If a prime minister – such as Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison – has a close, personal relationship with God, do they have a duty to the public to share details of the conversation and guidance they are receiving from their deity?
Or should religion remain out of bounds for journalists, commentators and political opponents?
The New Daily’s political commentator Paula Matthewson, who pulls no punches in her political analysis, recently questioned Australia’s obsession with Mr Morrison’s Pentecostal Christianity.
She rightly pointed out that we have had a number of emphatically religious PMs, and all of them have displayed apparent hypocrisy, for example, when forsaking the ever-welcoming embrace of Jesus for a more hard-hearted policy toward refugees.
Mr Rudd’s church life was perhaps overshadowed by his potty mouth.
Mr Abbott’s Catholicism saw him nicknamed “the mad monk”.
But there’s a particular theatre – the talking in tongues, the miracles, the passionate literal reading of the Bible – that makes Pentecostalism fascinating for non-believers. And Mr Morrison has made himself vulnerable to a sort of jeering, unkindly scepticism by simply getting a glow on when talking about his Lord.
For other people, it takes a glass of wine. Let the guy get high on Jesus, at least he’s no danger on the road.
Still, doesn’t a devoutly religious person who happens to be the leader of a secular society owe his constituents full transparency as to how God affects his or her decisions? Or is it a private matter?
Eric Emmanuel Marfo Sekyere is the district pastor, in Canberra, for The Church of Pentecost Australia – and the only churchman to get back to me on this question.
In an email he said that journalists could demand this transparency “if a politician declares his religion as essential to his political judgment”.
He also suggested, though, that “religious politicians owe it to the public to ensure that their public lives are no different from their private lives. This is crucial for matters of faith”.
Did this mean that the truly religious leader – an honest believer – would rely on his relationship with God when making his important decisions, and would he be honest about that fact? Pastor Sekyere said this was the case.
Mr Morrison’s declaration that he is open to moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was widely seen as a clumsy and off-target attempt to woo the Jewish constituents in Wentworth. It’s also been reported as an ardent wish of the Liberal hard-right. John Howard gave it the thumbs up.
But others have wondered, too, if Mr Morrison was also moved by the desire to fulfill a biblical prophecy that the Jews will claim Jerusalem ahead of Christ’s second coming.
On Tuesday, at a press conference, according to a transcript provided to The New Daily by the Prime Minister’s office, Mr Morrison was asked by a journalist: “Prime Minister, one of the biggest supporters of Donald Trump’s move to move the embassy to Jerusalem was American evangelical Christians. Do you believe as a Christian that the restoration of the Jewish temple in Israel … in Jerusalem, is a precondition to the return of Jesus?”
Prime Minister: “My faith and my religion has nothing to do with this decision.”
Journalist: “Nothing at all?”
Prime Minister: “None.”
Is it worth carping that the original question went unanswered?
Tony Wright is a veteran political writer for Fairfax Media. He says that as a general principal: “I am opposed to pursuing politicians if they choose to follow a particular religion.”
As a kid he was raised as a Catholic in a largely Protestant district and both his father and grandfather were essentially cut off from their families for marrying Catholics.
“I saw enough naked bigotry and the damage it caused to turn me off criticising people for their religious choices, whatever my personal view of those choices.”
Also, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics has something to say on the matter: Clause (2) states: “Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.”
Mr Wright sees this as good advice.
Plus, there’s the matter that in Australia we have no constitutional separation of church and state.
“Decisions by politicians can and do have significant effects on churches and the organisations they run, and the relationships between those organisations and the Parliament, the Treasury and the wider public,” he said, in an email exchange.
“The stand-outs are state funding for religious schools and the tax-free status of churches. There are also broad ranges of ethical and moral stances that could be skewed by religious affiliation and underpin decisions by politicians.”
He said he would have no problem stating the religious affiliations of those making decisions on matters like euthanasia, abortion or gay marriage.
“If a prime minister, however, takes care to separate his own religious faith from his political decisions and his public utterances, and declares a possible conflict in contentious public policy debates, then I see no good purpose in ‘going after’ him or her for their private beliefs,” says Wright.
But should a prime minister take to “making public utterances about the importance of prayer or start using scripture to prop up political arguments, or lead decisions that, for instance, have the potential to enrich their own church or schools associated with it, or support policy that benefits churches over non-religious organisations, then all bets would be off”.
Dr Karen Jones is a University of Melbourne philosopher with an interest in moral psychology and ethics. She says there is justification for journalists to dig into the decision-making of religious politician.
Her argument goes like this: “Where a politician is putting forward a proposal into a pluralist secular public space [Parliament or a policy debate] and offering inadequate justification for it because they aren’t willing to say, ‘hey, this is coming from my religious perspective’ since they would then face the objection that their religious perspective is just one among others, it is fair game for journalists and others to inquire whether their position is in fact being driven by their religious views and whether and why they think someone who did not hold those views should nonetheless subscribe to it.”
It sounds like a conversation worth having.