Why the media targets Pentecostals

Scott Morrison triggered the media backlash

“It’s open season on Pentecostals right now,” Eternity’s John Sandeman wrote recently. In the past year there have been nearly 700 media articles in which both the words MORRISON and PENTECOSTAL appear. Why?

By and large, Australian journalists are profoundly ignorant when it comes to reporting religion.

Scott Morrison’s religious beliefs have attracted almost frenzied attention in the media – traditional broadcast and print media, and on social media – on three specific occasions since his ascension to the prime ministership.

The first major occasion was Morrison’s decision to allow cameras in to film his participation in a worship service at his local church during the election campaign – on Easter Sunday, no less.

The second was the blowback against the hard line treatment of Sri Lankan asylum seekers Priya, Nadesalingam and their children, Kopika, 4, and Tharunicaa, 2. While even conservative commentators like Alan Jones backed the family to stay in Australia, social media commentary made specific reference to biblical imperatives to treat strangers and sojourners with compassion.

Coming in for particular mention was the manner in which the family were summarily removed from the town of Biloela by Border Force, and their subsequent incarceration on Christmas Island.

The third was Morrison’s response to news reports – first in The Wall Street Journal, no less – that the PM’s inclusion of Hillsong’s Pastor Brian Houston on the guest list for a White House banquet had been rejected by the US administration during a state visit to Washington DC in September 2019.

News reports widely quoted the PM as saying Pastor Houston was “a mentor”*. Morrison dismissed the reports as “gossip”, a response which got a lot of attention on ABC’s Q&A program the following Monday night.

Hillsong’s response was to threaten defamation writs to media organisations referencing The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

For those of us who have been long-time observers of the intersection between religion and politics in Australia, none of the media excitement came as a surprise. (Full disclosure: My UQ doctorate in 1991 examined politics and religion in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen).

By and large, Australian journalists are profoundly ignorant when it comes to reporting religion. They do not understand theology with the most frequently egregious error being use of the term “fundamentalist”. Of all the professions, journalists – with some outstanding exceptions – have a most secular mindset. On the other hand, our parliaments – the federal parliament, in particular – contain a number of active, committed Christian believers, which is disproportionate to the number of active, Christian believers in the community.

Epithets such as “happy clappers” are used as a pejorative shorthand.

Coupled with this is the downsizing of specialist religious reporting and the false argument that religion can be covered by generalists. Try that with economics, medicine or science reporting.

The effective dismemberment of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Unit is a disgrace. Not so much because of the decreased output of programs, but because of the access to specialist broadcasters who can assist their generalist colleagues navigate the mysteries of reporting religion.

Furthermore, unlike the large Christian denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, which have a large number of adherents (about 5.3 million Australians, according to the 2016 Census) and a substantial cultural footprint through schools and hospitals (and, more recently, the criminal justice system), Pentecostals are just 1% of the population, with 260,500 adherents in the 2016 Census. So there is a lack a familiarity with Pentecostalism within the broader culture, and more specifically within the media. Epithets such as “happy clappers” are used as a pejorative shorthand.

Indeed, after Scott Morrison’s re-election, my UQ colleague Professor Philip Almond wrote in The Conversation (May 23, 2019) about the defining elements of Pentecostalism: belief in miracles, belief in divine providence, prosperity theology, exclusivism, and pietism.

These elements all point to a politics of exclusion, a politics of arrogance, and a politics of envy, all designed to attract social media comment.

This is particularly interesting historically, given that sociologists such as Charles Glock have ascribed the attraction of traditional Pentecostalism to “deprivation theory”: that traditional Pentecostalism was a cult, whose exotic, ecstatic and esoteric practices attracted the poor and the dispossessed, those with little hope of wealth and status on earth.

Most recent scholarship has argued the deprivation theory does not apply to neo-Pentecostalism, which is identified, especially in the United States, as middle class.

And of course it is well known that Scott Morrison is a refugee from the Uniting Church, a denomination whose adherents are the most highly educated (and thus economically well off) and thus most “middle class” of all the major religious denominations in Australia.

The church Scott Morrison attends, now known simply as Horizon (in Sutherland Shire, south of Sydney), was initially established in 1949 as an Assemblies of God congregation. It has been rebranded several times since then.

The social media commentary on Scott Morrison is critical of a dis-junction between Morrison’s faith and his policies on asylum seekers and on “welfare”, especially New Start

There is nothing remarkable about Australian prime ministers being people of faith, as Roy Williams’ 2013 book In God They Trust tells us. Paul Keating, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, all Catholics, were each orthodox in their beliefs. Kevin Rudd, an Anglican, was probably the most theologically literate and theologically inquisitive of all.

So why does Morrison’s faith attract such commentary- much of it negative? A clue is given by this reference to John Howard – a former Methodist turned Anglican – in Williams’ book.

Reviewing Williams in The Australian, Natasha Robinson wrote: “Despite having a reputation as an unambiguously Christian prime minister, Mr Howard’s moral record comes in for fierce criticism in Williams’ book. The Howard government’s approach to human rights, the courting of the [Pauline] Hanson vote, and the invasion of Iraq were all spiritually questionable. ‘Howard’s record as a prime minister is vulnerable to challenge on a number of Christian grounds,’ the author says. ‘But in certain other respects it merits high praise.'”

Certainly the social media commentary on Scott Morrison is critical of a dis-junction between Morrison’s faith and his policies on asylum seekers and on “welfare”, especially Newstart. This perhaps is unmindful that Morrison was the original ‘sovereign borders’ enforcer, which is a source of his current authority in the party room.

Morrison has a strong core of supporters who share his particular religious outlook: Alex Hawke, and the not uncontroversial Stuart Robert, along with Steve Irons, Lucy Wicks and Ben Morton.

Scott Morrison’s first speech to Parliament in 2008 is characterised by the diversity of sources it draws upon. Morrison acknowledges his upbringing in a Christian home, acknowledges the influence of Uniting Church minister Ray Green, as well as Leigh Coleman (a social entrepreneur, sometimes associated with Hillsong) and Brian Houston. He cites the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Joel, but none of the gospels, nor St Paul. He also references William Wilberforce, Desmond Tutu, and Bono – all Christians who would no doubt challenge the execution of Morrison’s policies on refugees and the unemployed.

Perhaps most perplexing for his contemporary critics is the following passage from his First Speech:

“So what values do I derive from my faith? My answer comes from Jeremiah, chapter 9:24: ‘… I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.’

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way …”

Compassion and kindness merge seamlessly into a fight for the fair go.

It’s not to suggest that Scott Morrison has moved away from these values in the decade before he became Prime Minister.

It’s just that these values have collided with the policy realpolitik of border protection, and the budget surplus.

Dr John Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Professional Communication at The University of Queensland.

* Eternity believes the word “mentor” first appears in a 2012 Morrison profile in The Monthly by Nick Bryant.

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