Four years before his 2019 election miracle, Scott Morrison explained divine intervention to Annabel Crabb and viewers of her Kitchen Cabinet program over his famous “ScoMosas”. After 14 years of failed IVF, he and his wife conceived naturally. Their first child was born on the seventh day of the seventh month in 2007.
And I don’t think that was by accident; and that’s a constant reminder to me about who’s in charge.
Some Pentecostal leaders have a clear idea about who’s in charge, not just in their personal lives but in the nation’s politics – and it’s not necessarily the people or their elected representatives. Some depicted the 2019 federal election as a choice between Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party’s “godly principles” or “the Enemy [Satan] having his way.” They saw “darkness coming” if Morrison was not re-elected.
The big fear behind such (literally) apocalyptic language was religious freedom: conservative Christians warned of impending persecution if Labor was elected, raising fears over discrimination on the basis of religious identity and a loss of freedom to run Christian schools according to their beliefs.
These leaders saw voting for the Coalition as offering the best chance of passing new laws to protect religious freedom.
Why Christians have rallied behind religious freedom
This is new: until the past decade, conservative churches consistently opposed strengthening Australia’s religious freedom protections. They campaigned against religious freedom in the 1988 referendum, for example. And as recently as 2005, the Sydney Anglicans’ news service called the defeat of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Tolerance) Bill a vote “for religious freedom.”
Back then, “religious freedom” meant protecting religious minorities (such as Jews and Muslims) against discrimination.
Then came Victoria’s long-running Catch the Fire case, in which two Pentecostal pastors were accused of religiously vilifying Islam, leading to fears that Christians could no longer declare the superiority of their own beliefs.
The marriage equality debate in recent years stoked more fears that conservative religious schools and other organisations might be prevented from teaching the sinfulness of homosexuality.
As Elenie Poulos, the former director of the Uniting Church’s national policy unit,points out: With very few exceptions, Australian churches have a strong record of opposing anti-discrimination protections for women, LGBTI people, and religious minorities. Instead, most churches’ lobbying aims to:
…protect their institutional position and entrench their moral code in Australian law.
Overstating the strength of the Christian vote?
Some election analysts are now suggesting that Morrison won his “miracle” election in part thanks to the Christian vote, pointing to Coalition swings in seats with larger numbers of Pentecostal voters.
But previous research urges caution. Although there were fervent calls by churches for pre-election prayer and fasting sessions and intense lobbying campaigns by Christian organisations, these efforts did not necessarily represent large numbers of people. Pentecostals make up just over 1% of the population, and, like other religious voters, have a variety of political interests.
Certainly, worries about religious freedom extend to other religious groups, but it is not clear how far. For example, the “Canberra Declaration”, which invokes concerns about religious freedom, abortion and same-sex marriage, has been endorsed by conservative Christian organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, the National Alliance of Christian Leaders and the Australian Christian Values Institute, along with Catholic and Anglican bishops. It has amassed nearly 85,000 signatures since 2010.
Christian Schools Australia (CSA) sent leaflets home with students at 329 schools just before the election. They stated that “religious freedoms are at the heart of our shared values and beliefs” and those values “are the main reason our schools were chosen.” That might have swayed votes, but research has found only a quarter of parents indicated religious values were a “strong” reason in choosing CSA-style Christian schools.
Rather than a mass movement, it might be more accurate to see the promoters of these apocalyptic views as a ginger group: a subgroup within a movement who try to push the broader membership towards a stronger position, including by creating the impression of a public opinion groundswell.
Much more research would be needed before the religious freedom campaign, or any “Christian vote”, could be confirmed as election-swinging.
Pressure on Morrison to push a ‘godly’ agenda
Nevertheless, with all this talk of an election miracle, newly energised conservative Christian leaders may feel emboldened to demand that the “godly” government deliver on more of their agenda.
That could present Morrison with a problem, particularly in areas such as the right of conservative Christian organisations to discriminate against LGBTI employees and abortion access. Acceding to the demands of conservative Christian ginger groups on these issues would mean adopting positions highly unpopular in the wider electorate.
As successive Republican presidents in the US have found, feeling beholden to the religious right can be a poisoned chalice when it leads to demands that put them at odds with other voters.
And there’s another problem. Buying into apocalyptic scenarios in which disagreement becomes “persecution” and political opponents are agents of “the Enemy” leaves very little room for compromise.
British New Testament historian Candida Moss points out that:
…you can disagree with someone sharply on the basis of your religious beliefs … [but once] you say they’re persecuting you, you’re basically accusing them of acting with Satan.
Apocalyptic hopes are easily disappointed, and have been, time and again. No politician wants to end up in the Satanic camp.
A balancing act in government
It’s no wonder, then, that Morrison blows hot and cold on religious freedom.
On one hand, his government has promised religious freedom legislation, and even a religious freedom commissioner, rejecting the Ruddock review panel’s recommendation that such a position was unnecessary.
On the other hand, Morrison angered conservatives in his party by introducing legislation removing religious schools’ right to discriminate against gay and lesbian students. He also pointedly declined to defend rugby player Israel Folau in his dispute with his employer over anti-gay social media.
To continue to walk this line in his first full term as prime minister, Morrison will need more miracles.