Moral dangers of the PM's pentecostalism

28 Comments

 

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.

Chris Johnston cartoonI 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 their oppressors were too.

 

"The greatest danger of Scott Morrison's brand of Pentecostalism is the inherent division it constructs between 'them' and 'us'."

 

Human history reveals that human beings are attracted by ideologies and leaders that externalise evil. The most common short cut to a sense of belonging is to deny the darkness in our own hearts by emphasising the wickedness of others — be they communist, Muslim, prisoner, drug dealer, Catholic, Protestant, black, or just plain different. Western Christians have succumbed to this temptation as much as any group (usually accompanied by a theology linking the scapegoated group with the devil and his demons) but this was always difficult to reconcile with their belief in original sin.

I have previously argued that the greatest danger of Scott Morrison's brand of Pentecostalism is the inherent division it constructs between 'them' and 'us'. The head of the Australian Christian Lobby, Martyn Iles, responded by pointing out that no Christian can say they are better than anyone else because we are all fallen creatures. Iles, brought up in an old-fashioned branch of the Brethren that clung to teaching long abandoned in consumerist evangelical churches, was right in his reformation theology but wrong to assume this was shared by the Prime Minister.

For most Pentecostals, the consequences of original sin are a problem only for those who have not yet been saved by Christ and thus remain subject to Satan's power. Sanctified, rewarded, affirmed and uplifted, modern Pentecostal worship is a 'feel good/are good' experience. 'How good' are you? In Morrison's Horizons Church, they already know the answer. Praise God!

The moral danger of hype about how good we are is such that the next time our PM asks, I suggest we answer him. Good manners, respect and humility require we do as Aunty Ivy would and respond: 'Mr Morrison, no one is good. But, please God, may they be well.'

 

 

James BoyceJames Boyce is the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World.

Main image: A man worshipping at Horizon Church in Sydney, Australia, the church attended by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

Topic tags: James Boyce, Scott Morrison, prosperity gospel

 

 

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James, a rather tortured distinction between good and well. The Prostestant view of the personal standing one had in God's eyes during the Industrial revolution was one's material possessions. The more you amassed the better (holier) you were. Take QE2 for example. Protestants had the right to make their own decisions based on the bible, whereas we ignorant Catholics had to have the bible interpreted to us by a caste of holier than thou scholarly priests. Hence the saying "Protestants ate well, Catholics slept well," because if an IRA catholic murdered a Paisleyite in Belfast on a Saturday they could unburden their guilt at confession on Sunday. A quck act of contrition, 3 hail Marys, hey presto, back in the state of grace. I dont buy the argument that Hillsong promotes a divisive culture. Rather a rampant materialism. Compare Duterte in a very catholic culture the Phillipines. He is a lapsed Catholic/agnostic who has maintained his death squads killing approximately 30,000 drug dealers, some priests, many protesters and mainly Communists, though like Scomo accepts money unquestioned from the Chinese. Duterte’s net worth ? $815,307 as of December 31, 2017. Scomos annual salary $816,625.00. Pentecostal ? It's all about the brass.
francis Armstrong | 05 October 2019


A small thing can make a difference. Catholicism believes in Purgatory; the rest of Christendom doesn’t. Even a Catholic who feels viscerally that s/he can’t possibly be going to Hell after death should know that s/he at death may still be the carrier of impurities which have to be removed in what John Paul II called the condition of Purgatory, a condition as painful as Hell but not permanent (which is why a properly conducted funeral Mass won’t allow mourners let their eulogistic emotions get the better of God’s sovereignty to wax about Mum ‘being in heaven right now’ from the lectern). Unlike a Protestant, a Catholic’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ still leaves open the probability of him or her dying imperfect, even when there has been evidence of a life of martyrdom. Anyway, any Christian should be familiar with what Jesus says after asking, “Why do you call me good?”
roy chen yee | 05 October 2019


James Boyce's is a laboured argument that I think mistakes its target. The real opponents of progress in Australia, I suggest, are those who would deny the right of citizens of religious conviction a voice in public affairs, thereby undermining the foundation of human dignity in the individual's relationship with God. An attenuated humanism does no justice to creaturely reality and potential, restricting as it does citizens' reasoning and choice to the determinations of the State only, ignoring the "immortal longings" that are part of what we are and seek expression in values and practice here-and-now.
John RD | 06 October 2019


Love it. Thanks. Of course, now I'll have to buy your book...
Sande Ramage | 07 October 2019


The second last paragraph needs expanding and then to be shouted from the roof tops. Read Tawny's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism". Written so many years ago, it explains clearly the current government failure to even consider raising Newstart
Sheelah Egan | 07 October 2019


'How are you?' 'I am good.' But my grammar isn't up to much - I was not at school when we did that in Year 2.
Frank | 07 October 2019


In the process, the concept of the undeserving poor has been reinvented. Drought add is good because farmers are the deserving poor, having a go, while those on Newstart are treated with suspicion because they are clearly not having a grand by definition are undeserving.
Lee Boldeman | 07 October 2019


