Australia has a new prime minister, which is certainly news. Reading the story’s domestic and international coverage makes clear that its newsiest angle -- for journalists, at least -- is its compelling religion twist.
That’s because the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, is an outspoken, politically conservative Pentecostal Christian. This mixing of religion and politics may be old-hat at this point for Americans. But it's an entirely new experience for Australians.
Morrison’s selection as PM is, for this American, something of a surprise, as Australia is among those Western nations in which Christianity is, by and large, gradually losing steam. However, it’s also a place where conservative politics is steadily on the rise, giving Morrison, a compromise candidate for the prime minister’s job, a leg up.
The coverage of his ascendancy to his nation’s top political post has also noted that his political style is “pragmatic,” meaning that while he’s clear about his values, he’s generally been willing to stand down when it's clear his traditional views on issues such as gay marriage are a bit much for the majority of Australian voters.
Here’s a chunk of a New York Times story on his selection.
Mr. Morrison and his faith represent a break with tradition in Australia, where politics has long been ardently secular. He is the first prime minister to come from one of the country’s growing evangelical Christian movements, leading many experts and voters to wonder how his Christianity might affect various issues, from foreign policy to social policy.
“The question is whether Morrison will choose to make his faith part of his political persona or to what extent he will,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “At this point, he doesn’t seem to have shoved it in people’s faces.”
In many ways, Mr. Morrison cuts a markedly different figure than evangelical Christian politicians in the United States. Like them, he has denounced what he sees as a growing lack of respect for Christian beliefs, and he has voiced opposition to same-sex marriage. But Mr. Morrison has often chosen pragmatism (or political calculation) over fundamentalism.
For instance, when the vote came to legalize same-sex marriage in Australia, after a postal survey showed majority support among Australians, he abstained.
“He won’t run on a campaign as being a cultural warrior or a socially conservative reformer,” said Jill Sheppard, a lecturer on politics at Australian National University.
Read the full piece and you may stumble over the writer’s confusing conflation of the Christian terms "evangelical," "Pentecostal" and "fundamentalist." Factual explanations of their differences would have been nice, though simply not using them interchangeably might have sufficed. In an American context, most people would call Morrison a "charismatic" Christian, a term with less doctrinal content than "Pentecostal."
Comparing Morrison’s political style to that of some conservative American Christian politicians -- who generally come off as overbearing religious bores, in this piece and several others I’ve read -- may also annoy some Christian GetReligion readers. If so, take a moment to consider how the American evangelical grassroots embracing of Donald Trump has tarnished their reputation among many domestic and foreign observers.
But read the full piece and you’ll also note a similarity to Trump-style American conservative politics that sheds more light on Morrison’s national appeal. We’re talking a hardline stance against Muslim and non-white immigrants, an attitude with a long history among white Australians.
This BBC piece critical of Morrison digs deeper into his tough immigration policies.
[Morrison] rose to national prominence for vigorously enforcing Australia's controversial approach to asylum seekers, including the "Stop the Boats" policy, as immigration minister in [ex-PM] Tony Abbott's government.
There was trenchant public criticism of the policy, but Mr Morrison proceeded with his severe approach to the portfolio and built a reputation as a tough operator. He remained unfazed by specific accusations about the lack of transparency over what was happening in Australia's offshore detention centres.
It's a reputation that wasn't helped by a precarious moment in 2011, when he was lambasted for a scathing attack on the Labor Government when it flew asylum-seeker relatives to their drowned children's funerals after a boat tragedy off Christmas Island. He apologised — only for the timing.
This CNN piece has even harsher words for Morrison, implying that Morrison is more the crafty politician than a man of faith. It also notes, unfavorably, a tie to American megachurch culture.
Over the years, Morrison has undergone a transformation from a right-wing evangelical immigration minister to a wonky, staid treasury minister attempting to show his more human side.
"Is he the cynical pollie who reportedly called, in a shadow cabinet for the Liberal Party, to exploit fears over Muslim immigrants (for political gain)?' asked Nick Bryant, a journalist and expert on Australian politics. "Or the MP who completed the Kokoda trail as part of a mateship trek that included young Muslims from the western suburbs?" ...
A dedicated Pentecostal Christian, he met his future wife, Jenny, at church, when he was 12 years old. His faith has long inspired interest as it appeared to be at odds with his tough stance on immigration in his political life.
He worships at an American-style mega-church that has close ties to the global Pentecostal Hillsong community movement, Bryant told CNN.
Click on the Hillsong link in the previous paragraph, or click here to read a story from a few years back published by the Sydney Morning Herald to better understand how American conservative Christian politics are looked down upon in Australia.
Nor did it take long for Morrison’s religious convictions to become the butt of satirical mocking on Australian television once he became the PM.
Bottom line: Australian news outlets -- just like the dominant American elite media -- clearly disfavor conservative Christian views, particularly when they’re manifested by successful political figures. How you feel about that, of course, depends upon your own biases in this regard.
Whether you favor or abhor Morrison’s faith component, there’s little doubt that every action he takes will be picked apart through this lens.
This is certainly a religion, and political, story worth tracking -- even if it’s unfolding a half-world away.