News Politics Australian Politics Dennis Atkins: Pastor or politician? Why the PM’s claim he’s doing God’s work raises questions

Dennis Atkins: Pastor or politician? Why the PM’s claim he’s doing God’s work raises questions

“God’s work” syndrome can take countries on costly missions. Photo: Getty/TND
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Australian politics returned to white noise this week. It started happening after Parliament rose before Easter, but we are now in a zone where the public are mostly tuning out – unless there’s an attention snapping event.

The intensity of the first two months of political action – dominated by exposés of appalling behaviour, allegations of more and brain-dead responses from the Prime Minister and many of his colleagues – turned voters off.

After a year of rallying around the flag, willing governments to get things done and battle a health and economic emergency in intelligent unity, disappointment and frustration were back in vogue.

Thanks, Prime Minister. Thanks everyone else in national public life.

White noise is how pollsters describe voters’ reactions to politics as usual. Last year, whenever there was a hint of scandal or some blatant example of grift, graft or greed, the national preoccupation with the virus and its myriad implications pushed these otherwise career-ending happenings to the sidelines.

“That’s just white noise for voters,” say pollsters, as they chart ridiculously high approval ratings for incumbent leaders and their health systems.

Sound and fury, or just white noise for voters?

The sound and fury over Scott Morrison’s speech to the Australian Christian Churches national conference on the Gold Coast in April ended up being white noise and will likely amount to not much.

Those who dislike Morrison will see it as yet another reason to portray him as not part of the mainstream, hooked into a network where little understood things like Pentecostalism and the laying on of hands are common.

It is outside the mainstream but still regarded as a legitimate faith and will almost certainly get a pass from most Australians – and a big tick from those who respect believers.

This usually under-the-radar message works well in the outer suburbs and larger regional centres where mega-churches attract many thousands each weekend.

There’s little doubt the many evangelical churches and their deep-into-the-community networks helped mightily in saving Peter Dutton in his northern Brisbane suburbs seat of Dickson in 2019. They probably will again at the next election.

While Morrison is entitled to have his religion and should be left to observe his faith as he sees fit, it can and should be questioned for a couple of reasons.

Should the Australian taxpayer pick up the tab when Morrison – and his staff entourage – flies to the Gold Coast on a RAAF executive jet for a meeting of his own brand of religion, where he gives a very personal, “this is my faith” speech?

His office defended his attendance, saying the Prime Minister attended many religious events, meetings, gatherings where he sometimes spoke. They cited other Christian denominations, Muslim mosques, Buddist and Hindu community events.

This is all true but at none of these does Morrison present himself as one of the gathered assembly – calling out people in the audience and pleading by saying “I’m going to need your help”.

Three parts pastor, two parts politician

Morrison told the evangelical gathering, which claims to represent 1000 Pentecostal churches with more than 375,000 adherents, he wanted followers to rise up against the “evil” of social media and identity politics.

“We’ve got to raise up the spiritual weapons against this,” he said.

“It’s going to take our young people. It’s going to take their courage. It’s going to take their hope. It’s going to steal their hope. We’ve got to pray about that.”

It was three parts pastor and two parts politician. Combined, it was redolent of the satirical novels about hypocrisy, religion and society by Sinclair Lewis a century ago.

Most Australians going to church don’t get to hop in a luxury Uber jet – paid for by the taxpayer – to praise and be praised in a hall of thousands.

It might work for believers in the prosperity gospel – if you do the right works, if you have enough faith, if you give money, God’s going to give you what you want. It’s a neat deal regarded by most Christians as a distortion of the gospels of Christ.

The more alarming issue arising from Morrison’s Gold Coast speech is his belief he and his band of Christians in Coalition ranks in Canberra are doing God’s work.

This is not new. It was laid out in Niki Savva’s excellent account of the last election and how it was shaped, the book Plots and Prayers, where she recounted how Morrison and his close allies prayed for “righteousness to exalt the nation” after their Canberra leader became PM.

If this is just one more extension of the self-belief – and sometimes self-delusion – politicians have, there’s not a great deal of harm done.

History tells us this kind of “God’s work” syndrome can take countries on missions that are costly in blood and treasure.

Former US President (and born again Christian) George W. Bush has told how he felt he was called by God to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I’m driven with a mission from God,” Bush is quoted as saying in a BBC documentary – a citation never refuted. “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.”

It’s an alarming admission, especially as Bush was joined in his quest by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also felt called by God to confront wrongdoing in the world.

Blair’s quick response to Bush’s call to hit back against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 is often traced to a speech the British prime minister gave in Chicago in 1999 titled “Doctrine of the International Community” which was littered with references to his own brand of “ecumenical Christianity”.

Doing God’s work in the name of a nation where a majority are either non-believers or in the loosely tethered “none of the above” group is a presumption at which many would raise an eyebrow.

This is especially so in a week when the big message from the government – apart from a soft sell for a vote-buying budget to come – is that the “drums of war” (with China) are beating.

Laying on of hands indeed.

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