The Guardian • Issue #1960

The gospel according to Morrison

Scott Morrison’s address to the April national conference of the “Australian Christian Churches” Pentecostal group raised many eyebrows. While his religious affiliation was always public knowledge and so much of the content should come as no surprise, it is still quite an experience to see our head of government in a free-form ramble about God’s greatness and glory, “rais[ing] spiritual weapons,” and “the evil one.”

Morrison has generally succeeded at keeping the strange details of his beliefs out of direct public view. Australia is lucky to have a long-standing secular political culture, and this sort of publicity is something uncomfortable even for many of his fellow believers. Questions arise around the expansion of American-style religious political influence and lobbying, the separation of church and state, and the nature of the office of Prime Minister.

His travel costs to attend the conference were taxpayer-funded, so let’s see what we paid for.

Much attention was paid to Morrison’s description of receiving a message from God in the form of a picture of an eagle, and of his covert “laying on of hands” on unsuspecting victims of natural disaster. But the speech gave further clues as to the Prime Minister’s political ideology, and how it is shaped by and shapes his religious beliefs.

Morrison said, “I can’t fix the world. I can’t save the world.” But, he “believe[s] in someone who can.”

Such a view might serve to explain his behaviour during the 2019-20 bushfire crisis, as that someone can, unlike the Prime Minister, be present in Australia and Hawaii simultaneously. Looking at his response to the pandemic, we might further glean that this someone can only act through state governments, not federal – a mysterious way indeed, but not for us to doubt.

Referring to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks but offering a view of his own, he said “you can’t replace community with governments, the market, with other institutions, you can’t. You can’t replace the family, you can’t replace marriage, you can’t replace the things that are so personal and ingrained and come out of us as individuals with systems of power or systems of capital. These are important things but they can’t replace community.”

It’s a rare thing to see a Liberal party figure admit that there’s anything the market can’t do. But alas, this is no heretical departure from neoliberal market fundamentalism – it is only a deeper level of it. While the profound revelation of Thatcherite-Reaganite nonsense was “you can’t expect anything from the state – you can expect it from the market instead,” Morrison here admits that you can’t even expect it from the market! You can expect it only from “community,” namely the community of believers, and God acting through them.

“That’s where I want to be, and a church that believes in community and creates community. And the essence of community is each individual understanding that they’re valued, that they’re unique.”

Morrison also seems to identify community with “things that […] come out of us as individuals.” Things that come out of us as individuals, like … community? Now to be fair, it’s not too unusual an argument to say that community proceeds from the individual – we’ve heard that before. But it demands a little more explanation if this concept of community is set in opposition to “systems of power” like government and the market.

If Morrison’s own concept of government is something that is unavoidably distinct from things that “come out of us as individuals,” does he have any concept of democracy that makes sense in the context of his liberal-individualistic outlook? It seems instead from this outlook that government is an ineffable, mysterious force of its own, and so too is the market. These things, unlike the God-given “ingrained” nature of individuals and the family, are all-too-human creations, inhuman in their artificiality.

Morrison took aim at “identity politics.” Further fleshing out the picture of his strange concept of the individual, he diagnoses identity politics as not being an excess of individualism, but a deficiency of it:

“There is a fashion these days to not think of Australians as individuals, there is particularly, I think, amongst our young people, and I worry about this […] it’s called ‘identity politics’ ”

“[…] there is a tendency for people not to see themselves and value themselves in their own right as individuals. And to see themselves only defined by some group and they get lost in that group and you know when you do that you lose your humanity. And you lose your connection, I think, one to each other and you’re defined by your group, not by, I think, I believe who God has created you to be. […]

“That’s why people start writing stupid things on Facebook and the internet, being disrespectful to one another and we all know how that is corroding and desensitising our country and our society, not just here but all around the world. I think it’s an evil thing. I think it’s a very evil thing and we’ve got to pray about it, we’ve got to call it out and we’ve got to raise our spiritual weapons against this because it’s going to take our young people. […] social media has its virtues and its values and enables us to connect with people in ways we’ve never had before, terrific, terrific. But those weapons can also be used by the evil one and we need to call it out.”

He gives no indication of what these “stupid things” are, other than that his audience is assumed to have a certain interpretation.

While we Communists are critical of what we call identity politics, it is clear from the recent political context that Morrison’s use of the phrase is imported from US right-wingers, and seeks to denigrate political action around issues such as race, gender, and sexuality. A further clue to this is his specific concerns about “young people,” the largest demographic in the recent surge in activism around these issues.

Because Morrison believes so strongly in the individual, and in God’s plan for them, he is able to end up laissez-faire-er than laissez-faire. Not even stopping at the usual liberal claim that our present capitalist system of economy and government are capable of solving all social problems, to Morrison it’s even unnecessary to claim that they can.

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