Wrestling Morrison's brand of Christianity



Australia is massively unprepared for monster fires and the health impacts from extreme weather due to climate change. It's the stuff of nightmares and yet the bogey I find hard to shake involves the surreal political inertia of Australia's federal government led by a Pentecostal prime minister.  

Chris Johnston cartoonAn insistence on business as usual represents such a huge values gulf, a point of conflict. I went in search of clarity by attending the first ever Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARCC) Conference held earlier this month. The timing of the conference could not have been more prescient. It began on Friday night 8 November with a welcome to country, as deep rainforest country near Lismore in northern New South Wales cried out from thirst with shouts of flame.

Kinship and ancient wisdom inspired people from around Australia to come together: Catholic friars, Muslim scholars, Buddhists, retired scientists and school teachers of Christian faith. Thea Ormerod of the ARCC told the crowd, 'We are struggling to maintain hope in the face of climate breakdown. We are here to show solidarity with others who care.'

Our warming planet is delivering what many forecast, reducing water and livelihoods. At the conference there was an acknowledgement of that; a lament, but also expectations of being recharged for the road ahead. 'We're not as strong as we thought we were,' one young man from the Uniting Church told me. An older gentleman with bright eyes, who practises Zen meditation, piped up, 'Don't forget meditation is a way to influence the world around you. Suffering can also be the agency for deep awakening.'

The barrier for me is the stubborn words and actions of a government that rants against 'indulgent and selfish practices' that threaten the mining sector and 'radical' activists of narrow dogma that 'pit cities against regional Australia'. Like many others, I am cranky about lost opportunity to act on the science, and about policies that condemn those living with poverty (those who will be hardest hit) and sacrifice our clean air. Surely, a man of faith wouldn't act this way?

His government (with an increasingly politicised media unable to help resolve an important national conversation) continues to support, with massive subsidies, extractive and exploitative industries that undeniably warm the planet and threaten the natural environment that underpins our life support systems.

How can this be a legitimate perspective as a publicly-confessing Christian? Why would this shepherd not want to move all of us to safer ground? How is it that, presumably, reading and grappling with the same gospel teachings, we come up with such different ways of seeing and knowing? Many might quickly conclude he has no genuine faith or that he is simply beholden to the minerals lobby, Australia's NRA, but that's too easy and dismissive. Where does the truth lie?


"Morrison is simply the end product of a decline in the kinds of engagements with people and society that was a mark of the Jesus of the gospels."


During a conference break I struck up a conversation with David Tutty, Executive Officer with the Social Justice Commission in Toowoomba. He'd travelled to Canberra from Queensland. 'The answer is found in the reality that Christianity intersects with culture and becomes different forms of missiology — faith lived out in society,' he said.

Our prime minister's own brand of Christian faith — conservative Pentecostalism of the prosperity gospel vintage — is 'a theology that gained new momentum in the modern era with a society increasingly focused on the individual offering a privatised God and personal salvation. It's a post-enlightenment theology that silos politics, the environment and economics as if they are not subject to the same overarching values.'

Former prime minister, Tony Abbott, a confessing Catholic, pointed to this artificial but calculated and pragmatic divide when he said, 'When climate change is a moral issue, we do quite badly. When it's an economic issue, we do very well.'

Stephen Pickard, head of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture Charles Sturt University in Canberra, which sponsored the conference, observed that 'the all-pervasive impact of a highly individualised notion of society and the dominant divide between faith and the public domain (when it suits) is the air we breathe.

'When Christian faith is so infected with the host culture's pragmatic utilitarian values it forfeits its own prophetic voice and capacity to act differently. In this sense Morrison is not that unusual but simply the end product of a decline in the kinds of engagements with people and society that was a mark of the Jesus of the gospels.'

Tutty added: 'It results in a theology that siloes issues, creates hierarchies and puts profit ahead of people — look at the Coalition's approach to welfare with drug testing and cashless welfare cards that lay the ground for new commercial agendas. If the emphasis is on "God and me" — which exists in all Christian denominations to some degree — then it becomes harder to maintain a social and ecological connection. At its most glaring, the logic is, "If I do good and believe I will be blessed materially by God. People who are poor are not doing what God wants."'

