Firstly, some facts and definitions:
1. The term secular describes a form of constitutional government where there is a separation of church and state.
2. Secularism is synonymous with freedom of religion and thus freedom of conscience. It is one of the preconditions and guarantors of genuine pluralism. If you do not have a secular society, you cannot have a genuinely democratic society. The antonyms of secularism are not faith and religion, but totalitarianism and theocracy.
3. Secularism is an example of what Isaiah Berlin called ‘negative liberty’, which is to say freedom defined as the absence of obstacles and coercion. In a secular society, you are free to believe or disbelieve as you see fit. A truly secular society will by definition accommodate believers of any faith or denomination; no less importantly, it will also accommodate the godless. Freedom of religion means, ipso facto, freedom from religion.
4. Australia is a secular country in a formal sense. Section 116 of the Constitution states:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
5. Australia is a secular country in an informal sense. Data from the most recent census in 2021 is not due for release until June 2022, but it is safe to assume the figures will not be wildly divergent from the 2016 census, which confirmed that Australia is a highly pluralistic society with a substantial irreligious streak. Almost a third of us have no religion (30.1 per cent, up from 22.3 per cent in 2011). The most common religious identifications are Catholic (22.6 per cent, down from 25.3 per cent) and Anglican (13.3 per cent, down from 17.1 per cent), followed by an array of competing denominations and faiths, including small but significant cohorts of Muslims (2.6 per cent), Buddhists (2.4 per cent), Hindus (1.9 per cent), Sikhs (0.5 per cent), and Jews (0.4 per cent). I think it is also fair to say that most Australians choose to wear their religious identifications lightly. As Meredith Lake points out in The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, a large proportion of the nation’s nominal Christians will rarely if ever darken the door of a church: the number of people who attend services on even a semi-regular basis (i.e. at least once a month) is below 15 per cent. Though religion has always played its part in Australian politics and society, sometimes in ways that are far from benign, Lake observes that it tends not to assume a demonstrative form and has traditionally been countered with a healthy irreverence. She cites an article published in the Bulletin in 1904 — a time when census figures had Australia at around 90 per cent Christian — which listed the scornful epithets the hoi polloi applied to religious types, including bible basher, sky pilot, devil dodger, gospel puncher and (my personal favourite) amen snorter.
I apologise for the elementary nature of these observations, which I set out partly for the sake of clarity, but also because it is a matter of public record that the current Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is an amen snorter who does not know the meaning of secularism. On 14 February 2008, Morrison stood in the federal House of Representatives as the newly elected Member for Cook to deliver his maiden speech, in which he said this:
Australia is not a secular country — it is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society. As US Senator Joe Lieberman said, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. I believe the same is true in this country.
Morrison is Pentecostal, a version of evangelical Protestantism that has become increasingly influential in recent decades. In her book Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World, Elle Hardy notes that approximately a quarter of the world’s more than two billion Christians identify as Pentecostal, the denomination having made substantial inroads in Africa and South America, in particular. Around 30 per cent of the population of Brazil, once considered among the most staunchly Catholic of nations, now belong to a Pentecostal church. In stubbornly secular Australia, however, Pentecostalism remains a relatively minor phenomenon. According to the 2016 census, Morrison shares his religious identification with 1.1 per cent of the population, a proportion unchanged from 2011.
The political implications of Morrison’s uncommon religion have inevitably been the subject of a good deal of discussion and a certain amount of speculation. But the most telling thing about the lines cited above is also the most obvious: their incoherence. Morrison’s apparent inability to grasp the distinction between a personal belief system and an operative constitutional arrangement may simply be ignorance. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever praised the current prime minister for his intellect, so the possibility that he does not understand a core principle of the Australian Constitution must remain open. Yet the incoherence itself is revealing. There is a basic stance, or at least an attitude, discernible in the confusion of these lines. It is one of defensiveness. The factual inaccuracies and contradictions of Morrison’s declaration of principle all follow from his use of ‘secularism’ as a euphemism for godlessness. He is positioning himself as an embattled believer, defending his religious faith against a hostile ‘secular’ society, unaware that he is battling his own incomprehension, claiming a ‘freedom’ he already possesses.
Of course, trying to parse Morrison’s public statements is something of a fool’s errand. He has never shown any interest in what words actually mean, or even the conventional ordering of their syllables. He has a fair claim to the title of the most inarticulate Australian political leader since Joh Bjelke-Petersen — and that is up against some stiff competition. Transcripts of his press conferences present a stupefying wasteland of ungrammatical babble. He struggles to get through a sentence without garbling at least one word. He is the only member of the most recent parliament whose mush-mouthed outpourings reliably overtop the tremulous illiteracies of One Nation senator Pauline Hanson, the authentic frontier gibberish of Queensland independent Bob Katter, and the slurred ramblings of his notoriously flatulent deputy Barnaby Joyce. For Morrison, words are just distracting noises that come out of a hole in his head. They are not connected to any logic or fact or principle. They are not constrained by anything he has said or done in the past, nor do they commit him to any future course of action. To expect otherwise is to make a categorical error. Morrison’s political career provides no grounds for believing that he will ever give a straight answer to any question, offer a cogent and consistent argument, explain himself in any way, or do anything he says he will do. He has never baulked at any hypocrisy, small or large. He speaks in order to make the very act of questioning him an exercise in futility, addressing no concrete reality beyond the immediate imperative to generate static. It is a form of anti-oratory: the rhetorical equivalent of avoiding an awkward conversation by starting up a leaf blower.