The nuns were also quick to point out our error if we answered "good" in response to a question as to our wellbeing. "You may be well but you are not good!"
Bernadette Touhy | 07 October 2019


Back when I went to school (a long time ago, probably about the same time as Frank), 'good' was an adjective and 'well' was an adverb. Like John RD, I don't think the good vs well argument is helpful in this article. James rightly challenges the extent to which many (any?) of us could be called 'good'. This applies irrespective of the presence of faith and at least as much to our various leaders. But I'm also unconvinced by John RD's suggestion that 'the real opponents of progress in Australia... are those who would deny the right of citizens of religious conviction a voice in public affairs' because I see no evidence of any such attempt at denial let alone an actual stifling.
Ginger Meggs | 07 October 2019


Why not have an 'evolutionary' go? How are you? - not bad, trying to go with the flow. We are now challenged to live with ecological awareness, to appreciate that our universe manifests ecological density; in space through time the challenge is to integrate and hold together as best (as good) as we can. To get to the point, we need to go back to the singularity some 13.7 billion years ago, to that bang/shudder which allows us to ride the wave of our times. We can witness the way of universal integration subject to entropy (or subject to our original sin if you like); but better to aspire with Teilhard de Chardin to be "the rising eddy on the descending current". Not to go for that suggests the Original Sin.
Noel McMaster | 07 October 2019


I think you should lay off the PM. He is trying very hard, has done well to overcome the baggage, and fight off the truly forces of darkness that Labor and the Greens presented.
ANDREW LUKAS | 07 October 2019


The moral danger of so much that is paraded as Christianity is the emphasis on personal piety, which often means to the exclusion of others, who are sinners. "Jesus loves me, praise the Lord!" But Jesus' whole point was to invite us to form a community of love, in which everyone is included, even--especially--sinners.
Rose Marie Crowe | 07 October 2019


Thanks for your article; exploring the Protestant philosophy's focus on individual responsibility to overcome our failures rather than a common good. Tawny's book 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism' does a great job describing the development of this philosophy. At the start of Tawny's book, it describes the common truth being determined by a structured debate in the medieval Catholic tradition. In the more modern book 'Hierarchy Theory A vision, Vocabulary and Epistemology.' by Ahl & Allen it states how scientists ( the same could be said for other university-educated folks) believe they have direct access to reality. I suspect this is one of the moral failings of our time. As Christian ( and any sane person) we believe this is not true because of our sin. Humans are imperfect, and if we want to have a better understanding of the truth, we must listen and consider what others have to say. It is a shame that original sin is used as a rationale why some people opinions are less worthy than our own.
Celia | 07 October 2019


Mark 10:18 has Jesus saying that 'no one is good except God alone.' But the Prime Minister is at least trying to follow the Christian ethos. It is in aspiring to goodness that helps the person honorable enough to be worthy of God's goodness.
Trish Martin | 07 October 2019


Noel McMaster, Original Sin is a load of codswallop perpetuated by shady shamans or men masquerading as untouchable "priests or religious - who don cassocks and silly pointed hats, fine silk impregnable robes and wave golden crooks, wear expensive rings, mutter latin incantations" who also perpetuate the myth that canon law is some secret alchemy many of their members can hide behind to cover up their twisted sexual practices with children. A Member of the Anglican Scots church recently accused me of belonging to a Satanic cult (meaning Catholicism).
francis Armstrong | 07 October 2019


Thanks for your article; exploring the Protestant philosophy's focus on individual responsibility to overcome our failures rather than a common good. Tawny's book 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism' does a great job describing the development of this philosophy. At the start of Tawny's book, describes the common truth is determined in the medieval Catholic tradition by a structured debate. In the more modern book 'Hierarchy Theory A vision, Vocabulary and Epistemology.' by Ahl & Allen it states how scientists ( the same could be said for other university-educated folks) believe they have direct access to reality. I suspect this is one of the moral failings of our time. As Christians, we believe this is not true because of our imperfection. Humans are imperfect, and if we want to have a better understanding of the truth, we must listen and consider what others have to say. It is only the sharing of opinions of sharing of ideas and different perspectives we can gain a better understanding of reality. It is a shame that original sin is used as a rationale why some people are less worthy than our own.
Celia | 07 October 2019


I'm getting tired of this bias and cartoons against Morrison. I subscribe to this site for stimulating Catholic editorials. Sort yourselves out Eureka Street editors please or I'm out of here...
Jane | 07 October 2019


Thanks James. I read your fine book a couple of years ago. The concept of Original Sin is one of the great contributions of Western Christianity to human self-understanding. In their moments of deepest reflection all human beings know that as individuals and as a species there is something not quite as it should be, something a bit broken, about us. Philosophical and psychological attempts to deny or ignore this inevitably come up against the realities of life and of history. In the 1970s, a popular slogan was, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” I’d suggest the mainstream Christian understanding of salvation in Christ, entered into through baptism, can be summed up, “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but that’s OK!”
Gerard Hore | 07 October 2019


Thank you James for a well argued piece. My only addition is that as Pentacostal as the prime minister is I consider he is only following the closely in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors who included a Catholic and an agnostic (I think) from his political party. Christian or not, they all revere a worldview that sees any addressing of major issues to do with a reasonably humane and altruistic society not at all to their liking.
Tom Kingston | 07 October 2019