Only holistic perspectives can help deliver a truly comprehensive and compassionate plan for the challenges ahead. As I heard afresh, all problems and solutions are connected, ontologically and spiritually. That means embracing a political vision that understands our deep interdependence.

If I am to remain concerned for what's happening here and now, people facing fire and flood, threats to livelihood and limb, understanding God as both transcendent and imminent, then I have to embrace a God directly involved with people who are suffering. I have to step out, despite and beyond the political inertia, and provide practical care and hope, with the grace and courage to persist.



Toni HassanToni Hassan is a Canberra journalist and emerging artist. She writes an irregular column for the Canberra Times and is an adjunct research scholar with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University. She is the author of Families in the Digital Age.

Topic tags: Toni Hassan, Scott Morrison, climate change, Pentecostalism



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Existing comments

Great article Toni and greater because you speak out. It is very sad that those in power are deaf to your words and those of others who want policy change. Let's hope we reach a tipping point, watershed moment, call it what you will, where the majority of Australians rebel and call out these policies in the next election.
Henri | 02 December 2019

Too judgmental for me
Neville Hunt | 02 December 2019

A great analysis Toni. Want to hear more from you. Mike Bowden
Michael J Bowden | 02 December 2019

You could use any name to back your story so why Morrison.
PHILLIP ROWAN | 02 December 2019

Ken Wilber refers to the type of hierarchy mentioned in the 3rd last para as 'dominator hiearchies', as opposed to 'growth hierarchies/holarchies'. Conservative politicians seem to live with a very narrow worldview that severly limits their ability to take the action that is required in our current situation in the world.
Richard | 02 December 2019

Toni I think he's justifying his inactivity on climate change because they dont want to spend any money to fix the problems. He repeatedly compares our emissions record with other more industrialised countries and just shrugs his shoulders. On the folk burnt out, he thinks a hug will do the trick. There are huge reserves of water in the Northern Qld rivers during the wet season that coud be channelled to the Murray Darling. There are massive untapped reserves of water that could be tapped from the Great artesian basin. " It contains about 65 million gigalitres (GL) of water and underlies more than 1.7 million square kilometres of eastern Australia." It can be pumped out and chanelled to where necessary. Tree planting. We need to plant 5 bn trees. Especially along the waterways. And why couldnt they tow some huge Antarctic icebergs into Melbourne and Sydney to alleviate the drought as well? Politicians would sooner just sell off the farm.
francis Armstrong | 02 December 2019

Why are the ‘good’ men and women in the positions of influence and leadership in the industries which damage our environment and compromises our future? There are some people of conscience inside the companies which are contributing to the degradation of water, land, air who need our protection when they dare to speak out. We need responsible leadership, not just shareholder protest and divergence!
Frederika | 02 December 2019

There is a doctrine enunciated in the Bible about justification through faith, not works. There is some dissention between religious denominations about this doctrine. Speaking personally, I believe it's firstly about faith, then faith leading to love of people and of wanting to help people, most especially the least in society. There's a problem, of course, because we are all struggling in some way or other. With regard to politics and faith there are thorny issues there. Often pragmatism wins. Perhaps on climate change policy, the electorate has seen how this government has not delivered, has not listened and the electorate now must prioritise. Is climate change the most important issue of our times?
Pam | 02 December 2019

Thanks for the reflection, Toni. I vaguely recall the song which impracticably notes the need of a forty acre paddock to turn around the road-train. Think then of the many conferences that are mounted to deal with the issues you have raised, in particular that of the prosperity road-train that spells Christianity for many. Not to be overlooked is the relative prosperity that allows many to attend such conferences. There is a Youth Festival here in Perth next weekend which will see thousands of young people attend from all over. We seem to forget the entropic charge of our universe which amounts to more and more atomisation/ individualism cum massification - read 7 billion people and more on the planet. Useful gospel images come to mind, the leaven in the mass of dough, where two or three gather. I like you concluding remarks:"If I am to remain concerned for what's happening here and now, people facing fire and flood, threats to livelihood and limb, understanding God as both transcendent and imminent, then I have to embrace a God directly involved with people who are suffering. I have to step out, despite and beyond the political inertia, and provide practical care and hope, with the grace and courage to persist".
Noel McMaster | 02 December 2019

