Scott Morrison—our first Pentecostal prime minister—has said in the past that ‘the Bible is not a policy handbook’ and that ‘faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda’. He wanted to reassure secular Australians that there is no direct connection between his religious beliefs and his politics. Morrison no doubt genuinely believes this to be true, and we can only take him at his word.
Still, a deep faith, as Morrison clearly has, surely can’t live entirely in isolation, or what kind of faith is it, and it’s hard not to hear strains of Morrison’s brand of evangelical Christianity in the mantra he has become best known for—’A fair go for those who have a go’—with its implication that a positive attitude is all it takes to win in life.
Morrison echoed this belief in the power of positivity in his maiden speech as Prime Minister, when he said fairness was ‘not about everybody getting the same thing. If you put in, you get to take out. And you get to keep more.’
The Pentecostal church—and evangelical Christianity in general—tends to not only feel comfortable with this idea that some get to keep more, but actively encourages it. The founder of Hillsong church, Brian Houston, who Morrison thanked in his maiden speech to parliament, wrote a book titled You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. (This plan presumably involves skipping that bit in the Bible where Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.)
More than other strands of Christianity, Pentecostalism is big not only on what faith can deliver you in the afterlife but what it can give you right now. God is there for you and wants good things for you. The Pentecostal church is even home to what is called the prosperity gospel, a belief that faith and positivity can lead to increases in one’s material wealth and wellbeing.
Indeed, if there is a secret to the success of Pentecostalism—and it has grown 30 per cent in Australia in the past decade, while the overall Christian population has declined—it is that it offers a similar brand of upbeat, positive-thinking ideology as you hear from business gurus and in TED talks, and which fills the self-help section of every bookshop. The message is the same: You can have everything you ever wanted if you just think positively and believe hard enough. The secret to winning is inside you, whatever the obstacles.
It is telling in this regard that most mega-churches don’t even look like churches as we know them. They tend not to have crosses or much else in the way of Christian iconography. They look like office blocks or a corporate headquarters. They look, in other words, like where you might go for a motivational seminar conducted by someone with shinier teeth than yours.
There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, nor with wanting to live a positive life, nor with believing in God. But the danger of positive thinking theologies and ideologies is that they can be used as a defence, or justification, for the crueller aspects of life in the real world, and particularly the injustices of capitalism. The flipside of a strong belief in the power of positivity is a harsh insistence that whatever crap is happening to you is because of your negativity or some other internal failing that you could fix but choose not to.
Clear in Morrison’s belief in a fair go for those who have go is the insinuation that some—too many—are not having a go. He has a record of making this very point in the dismissive way he talks about welfare and welfare recipients. He has talked about welfare as ‘a career choice’. He has said that a generation has grown up expecting government handouts. He has said of the unemployed that they are the ‘taxed-nots’. And he has warned the young jobless not to treat welfare like ‘an Ikea catalogue’ where they shop for benefits—a comment so patronising and insulting I wish I could force the Prime Minister to assemble everything in the Ikea catalogue while I secretly hide all the Allen keys.
But you can see why Scott Morrison the evangelical Christian might hold such views. For if you hold tight to a theology that says wealth and good things come to those who believe and who harness the power of positive thinking, then it’s a small step to thinking that the external factors that keep people down are incidental compared with one’s internal state. Which is to say, it’s a small step to thinking that those who are down and out only have themselves to blame.
Simon Castles is an Age desk editor and a former editor of The Big Issue.