Reply to Murdoch’s “Australian”: On the Separation of Church and State

This is the response that Murdoch’s ‘Australian’ refused to publish — my answer to columnist Gerard Henderson’s erroneous defence of Scott Morrison over the separation of church and state. You can read Henderson’s original here, which misquotes my piece in the Guardian.

Australians deserve to understand clearly the influences that guide the nation’s political leaders, whom they entrust with the extraordinary powers of our secular commonwealth. This is why Scott Morrison’s speech to the Australian Christian Churches last month – a secret speech that his office declines to publish – is a legitimate matter for open, honest debate.

This debate should be conducted with evidence, fact and reason. Hence why I contributed a 1350-word piece for The Guardian on the intersection of Pentecostalism and Australian public policy. Sadly, Gerard Henderson’s summation of my critique in this newspaper was as reductive as it was inaccurate. For example, Henderson attacked my “grievous overstatement” that Pentecostals categorically believe that if you are godly, you will be healthy and wealthy. In fact, I simply noted the “health and wealth gospel” often features in Pentecostal preaching. For evidence of this, consider the book You Need More Money, which expressly links divine blessing to being a “money magnet”; it was authored by Hillsong’s Brian Houston, the nation’s most influential Pentecostal pastor. Not all Pentecostals share Houston’s theology on wealth.

Like every branch of the Christian family, Pentecostal worshippers frequently defy their leaders. For example, I expect Morrison would accept evolution as a scientific fact. But if you examine their doctrinal statements, its clear that not all Pentecostals do.

Henderson dismisses concerns that there are certain Pentecostal doctrines could present problems for the secular polity because they potentially erode the separation of church and state. However, Henderson should be acutely aware of this problem given his own experience at the National Civic Council of B.A. Santamaria, whose vigorous sectarian crusade in league with Archbishop Daniel Mannix split the Labor Party in 1955.

Henderson conspicuously overlooks specific Morrison’s behaviours that have caused Australians concern. These include Morrison physically involving Australians in religious rituals, such as laying on of hands, without their consent. When the Prime Minister tours natural disaster shelters, he is there in his secular office, not as the nation’s high priest. If he wants to lay hands on people to impart the healing power of prayer, he can ask permission; that he doesn’t seek consent implies he already knows how they might react.

Second, Henderson is incurious about Morrison’s view that humans can’t fix the world’s problems; that it is God’s responsibility, and what the world simply needs is the growth of the church. This deeply troubling logic may explain Morrison’s disinterest in climate action. Henderson would be aware of an apocalyptic tradition among some Pentecostals that political action to resolve human or environmental problems is redundant simply because Christ’s eventual return will herald the end times. When voters cast their ballots, they deserve to know whether Morrison believes mortal problems can be solved by mortals.

Third, there is a broader question how Morrison views the relationship between his office and God. Morrison’s speech suggests he identifies with the kings and prophets of the Old Testament who claimed God spoke to them directly. Morrison’s speech recalled receiving a message from God through a painting during the last election campaign, reassuring him of divine support in his partisan struggle against the Labor Party. Again, Australians deserve to know from Morrison: how does he believe God communicates with prime ministers?

Fourth, Henderson accuses me of attacking Morrison’s commitment to his faith. I did not. To the contrary, I wrote that nobody should doubt the genuineness of his faith and noted we attended the same Christian fellowship in Canberra. No, Morrison shouldn’t be attacked for his faith; rather, he should have the political courage and moral fortitude to open up to Australians about how it informs his worldview. Any suggestion that Morrison leaves his faith at his office door doesn’t pass the pub test, given the content of his secret speech.

Finally, Henderson apparently regards it as irrelevant to our polity that various Pentecostal churches around Australia have become active recruiting grounds for Liberal Party branches. In Queensland, the division is well known between the dwindling band of mainstream LNP secularists and a self-appointed God’s Army now dominating much of the state division. It is relevant to our democracy that this gradually pushes the Coalition further to the far-right and that we are beginning to see the religious polarisation of our national politics.

In opposition, I wrote a 6500-word essay on faith in politics because I believed that, as a prospective national leader, voters deserved to know what they might be buying. After it was published in The Monthly, I answered questions about it (including from this newspaper).

Henderson dismisses my call for Morrison to do the same, arguing – oddly – that Morrison’s speech explained so little, he shouldn’t have to elaborate. That, Gerard, is precisely the point. Morrison should not leave Australians to rely on grainy iPhone footage and newspaper speculation to discern what the Prime Minister might have meant by his more curious comments.

This discussion has never been more important. Pentecostal churches have long nurtured conscientious political minds on the right and the left. But the fact that these churches are now being deliberately targeted by Liberal and National party recruiters who, borrowing from Santamaria, signal to members that true Christians have no place in the Labor Party. This is sectarian identity politics.

Henderson’s conception of the separation of church and state is so narrow that he sees no questions worth asking. Many Australians disagree, both progressives and conservatives. They treasure our secular democracy and fear it being chipped away by the sort of religious fundamentalism seen in parts of the US Congress. They therefore raise legitimate questions won’t go away until Morrison definitively answers them.

It shouldn’t be hard unless, of course, he has something to hide.

Images: Brian Houston/Facebook; Sydney Institute/YouTube