Is the problem the confusion between Distributive wand Retributive Justice which ware often combined under the ambiguous term Social Justice which can mean both or either. The Gospel meaning of Justice is Distributive with Retributive Justice being just a sub-set in that is all punishments should be fair. So many of the Government policies are premised that problems of poverty will be solved via retributive means of a cash less card, punitive NewStart allowance, drug tests etc.
Richard Smith | 02 December 2019

I really like your approach Toni, it rings true for me. Morrison, as do many in politics, compartmentalises values, ethics. They can't then, really be authentic, as such. The are either your values, or not. They are not malleable when convenience.
Julie Shannon | 02 December 2019

Morrison made a virtue of his "Christianity" at the last election so he must accept any analysis of what it is that he believes in which drives public policy. His response to climate change is just one apparent contradiction to his christian beliefs. What about refugees, people on Newstart, the banks, aged care, all of which seem to dealt with by a smirk or shrug of the shoulders. His soft condemnation of Westpac contrasted with his strident attacks on unions (who are in the business of ensuring that their member get a fair go - somewhat christian like) says it all. On the international stage he supports Trump, probably one of the most repugnant characters to hold high office. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Morrison is embolden by Trump's lies, distortion of facts and public vilification of those that speak out against him. If he can get away with it , why can't I? Christian he is not!
Alan | 02 December 2019

Follow the money - where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.................................
hilary | 02 December 2019

Hi Toni. Great article. Tropes in here are ones I'm encountering in my research, on Paris, in the sixteenth century. We don't change much. Who is responsible for the cartoon? I think that might end up in the intro of my thesis.
Lisa | 02 December 2019

Over and over in the last ten years since the carbon-market debacle, my memory returns to the novel by Walter Miller, "A Canticle for Leibowitz", which I first read as a teenager in the '60s. The ideology implicit in the arrogant ignorance of today's governments, in the US, Brazil and the UK as well as here, seems to be winning. Perhaps I err, but I have come to the view that the most we can do now is lay up today what we can of our shared cultural treasures (not unlike the Svalbard seed vault), against the coming dark age - and conceal them from the fools as best we can. Collective human decency will rise again. But how many centuries it might take, of that we have a notion only from the many previous collapses. Though sad for the immediate future, I am hopeful for the long run. And it doesn't deter me from working against political bad faith. When Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world would and in the morning, he replied that he would plant an apple tree. Amen to that!
Fred Green | 02 December 2019

Here’s what Morrison won’t say, but it is there in the fantasy that Pentecostals have about the end of the world. They believe in something called the Rapture. Jesus will come again and gather the faithful to himself in the sky from where he will take them to heaven. The rest of us will be left to our own devices and endure an apocalyptic end. What this means is that Pentecostals do not have the same regard for the earth as conservationists. To Pentecostals it doesn’t matter what happens to the environment. It and those who care for it are expendable.
Paul Smith | 02 December 2019

Thank you Toni for your reflections on the recent conference and the Prime Minister's take on the Christian story. I am sure there were Catholics at this conference as there are many of them engaged in action for climate change. I am also sure that in many respects the Catholic Church leadership has been taken over, in part due to the influence of George Pell, by bishops whose values are very similar to the prime ministers when it come to interpretation of this story.
Tom Kingston | 02 December 2019

Can we really call a highly individualised religion that views my relationship with God as a Father Christmas relationship to benefit me and my prosperity with little regard for the welfare of others both present and future a ‘brand of Christianity’? Can a Prime Minister who abuses refugees as a political game to wedge his political opponents and brags about it with a plaque on his desk be a Christian? What about a Prime Minister who almost continuously denigrates the poor and needy while rushing to the defence of the wealthy and privileged? It’s not my call to answer these questions, but Jesus gives us some pretty clear clues in Matthew 25.
Peter Schulz | 02 December 2019