The feedback provided here seems to have missed the point, as has the Prime Minister. This is not about sophistry dressed in religious arguments, dominated by Christianity. Too much complicated analysis. The PM claimed his victory as a ‘miracle’ in religious terms. It was a small majority of Australians who voted in particular parties with a majority of members. Now the significant minority are being ignored. For example Newstart. What would Jesus say about the present situation? I don’t think it would be an answer that the PM would be comfortable with. If those who espouse Christian values were to ask this simple question, before they open their mouths and spill out defensive platitudes, ‘What would Jesus say’ they might get a better perspective. I am a Buddhist, it is not a religion, it encourages me not to make unfounded assumptions and to see the potential goodness in everyone, from the moment they are born. A binary view of humanity, is of itself, a destructive view of humanity.
Tony London | 07 October 2019


An interesting and reasoned argument. I am much more concerned by the Pentecostal focus on the return of Christ. When Christ returns, according to one theory, the restoration and renewal of creation begins: a handy let-off for doing anything about the environment and climate change. (Such a view would be consistent with the PM's ongoing failures in this matter.) Certainly it becomes less urgent. I can't help but wonder where the PM and his church stands on this.
Ken Rookes | 07 October 2019


How dare a Prime Minister in a secular country profess Christianity. Those who elected him must all learn their PC catechism.
John RD | 08 October 2019


I thought this a wonderful article-'The most common short cut to a sense of belonging is to deny the darkness in our own hearts by emphasising the wickedness of others.' Surely this assumption which Jesus was so scathing of in his moot and beam analogy, is at the very core of those in government who continue to berate, punish and surely lie awake at night working out via Cashless Cards and other inventions how to make the lives of the poor even more untenable. The actual responsible Minister declared last week that elevating Newstart income would simply lead to more drugs and drinking. No public reprimand from her Church going Prime Minister. It's so puzzling that the scourges of our society, some mentioned by the many responses, and also youth and other suicides, extraordinary incarceration rates of Aboriginal youth and adults, the 12 year Intervention in the Northern Territory not to mention the startling effects of global warming etc etc, are not seen at all the concern for action of Church going people in government power. The present prosperity based PM certainly but also another before him and one in the other party. Scapegoating justifies everything
Michele Madigan | 08 October 2019


The wonder is that Jane should think there's something edifying to say about Morrison's politics. Perchance she should tell us what she'd like to read about him or, more precisely, what she likes about him.
Michael Furtado | 08 October 2019


Theology is what allows Atheists to belong to the Church of England. As Tony London points out the whole business of original sin and the Elect being special to God and recognizable by their wealth in this life, as per Calvin and before that Augustine is just Christian superstition. These fables are just best guesses to explain how people can do bad things and how to explain suffering. But if you want to understand Morrison and his fundamentalism, seek for real truth-Follow the Money.
Michael D. Breen | 09 October 2019


Francis Armstrong - Scots Church is certainly not Anglican. But I write just to note that generalisations about what particular church members believe are not very helpful. Two of my colleagues in our Bankstown Hospital chaplaincy are wonderful, well-trained and eirenic members of the Assemblies of God. I have never heard them mention money let alone "speak in tongues". They hardly resemble Mr Houston (and they cope with me, an ancient, rather agnostic Episcopalian priest).
Chaplain John Bunyan | 12 October 2019


I'm one who gets annoyed when people answer "how are you?", and their response is "I'm good"! It's got nothing to do with their behaviour! It's abour their freakin' health, isn't it?
Lynne Redknap | 12 October 2019


Having been raised in the more progressive Methodist tradition - both progressive theologically and politically - (though I am no longer religious), your article raises some important issues, James. The greatest danger I see in Scott Morrison's religious approach to politics is the total lack of similarity between his policies and those of the founder of Christianity. I was taught about a "social Gospel" - ie about support for peace, social justice, compassion, human rights, care for the environment etc. Sadly, like many other super fundamentalist Protestant groupings, Morrison and his team have a phobia about these important values and have a deep hatred for those who do. This phenomenon is deeply rooted in the US where these groupings have a big say in US politics. Some examples are the Tea Party, the Moral Majority, The Family (TF), the Klu Klux Klan and the extreme right of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. All these groups fully back the politics of the US Military Industrial Complex. I have done a lot of reading on TF which was started in the 1930s by a Methodist minister who was a pro Nazi. TF used its influence in US politics to help Nazi war criminals to escape, to oppose unionism, the anti racist movement etc. It is responsible for organising the Presidential Prayer Breakfast which brings together right wing industrialists, politicians - including dodgy extreme right wing foreign politicians - and high ranking military personnel. It recruited Suharto to fit into the CIA plans for overthrowing democracy in Indonesia and making it a client US state with the massive 1965 bloodbath in Indonesia and those that followed in West Papua, East Timor and Acheh. There are other dictators who got support as well. All people of goodwill - whether they are Christian or not - need to stand together to defend humanity.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 November 2019


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