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Beyond belief: How the media gets caught up on PM’s Pentecostalism

  • 13 May 2021
A Bible passage has been on my mind since the Prime Minister’s address at the biennial Australian Christian Churches conference, where Christ approaches fisherman and calls them to become his disciples, evangelists, no longer to seek out fish but now people; I will make you fishers of men.

There was an echo of this story in the Prime Minister’s controversial address, that Scott Morrison feels called to use his earthly skills for heavenly purposes, but at the heart of this appeal was also something like evangelism, a call to those Pentecostal leaders present. Morrison asked for their help.

Little of this moment made the initial media coverage once the address leaked, with the Prime Minister’s mention of the devil making many of the headlines. Australia is a secular society with an sharply increasing faithless demographic. Public expressions of belief, particularly belief in the supernatural, have become taboo, triggering an already familiar media cycle.

The headlines — from The Guardian, to The Age, and The Australian — reported on Morrison’s belief that he was called to do God’s work and that ‘the evil one’ was influencing corrosive discourse on social media. Some of the op-eds that followed this coverage considered such expressions of belief to be unusual and worthy of examination, or in the case of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s piece, even problematic and disturbing. Fairfax columnists reacted to perceived anti-religious bigotry online and in the media, and attributed a torrent of intolerance to nebulous forces like ‘keyboard warriors’. Progressive journalists felt that testing the literalism of the Prime Minister’s beliefs was relevant to understanding his politics, where conservative voices saw it all as an attack and felt mocked.

The media can get caught up on religious belief, despite three-fifths of Australians identifying with some religion or spirituality. Even those with no religion can express some belief in things like astrology or feng shui, and reporting on the Prime Minister’s belief as newsworthy ignores this (and may only drive up Morrison’s religious vote). On the other hand, centrist appeals to tolerance fail to acknowledge the disproportionate presence that Pentecostalism wields in politics.

At this point, the media cycle is mostly internal, and while the media is talking to itself, Scott Morrison is talking to a rapidly growing base with significant resources. The devil isn’t in the headline here, the devil is in the detail, in the appeal itself.

'We need a Prime Minister whose faith is