Thank you Toni for a thoughtful article. I think you are far too kind to Mr. Morison. I cannot see him as any kind of shepherd. Rather as a wolf. He seems to espouse a kind of properity gospel, where the rich prosper because of their godliness, and the poor suffer for their sins. The IMF estimates that annual energy subsidies paid to the fossil fuel corporations in Australia total $29 billion, representing 2.3 percent of Australian GDP. On a per-capita basis, Australian fossil fuel subsidies amount to $1,198 per person. .. New analysis commissioned by the International Monetary Fund has shown that global fossil fuel subsidies continue to grow, despite the growing urgency of the need to decarbonise the global economy. The IMF Fiscal Affairs Department estimated that, in 2017, global fossil fuel subsidies grew to $5.2 trillion, representing 6.5 percent of combined global GDP. (https://reneweconomy.com.au/global-fossil-fuel-subsidies-reach-5-2-trillion-and-29-billion-in-australia-91592/ The fossil fuel industries have the economic power to change governments. And of course, they stand to lose big time if we change to renewables. With very little openness about campaigning funding, they virtually get what they pay for. NO action on climate change.
Liam | 03 December 2019

I was thinking our church - my church- had absolutely nothing to say re climate change. I’m grateful that there are other opinions. I would like to go to such a conference !
Barbara | 03 December 2019

Thankyou Toni for this thoughtful and instructive analysis. As a recently retired government conservation biologist I have been quizzed a few times now on how a christian can have these views of our Earth. My knowledge of the climate change impacts on our biodiversity makes it hard to be a positive, forward thinking person. Your thoughts have added some perspective and, a bit more hope...
Martin | 07 December 2019

Many thanks Toni for your splendid article. It is a great wonder that Morrison and his supporters and others who are in Canberra to make $s for themselves without looking after the environment, health and welfare not just for those present for whom he "governs" but also for those of future generations of his descendants and ours. John B. Wilson.
John B. Wilson | 07 December 2019

Thanks for your article , Toni. It is good that this ARRCC conference which I attended and assisted with , is brought to the attention of readers of Eureka Street. Apathy and self interest are hampering progress . Many people are not willing to even change their diet for the universal good. At a time over 50 years ago when nuclear war seemed a strong possibility, the film , "On the Beach" based on Shute's novel of that name presented a frightening scenario of the last days in Australia as people awaited the deadly consequences of a nuclear war. I suggest a film/TV program depicting the last appalling days of homo sapiens before extinction might just bring home to doubters what this would mean......catastrophic climate events, uncontrolled disease, shortages of food and water,(with fighting to access these) and maybe even mass suicides to avid a painful and unavoidable death. A United Nations agreement to deal with the challenges ahead seems the only hope for our species. At the moment , many politicians are hampering any chance of our survival in any form on Earth. Sadly, some have power in Australia.
M. Samara-Wickrama | 07 December 2019

Horrifying to read much later one of the correspondents talking about the enormous amount of water in the Great Artesian Basin. How many Australians realise that right now - closing date eob 10/12/19 for submission comment BHP are applying to UP the 42 or 45 MILLION litres of water a DAY they have been extracting for so long from the GAB. They are now applying for 50 million litres of water per day of this ancient water for their Olympic Dam gold, copper and uranium mine at Roxby Downs. While the town of Marree has no water. Water is the most precious resource. What will be left for the future generations
Michele Madigan | 07 December 2019

Thank you Toni for a well argued view on PM Morrison's approach to religion. Like many fundamentalists, he has the view that his God ordained that human beings would have total control of the earth and all the living things on it. It is known as the anthropogenic approach to nature. The people involved with the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change should be commended. In addition, his particular brand of belief also features the notion that people who are successful have to be rewarded and those who are not deserve to be punished - ie take from the poor to give to the rich. This fits very well for those who agree with the neo-liberal capitalistic view of the world, but the fact is that it is the antithesis of Christian teaching. All people who care about the health of the planet and the urgent need to introduce effective strategies to stop the pollution causing climate change and pollution-related illnesses need to work together with the young people takin a strong stand for climate action. And as we do this, we also need to be mindful of the need for socially just society.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 December 2019

