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Moral dangers of the PM's pentecostalism

  • 05 October 2019


When I was a child and was asked 'How are you?', only once did I reply, 'I am good'. I still remember the rebuke from my Aunty Ivy, who explained that it is not for me to judge if I am 'good'; better to opt to be 'well'. She would be cross were a prime minister to go around asking 'how good' we are, for to affirm this was regarded by her generation as quite improper.

I now recognise that the reluctance to affirm human goodness was a residual expression of a form of civic Protestantism (to borrow historian Richard Ely's instructive phrase) whose cultural reach extended beyond the pews.

Protestantism began with a forlorn view of human nature. Why were all the Catholic shortcuts to heaven, from pilgrimage to penance, just another road to hell? Because the consequences of the 'original sin', that infamous slip-up in the Garden of Eden, ensured every human endeavour was corrupted. For Calvin and Luther, it was because no one could be even a tiny bit 'good' in God's eyes, that grace alone was the means to salvation.

Catholics, thanks largely to the genius of Aquinas, had a more nuanced view of original sin; but as any baby boomer Catholic school child can affirm, they also were in no doubt about the damning consequences of the Fall.

During the 19th century, evangelicals succumbed to the lures of free market economics' emphasis on individual choice. Nevertheless, until the mid-20th century it was still assumed to be rude to proclaim one's personal goodness.

Given the barbarity associated with seeing vulnerable babies, children, women and the poor as inherently sinful, the reduced emphasis on original sin in contemporary Christianity is largely a welcome relief. But the cost of change was also considerable. As Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr and many other thinkers have recognised, human frailty is a surer foundation for equality than human goodness.

Why did the Calvinistic colonisers of America feel able to rise up against the King? Not because they thought of themselves as 'good' (that was a mistake of French revolutionaries) but because they knew the monarch to be a sinner like them, no better in God's eyes than his most rebellious subject. Why could Christianity, the crudely exploited creed of the elite, still come to be a paradoxically liberating ideology for slaves and indigenous peoples? Because the ultimate implication of oppressed people being born as sinners was that