Morrison’s incoherence can thus be interpreted as tactical evasiveness, and as such be taken as evidence of his political cunning. One of the key insights of Sean Kelly’s recent book The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison — which devotes several pages to an attentive reading of Morrison’s maiden speech — is that the Prime Minister’s chief and perhaps only political skill is his ability to manoeuvre and avoid responsibility. He is a superficial politician adapted to the superficiality of contemporary politics; his overriding concern is always the ‘game’ of politics as an end in itself.
There is much in this interpretation that rings true. Kelly reads his subject, shrewdly, as a work of fiction: a ‘flat’ character in the sense defined by E.M. Forster. Morrison has cultivated a vacuous public image that might have been dreamed up by the world’s most dimwitted focus group, and probably was. He is the avatar of an intellectual nonentity. He appears to have no clearly articulated policy agenda or ideological viewpoint beyond that standard neoliberal banalities. The incoherence, it seems, goes all the way down. As Bernard Keane wrote in response to another speech in which Morrison sought to outline his core principles: ‘it offers no guide for anything — and thus, inevitably, a justification for everything’. The political historian Judith Brett described the same speech, only slightly more charitably, as ‘contentless’ and ‘rather nebulous’.
This brings us back to Morrison’s religious belief, the foundation stone of his declared ‘principles’. The speech in question was delivered to the Australian Christian Churches Conference in April 2021. It became briefly notorious because Morrison claimed, among other things, that he has been called to do God’s work, that social media was being manipulated by the ‘evil one’, and that he followed the creepy Pentecostal practice of ‘laying on of hands’ at times when people were unaware he was doing so.
Australian politicians of a religious bent will often claim to be pious when courting religious constituents, but will for pragmatic reasons tone down the gospel punching when addressing the wider population (cf. point #5 supra). Some commentators have argued along these lines that Morrison is non-dogmatic when it comes to worldly matters. In his comically terrible book Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World, Greg Sheridan spends a dozen sycophantic pages portraying the Prime Minister as a devout man who is wise enough not to let religion determine his policies. Morrison is, according to Sheridan, ‘the prime minister for all Australians, for Australians of all faiths and none’.
The only problem with this assertion is that it is demonstrably false in all but the most narrowly technical sense. Morrison has led what may well be the most indolent, nasty, bumbling, dishonest, cynical and corrupt federal government in Australian history. In his term as prime minister, he has failed to achieve a single lasting reform for the long-term betterment of Australian society. He failed even to propose one. He has proved himself, over and over again, to be an abuser of executive power, a substantive policy vacuum, and a legislator of surpassing ineptitude. His ideological stance is little better than a collection of antipathies pursued in a spirit of vindictiveness. He is as dogmatic as he is shallow. The keynotes of his time in office have been rampant cronyism, industrial scale rorting for partisan ends, the funnelling of vast sums of public money into the coffers of private vested interests, deliberate undermining of public institutions, and an evident distaste for the very thought that the federal government should use any of the vast resources at its disposal to help anyone who actually needs help.
On these points, Morrison has been absolutely consistent. The major catastrophes of bushfires, floods and the pandemic have done nothing to alter his basic stance. Faced with the spectacle of his fellow citizens in desperate need, Morrison has responded in ways that are belated, inadequate, grudging and skewed — every single time. The defining feature of his political career is that he always seeks to use his position of power to disadvantage and, in many cases, actively punish sections of the populace he regards with disfavour. These include but are not limited to academics and university students (those studying the humanities, in particular), public school students, aged-care residents, Indigenous Australians, women, people with disabilities, anyone who relies on the public health system, Muslims, the entire populations of Victoria and Western Australia, gay and transgender people, everyone who works in the arts sector, everyone who lives in a safe Labor seat, and everyone who understands that climate change is a serious problem. Hands down the most disgusting and shameful piece of maladministration in recent Australian history was the Robodebt debacle, which weaponised the federal bureaucracy against the citizens it was supposed to be serving, targeting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. The scheme was a shakedown, carried out with such calculated menace that it drove a number of its victims to suicide. It was subsequently found to be illegal. Morrison was its chief instigator.
