It’s long forgotten now, but one of the most interesting speeches Tony Abbott made on the road to becoming prime minister was a meditation on faith. In June 2013, Abbott, a conservative Catholic leading the Liberal party, spoke at the 70th anniversary of the Institute of Public Affairs.
People interpreted that particular outing in different ways. Much was made at the time of a photograph that captured Abbott on bended knee next to Rupert Murdoch – the unfortunate tableau neatly illustrating the most critical power relationship of his imminent prime ministership.
Abbott’s slavish dependence on support from News Corporation wasn’t exactly a revelation, so what fascinated me was Abbott’s attempt to align his Catholic hard-wiring – the life-long conditioning of Catholics to be collectivists and community actors – with the individualistic libertarianism of the IPA, his audience.
Trying to reconcile a conservative Catholic’s view of liberty with a libertarian’s view of liberty is harder than it sounds, and Abbott squared his circle with a fudge.
He told Murdoch and Gina Rinehart and the other grandees they were mutually interested in “capitalism with a conscience”. Abbott styled himself, literally and figuratively, as genuflecting before community-minded friends of freedom: capitalists with consciences.
Before you laugh, take a moment to understand the context. Abbott was courting people he thought were critical to delivering him the prime ministership, and he still carried the “mad monk” baggage of the Howard era.
At the time, he would have been viewed by some of the more hardline IPA set as insufficiently ideological – a man for others, perhaps, in the Jesuitical tradition, but not necessarily a man for them. Abbott evidently felt some requirement to fuse his articles of faith, and theirs.
I thought of Abbott’s speech this week as Scott Morrison provided a rare glimpse of an expression of his faith – or more correctly, the Rationalist Society did when it circulated a video of the prime minister’s contribution at the Australian Christian Conference.
It’s interesting that Morrison, our Pentecostal prime minister, has not felt the need, pre-emptively, in the mode of Abbott at the IPA, or in the way Kevin Rudd did in a meaty piece in The Monthly in October 2006, to square any circles, or define any boundaries, between his political philosophy and faith.
Possibly there isn’t time for much pre-emption when you make a lunge for the prime ministership as Morrison did when opportunity presented in 2018. It is also possible there aren’t many avenues to do it if you aren’t compelled to ponder the Garden of Eden with Rinehart and Murdoch. I also suspect that in Camp Morrison, a think piece in The Monthly would be considered entirely off-brand.
In any case, I tried to engage the prime minister about religion when I interviewed him for a Quarterly Essay published last year. Morrison was polite, but he wasn’t particularly forthcoming, underscoring the obvious: the main barrier to understanding Morrison as a man of faith is the prime minister himself.
Morrison certainly wants Australians to know he’s a Pentecostal Christian (which is a small but rapidly growing denomination in Australia) – but he gets uncomfortable, escalating swiftly to grumpy, if persistent questions follow. He senses mockery in inquiry. As he put it to me last year: “I’m uneasy. It always becomes an issue if I talk about it. It’s such a personal thing, and no matter how I explain it, it will be misinterpreted.”
I get the reluctance, but understanding Morrison’s faith is most definitely in the public interest, because faith burns at the core of the man, and fellow believers also assign considerable value and significance to his prime ministership.
When Morrison became Liberal leader, some pastors told congregations his elevation to power was divinely inspired. Ahead of the 2019 election, some Pentecostal leaders warned “darkness” would spread across Australia and Christians would be persecuted if Morrison lost. At his final speech at the National Press Club before the election, Morrison told voters he would “burn for you every day” if he won. After the victory, he told voters he had always believed in miracles.
Given how central faith is, it is unsatisfactory to learn more about Morrison’s devotion through sporadic forays that sometimes bubble to the surface in indirect ways, like the fragment from a Zoom prayer group posted on YouTube during the first wave of the pandemic, with Morrison referencing Isaiah (“you will be called repairer of broken walls”) and, more recently, the speech to the ACC.
Much of the public chatter after the ACC speech has centred on Morrison’s undisclosed praying for people and “laying hands on them in various situations”; social media being a weapon “used by the evil one”; and an encounter with a picture of an eagle after asking God for a sign during the closing weeks of the election campaign.
Bridging the world of faith and the world of politics, Morrison also articulated a set of philosophical propositions that didn’t really cohere. Community was everything, but so was individualism. While community was everything, it mustn’t express itself in “identity politics” – which seemed odd, given identity politics is an umbrella term describing how individuals with shared values form communities and face off against oppression and injustice.
It seemed strange for Morrison, who weaponises identity politics at the drop of a hat when it suits him, to be bagging identity politics, which at its essence is a form of fellowship. And particularly strange to be bagging it at an ACC gathering, where attendees were gathered in the shared expression of identity through their marker of commonality – their Christian faith.
While these things were diverting, I was more interested in Morrison’s expressed belief that his prime ministership was a calling “for a time and for a season, and God would have us use it wisely”. Morrison also shared that when he woke up in the morning, front of mind was the incantation “for such a time as this, for such a time as this” – which is a religious reference to God’s purpose being achieved through human leadership.
While Christians are routinely schooled to be servants of God’s will, there is a literalism in Morrison’s expression of his calling. I’m profoundly interested in this literalism, because not all Christian faith expresses itself in these terms.
What are the limits of Morrison’s religious literalism? I ask the question, because I really don’t know the answer, and knowing the answer is important, because it is relevant to understanding how the prime minister deliberates and conducts his public duties.
Speaking of important, faith is a gift, but doubt is also important. In my own religious instruction, faith was always shadowed by doubt. The two qualities co-existed, in dialogue with each other, because doubt is the quality of humility that should walk with faith.
Doubt makes you open. Doubt makes you listen. Doubt breaks your heart, which makes you remember you have one. Doubt makes you empathise and learn and adapt rather than requiring the world to bend to your requirements because you are the chosen bearer of God’s mandate.
I’m going to say this as clearly as I can.
Australia, right now, could use a prime minister who doubted himself a bit more, because it would mean Morrison would listen more than he does.
Those of us raised in Christian traditions are taught to believe that God rewards the faithful, and confidence can be an excellent quality in a political leader.
But in the human world, righteous certainty, a sense of manifest destiny, is a hard barrier to listening.
Source: Thanks msn.com