Scott Morrison has only been in the top job for two weeks but already there appears to be an unseemly obsession with the new Prime Minister’s religion.
The reasons for this preoccupation are not entirely clear. Mr Morrison is a long way from being Australia’s first overtly Christian PM, with almost a third of his predecessors being described as regular churchgoers, including Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
Perhaps the fixation can at least partly be explained by the novelty of having the first evangelical Christian in the top role. Prior to Mr Morrison, our overtly Christian PMs were either Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians or Methodists.
However, Mr Morrison attends the Horizon Church in the Sutherland Shire, which is part of the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement and affiliated with the Hillsong Church. The PM lists the founder of Hillsong, Brian Houston, as one of his mentors.
To a non-believer (such as this writer), the evangelical Christian faiths aren’t that much different from the ‘mainstream’ Christian denominations. They have their quirks (turning wine into blood, miracles, erasing sins with confession or immersion in water, speaking in tongues) but all have a common belief in a higher power (that most of them refer to as God).
But it seems that ScoMo’s newer, louder, flashier Christianity sets him apart from previous religious PMs.
Another explanation for the fascination with the PM’s religion is that Mr Morrison’s claim to being motivated by Christian values is not always borne out by his actions
There wasn’t much Christian charity evident when Mr Morrison as shadow immigration minister criticised the Gillard government for meeting the cost of flying asylum seekers to the funerals of relatives drowned off Christmas Island.
Later, as the Coalition minister responsible for ‘stopping the boats’ by establishing Operation Sovereign Borders, ScoMo was similarly unwilling to ‘do the Christian thing’ by bringing asylum seekers to Australia. This is a position he maintains as Prime Minister.
However Mr Morrison is not the first Christian PM to condemn asylum seekers to indefinite offshore detention. Two other overtly religious PMs, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, did the same but there was rarely a mention of how this reflected badly on their claims to having religious values.
Likewise, ScoMo’s religion is being accused of dragging the Coalition backwards on issues concerning LGBTI people because of his conservative stance on such matters. This is patently absurd, given Liberal politicians from the mainstream religions, particularly Catholics, were responsible for constantly trying to thwart the legalisation of gay marriage.
Mr Morrison was certainly one of the 11 Liberals who abstained from the eventual vote on marriage equality, but he certainly wasn’t the only politician to do so on religious grounds.
So perhaps the real issue is not that Scott Morrison is an evangelical Christian, or that his behaviour doesn’t always lives up to Christian values. Perhaps ScoMo is rustling the jimmies of journalists and other keyboard commentators because he is so ‘openly’ a Christian adherent.
This is perhaps most obvious in his use of the word ‘love’. It’s true that the PM will have to be careful not to overuse the sentiment, but in the current political climate, choked as it is with bile and negativity, it has been refreshing to hear one of the nation’s leaders preach enthusiastically about love.
We’ve been given glimpses of the ‘loving’ ScoMo in the past, such as when the then-treasurer’s brother-in-law, who has multiple sclerosis, attended his post-budget address. Following the speech, Mr Morrison proudly planted a kiss on the cheek of his wife’s brother, much to the delight of the assembled press photographers.
Now, as Prime Minister, he has begun to exhort all Australians to love one another.
In an unscripted address to a Liberal party think tank on Thursday, Mr Morrison drew comparisons with evangelical preachers by striding across the stage with a microphone, proclaiming to his audience, “We all love Australia. Of course we do. But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it?”
According to the new PM, “You love all Australians if you love Australia. Whether they’ve become an Australian by birth 10 generations ago … or if you came last week.”
Whether that love should be extended to asylum seekers is yet to be determined.
Given the throng of young conservatives on the backbench jostling for position, Scott Morrison is unlikely to be Australia’s last Christian prime minister. Or even the last one to preach Christian values.
However the current obsession with Mr Morrison’s particular brand of religion is nothing like the scrutiny we’ve placed on other leaders in the past. It sets a bad precedent, and if unchecked, it could start to look like religious discrimination.