Scott Morrison, Australia’s New Prime Minister, Balances Politics and Prayer
August 27, 2018
SYDNEY, Australia — At a regular Sunday morning service, before the praise songs and a sermon on resilience, a pastor at one of Sydney’s largest Pentecostal churches mentioned a congregant who was usually among those worshiping there.
Church had always been a part of his life and for the past decade, his spiritual home has been this bustling sanctuary with a cross formed from bright lights.
But he was not with them this past Sunday. On Friday, he became Australia’s newest prime minister.
“I’m incredibly hopeful — hopeful for the future of our generation,” said Alison Bonhomme, a senior pastor at Horizon Church, reflecting on the political tumult that led Scott Morrison to become the country’s leader.
A burst of applause followed.
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.
“Sometimes he does reference his church and his beliefs,” she added. “But he also hasn’t shown much willingness to fight the moderates in his party on those issues.”
Still, his faith has been a thread weaving through virtually every chapter of his life.
Mr. Morrison, 50, was raised in a beachside Sydney suburb, and his family was active in the Uniting Church of Australia when he was growing up. He met his wife, Jenny, in church when he was 12.
In his maiden speech to Parliament in 2008, he described Christianity as one of his main motivations for service.
“For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social — as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message,” Mr. Morrison said in the speech, where he also cited a verse from the Book of Jeremiah as the encapsulation of the core of his beliefs: “I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on Earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.”
“Australia is not a secular country,” he added. “It is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose.”
Mr. Morrison, a jocular giant who brags often of his rugby fanaticism, also thanked God for recognizing the resolve of his wife after their struggle to have children after several failed attempts through in vitro fertilization.
“After 14 years of bitter disappointments,” he said, “God remembered her faithfulness and blessed us with our miracle child.” (They now have two daughters.)
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For a decade, Mr. Morrison and his family have been part of the congregation at Horizon Church in a middle-class southern suburb of Sydney, where his wife volunteers and his daughters are involved in the children’s ministry.
Even as the number of Australians who identify as Christians has fallen in recent years, Pentecostal churches, like Horizon and Hillsong, the global megachurch, have drawn a surge of new worshipers, especially appealing to young people with a contemporary worship style.
Horizon’s pastors said they welcomed the increased visibility for their values.
“I think that people of faith around the nation are very much filled with hope that someone of Christian faith and principle is holding such a role in public life,” said Kristy Mills, the executive pastor. “I think there is a great hope that decision making will be influenced by godly principles.”
But Mr. Morrison has ascended at an especially difficult time when Australia is throbbing with exasperation over the dysfunction that has repeatedly roiled the government.
Mr. Morrison is the latest politician to become prime minister after a messy leadership “spill,” in which a leader was ousted by party rivals — in this case, Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate pushed out by conservatives.
No Australian prime minister has completed his or her full term in more than a decade.
Mr. Morrison, who was not the conservatives’ first choice to replace Mr. Turnbull, now faces the colossal challenge of trying to build a culture of reconciliation. An election is due by May of next year.
In his comments on Sunday announcing his new cabinet he rejected the idea of changing party rules to enforce more stability.
“What has to change in this place and what Australians expect of us in this place is a change in the culture and the behavior,” he said.
The upheaval has been yet another manifestation of the brutality that has seeped into democratic politics around the world, said Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “The conventions that once governed political behavior have broken down,” he said.
The instability has left foreign allies uneasy and torpedoed the already waning confidence of many voters — including those in the suburbs of Sydney that Mr. Morrison represents in Parliament.
In interviews over the past week, residents described their frustration over the recurring back-room coups that, in their view, have stood in the way of governing.
“It’s worse than a schoolyard,” said Jeanine Potter, a teacher who has been a constituent of Mr. Morrison’s for about four years. “It’s appalling to think our money is paying for them to try to run a country.”
Mr. Morrison’s constituency covers a peninsula in the southern suburbs of Sydney, which has mostly supported Liberal Party candidates over the past 25 years. His supporters point out his working-class roots (his father was a police commander) and his family’s relatively modest home.
His critics, in the district and beyond, have questioned both his readiness for the top job, and how he could reconcile his faith with some of his stances, like his hard-line views on immigration. As the minister for immigration and border protection from 2013 to 2014, he worked aggressively to stop the boats carrying asylum seekers from coming to Australia.
After one of the boats sank near Christmas Island, he faced a torrent of criticism when he said he believed it was unreasonable for the Australian government to pay to transport victims’ relatives to funerals. He later expressed regret over making the comments at a “very insensitive time,” but he did not alter his position.
Echoing views held by conservative Christians in the United States, and often amplified by conservative media outlets in Australia, he has been especially vocal about the way he believes that Christians are often subjected to discrimination and mockery.
He has advocated bolstering the legal protections for religious freedom. “It always starts innocently and it’s always said it is just a joke — just like most discrimination does,” Mr. Morrison said in an interview last year with Fairfax Media, which was widely circulated. “And I’m just going to call that out.”
Whether he will make these culture war issues a major part of his time in office remains an open question.
Martyn Iles, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, said he found Mr. Morrison reassuring because he grasped the role and value of Christianity in Australian public life.
“He doesn’t think he’s the biggest and most powerful person,” Mr. Iles said. “He knows he’s under God.”
Reporting was contributed by Isabella Kwai from Brisbane, Australia, Charlotte Graham-McLay from Wellington, New Zealand, and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia.
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