed to be pushing “queer theory.”
One section of the course, “Different perspectives on sexual intimacy,” involves students using character cards to do role-plays. Characters include Megan, a 17-year-old bisexual girl with 15 sexual partners, Grace, a Year 10 student who has been sexually active since age 13, and Kelly, a 14-year-old who thinks she might be a lesbian. Leading radio interviewer Alan Jones put it bluntly: “Does this make your skin curl? … All of this is going on in the classroom. Is that going to happen in classrooms under your prime ministership?” Morrison responded that it did “make his skin curl.” “I don’t want the values of others being imposed on my children in my school,” he said. “I don’t think that should be happening in a public school or a private school. It’s not happening in the school I send my kids to, and that’s one of the reasons I send them there.”
However strong Morrison is on sexuality issues, others will say he was too strong on immigration. As immigration minister, he was one of the architects of the hard-line “stop the boats” policy which turned away asylum seekers.
The highest profile issue that Morrison has on his desk immediately is a report on religious freedom from a former Liberal MP, Philip Ruddock. He led a panel charged with reviewing protections for religious freedom in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, which occurred in 2017. Should there be new laws on religious freedom—perhaps a specific Bill of Rights? It is currently illegal under Australian law to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, age, disability, gender, or sexual identity—but not on the basis of religion. Christian groups have argued that, at the least, freedom of conscience and belief should have some legal protection.
We don’t yet know what the Ruddock Report has recommended, but Morrison, as you would expect of a Christian, knows what is at stake. “Religious freedom, it doesn’t get more serious than that when it comes to liberties,” he told the national broadcaster, the ABC. To another interviewer, he said, “At the end of the day, if you’re not free to believe in your own faith, well, you’re not free.” Amen, brother.
Russell Powell was a senior journalist and news editor in Australian electronic media for 30 years and is now a media adviser.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison speaking in Indonesia on September 1, 2018. By Australian Embassy, Jakarta, via Flickr.