Sheridan quotes Morrison complaining that is it unfair for people to criticise his religion if they disagree with his politics. But it is perfectly fair to ask how the religion that is supposedly fundamental to his worldview squares with his uniformly disgraceful public record, particularly when that religion is being presented to and uncritically accepted by Sheridan as evidence of his integrity. A disinterested observer might well note the alignment between Morrison’s religious principles and self-interest. Sheridan even provides an apposite example, which is all the more striking for the fact that they both seem to think it casts Morrison in a flattering light. Apparently, during his time as Minister for Immigration, a role that placed him in charge of Australia’s calculatedly cruel border regime, Morrison was often ‘in tears about the moral gravity of the decisions he felt he had to make’. When he has to make such tough decisions, he confessed to Sheridan, he searches his ‘soul and spirit’. One can only imagine his relief at the end of that anguished soul searching when he discovered that his conscience did not require him to show any mercy or take any kind of ethical stand that might have harmed his career prospects. Some sceptical readers may recall that Morrison — sensitive soul that he is — went on to perform his role as Minister for Immigration with such alacrity that he awarded himself a trophy.
Pentecostalism is a deeply strange religion. In Beyond Belief, Elle Hardy argues that it is perhaps best understood as a movement, rather than a faith. From its humble beginnings among a small Los Angeles congregation in the early twentieth century, it has expanded into a loose global network of churches, generally overseen by charismatic preachers, who tend to hold powerful sway over their congregations and are notable for their above average levels of private jet ownership. Hardy blends history and reportage to tell a colourful tale, richly populated with crackpots, perverts, grifters and frauds. One pastor claimed to be able to cure cancer by punching his parishioners in the stomach. Another encouraged his congregation to strip naked and masturbate en masse. Some enthusiastic American missionaries thought that having spent a few Sundays babbling nonsense with their suburban congregation — a Pentecostal practice known as ‘speaking in tongues’ — meant they could arrive in China and instantly converse with the locals. Reader, they could not.
Beyond the cheap hucksterism and general wackiness, Hardy identifies the essential features of Pentecostalism, one of which is the considerable extent to which the contemporary movement is politicised. It has come to be characterised by an ‘alarming shift towards an all-encompassing holy war, led by an army of believers striving to impose a dictatorship of the faithful … They want nothing short of a complete transformation of society.’ The theological form of this ambition is known as the ‘seven mountains’ doctrine, which maintains that believers must strive to take over the seven spheres of cultural influence (education, religion, family, business, government, arts and media), in order to defeat the rampant ‘secularism’ that is allegedly oppressing them. The paradox — if that is not too elevated a term — is that Pentecostalism fuses this deeply reactionary agenda to the shonky self-validations of modern pop-psychology and the facile rationalisation of unchecked individualistic greed known as the ‘prosperity gospel’, which maintains that God rewards the faithful with material wealth and punishes the undeserving with poverty. In essence, it provides a chintzy and very convenient justification for the worst excesses of neoliberalism and a specious doctrinal foundation for pursuing culture wars as core business. In doing so, it reflects neoliberalism’s distinctive combination of entitlement, arrogance, vindictiveness, paranoia and defensiveness. ‘Pentecostals feel simultanously triumphant about the fate of the world,’ observes Hardy, ‘but beseiged by the secular culture around them.’
It is common knowledge that Morrison is despised by many of his colleagues. Recent testimonials from his own side of politics have described him as a ‘liar’, a ‘fraud’, a ‘bully’, a ‘complete psycho’, an ‘autocrat’, a ‘deeply ingrained chauvinist’, an ‘absolute arsehole’ and a ‘horrible, horrible person’, who is ‘volatile, sly and untrustworthy’ and has ‘no moral compass’. The last of these character references was given by Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in a furious speech accusing the leader of her own party of corrupting the New South Wales branch. ‘The fish stinks from the head,’ she declared, going on to observe that Morrison’s actions ‘conflict with his portrayal as a man of faith’.
The latter point is debatable. Morrison’s conduct in office has been entirely consistent with those Pentecostal doctrines that would conflate virtue and selfishness; it has been entirely consistent with a world view that divides people into the deserving and the undeserving. But it has also been consistent with the ideology and culture of the party he leads. Ultimately, it is of little consequence whether or not Morrison is genuine in his religious beliefs. He probably is. But so what? It does not matter whether his religion determines his politics or his politics determines his religion; the signal is coming from the same source. It would be as as much of a mistake to dismiss him as a religious crackpot as it would be to regard him as an anomaly. That a man once described by Peter Hartcher (hardly a leftist stooge) as ‘the greatest grub in federal Parliament’ should have ascended to the position of prime minister is symptomatic of a deep rot at the heart of Australia’s political culture, but more to the point it is a comprehensive indictment of the government he leads, the party to which he belongs, and the rancid ideology that sustains them. The unflattering testimonies of his colleagues merely confirm what any reasonable person could deduce from observing Morrison’s public conduct. They may hate him, but they own him. The fish may stink from the head but that is a sure sign the whole thing is rotten.