I see practically nothing of the Jesus of the New Testament in the denunciations and confrontationalism of the Pentecostals. Where is the Jesus who argued with the church leaders in the synagogue and threw over the tables of the money-lenders? And what about his demand that he without sin throw the first stone at the woman taken in adultery?. Instead Folau's beliefs on the fate of the gay community and fornicators are writ large everywhere. I wince every time the term "Christian lobby" comes up in our political debate, knowing it will refer to these judgmental, apocalytic newcomers, whose beliefs seem antithetical to the most fundamental teachings of Jesus.
Libby | 08 December 2019

I respectfully dis-agree with many of your statements. Firstly, “Climate Change” has been occurring since the year dot. Even the indiginous peoples insist that there is NO “climate breakdown” - in fact that their older people remember that there have been very much worse climatic changes during earlier centuries. Secondly, The recent bushfires have nothing whatever to do with “climate change”- The public have ignored - at their peril - the wisdom of the elders of ALL indigenous Aboriginal tribes who have for centuries had for centuries the absolutely necessary “controlled burn-offs” of forest areas during the cooler months of the year. They strongly recommend clearing of all debris from the forest floors , fallen branches and combustible fuel. Unfortunately we are at the mercy of too many very badly-informed “green” politicians who have locked up forests so that this clearing cannot be done. …/2
mark | 08 December 2019

It appears that we have a PM and some members of the Federal Cabinet who act more like cult members than like responsible politicians. Perhaps it's time for all of them to do some serious poll-taking in their electorates. It is difficult for me to believe that their actions are based on much beyond their intent to stay in power, which depends on their major campaign funders in the extractive industries. The ALP is only marginally better than the LNP, because they ignore the consequences of exporting vast amounts of Australian coal to be burnt. they too are seeking electoral security instead of a sounder future for Australia. How many industries are currently suffering the devastation of these fires and drought and extreme temperatures? Tourism? agriculture? construction? That names a few candidates. Does the PM not care? Does he sincerely believe, in the face of sound scientific evidence, that the current weather and the heating climate are not caused by accumulating greenhouse gases? If so, then my disappointment with his intellect is the least of my concerns. I have children and grandchildren, and other young people in my that I care about. What is going to happen to their lives?
Robert | 09 December 2019

While we are heaping coals of fire on Pentecostal Scomo for his manifest inconsistency in values, let's not forget Catholic Tony and his version of inconsistencies between professed faith and action. In many ways they both exhibit the characteristics of the 'great simplifier' where 'truth' is reduced to nicely formulated dogma that is then used to justify hubris and unquestioning self confidence.
Ginger Meggs | 10 December 2019

As the Javanese would say Toni, you are both right and wrong. If Scott Morrison were true to ancestral form he would be a Presbyterian/Uniting Church person. Why do people come to Pentecostalism, so effectively but charitably historically and theologically analysed in the late Horton Davies 'Christian Deviations'? For more or less the same reasons they came to Methodism, when John Wesley, a Church of England clergyman outreached to those the conventional Church was not reaching. You mention several worthy wights connected with various Church Social Justice organisations. The problem with these interconnected luminaries is that they only rarely reach the average punter. They are names. The great Pentecostal barns, often multi-campus, like Hillsong are, whether you like them or not, refreshingly open and welcoming, compared with some of the inward-looking and cliquey churches of the conventional denominations. People want to be accepted and loved. Pentecostal places do that. Look at their alumni, which include Guy Sebastian and the Prime Minister. Prosperity Theology, bluntly stated is a deviation. However, classic Methodism and the Society of Friends, which eschewed the alcoholism, gambling, brutality and the sharp business practices of the day, changed society for the far, far better. The PM, like you or I, should be open to change. Quiet personal dialogue, rather than public confrontation, should be the way.
Edward Fido | 11 December 2019

Excellent account of schism in our land. Prosperity is important, but for all....poverty and absence of opportunity are not choices. Its sheer drudgery to have hot homes in summer, cold ones in winter. To buy second hand clothes as a matter of course, and to limit excursion for school age kids. We have lost our way and its back to basics, compassion mercy and action. Can we do it I wonder?
helen m donnellan | 21 January 2020


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