Our first Pentecostal Prime Minister

Since Scott Morrison clambered to the top of the greasy pole that is Australia’s prime ministership, there have been numerous news reports from various angles on the fact that he is Australia’s “first Pentecostal Prime Minister”.

You might think the subject has been worn out. But as someone who spent more than half a decade heavily involved in Pentecostal churches (and most of that in Scott Morrison’s home territory of the Sutherland Shire), I thought I might contribute my thoughts.

What attracted me to Pentecostal churches as a teenager is the thing I am still most grateful to them for – the belief in God not as theory or concept, but as an active force at work in people and the world. The reasons I moved on from those churches are varied, and we’ll get to some of them. But first a bit of history.

Pentecostalism has the kind of origin story religious sects dream of. The man identified as its instigator was William J. Seymour – a black, one-eyed, son of slaves who read the bible and asked why, if speaking in tongues and miraculous healings were so frequent in the book of Acts, were they not a part of normal Christian life?

In 1906 Seymour started preaching in houses in Los Angeles until the meetings outgrew the houses and a crumbling old building in Azusa St. was rented. At Azusa St the meetings exploded; going around the clock, attracting thousands of people, and developing into an anarchistic free-form service of praying, singing and speaking in tongues. Seymour rarely preached and could hardly be described as leading the service. For much of the time he sat hiding behind a couple of boxes. One observer wrote “No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir- the angels have been heard by some in the spirit. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realize as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader.

The church certainly caused a stir. And while many reports were favourable like the one above; most of respectable society and Christianity were horrified. One report from a local paper represents what was surely a common feeling: “..disgraceful intermingling of the races…they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the spirit. They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, “Repent,” and he’s supposed to be running the thing.

The worship services at Azusa St were certainly unusual, but so were the values. The multi-racial congregation was completely counter-cultural. More than half a century later Martin Luther-King would still famously say “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning“. But at Azusa St they took as their model the original day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where God spoke to people from all around the world together, each in their own language.

As Pentecostalism rapidly spread across the globe, race wasn’t the only social barrier it broke through. The first Pentecostal church in Australia was started by a woman – Sarah Jane Lancaster in 1908 in North Melbourne. Back in Los Angeles, another woman became the first of many celebrity Pentecostal preachers. Aimee Semple McPherson changed Christianity for the 20th century with her exploration of new forms of mass media (the radio) and her use of huge auditoriums for church buildings. When she began building Christianity’s first “megachurch”, women in the US still did not have the right to vote.

Central to Pentecostalism’s identity was that breaking down of barriers of gender, race and class. Not that you would call it political – politics was part of “the world” that it wanted nothing to do with – but its desire to return to the book of Acts put it out of step with social norms of the day. Plus the fact that it was somewhat the wild west of Christianity meant rejects of all kinds could find a home within its doors.

Pentecostals were rejected by a conservative and hierarchical mainstream church for their radical practices like speaking in tongues and praying for healing; and their radical idea that God spoke directly to lay people. Outside of the church, its not hard to imagine what the reaction was. But as they were shunned by the world, Pentecostals also shunned the world – rejecting the then-new technology of movie theatres, as well as the old classic evils of alcohol and dancing. Missionaries headed across the world with literally nothing – often they didn’t even speak the language, believing (with a bit too much faith) that they would speak in tongues and people of other languages would understand it.

Early Pentecostals were apocalyptic in both senses of the word – they believed they were spoken to by God, and that the end of the world was imminent. And they lived accordingly. But when the world didn’t end, some of the initial energy was lost and the movement became a more rigid set of beliefs and practices with a more insular focus.

But just as it might have died out, Pentecostalism gained an unexpected boost in the 1960’s with the “Charismatic Renewal” – a time when mainstream churches began taking on Pentecostal belief in speaking in tongues, praying for healing and other spiritual gifts. It challenged some of the old standbys (especially when these churches started including the devil’s music of rock’n’roll), but it had a couple of significant effects – it kept Pentecostalism alive when it might have faded out, and moved it for the first time into the mainstream church.

Since then, the trend is that most other Christian denominations have declined in numbers but Pentecostalism has grown – picking up people from other churches who want a more exciting church experience and a more active faith. But as Pentecostalism has absorbed and been absorbed into the mainstream church, it has lost some of its distinctive weirdness. There is much less denouncing worldliness or talking about the end of the world. These days many of the denomination’s most prominent churches have stopped speaking in tongues as part of their worship service.

In their place, Pentecostalism has embraced a suburban middle of the road lifestyle. Its fitted-out warehouse buildings are like fast-food chains in their comforting uniformity (many of them literally have cafes set up inside the church). The music is generic and happy like your local radio station, the sermons like motivational pep talks.

Though the denomination certainly has its share of affluence (where the “prosperity doctrine” has taken hold sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a business lecture, not a church sermon); it is still resolutely working class and uneducated, somewhere the church pastors are often tradesmen who have never been tertiary educated. While older churches survive in wealthy areas aided by the patronage of elite private schools; Pentecostal churches thrive in the unfashionable and poorer suburbs. The experiential (rather than conceptual) nature of the faith and the emphasis on spiritual gifts (roles in the church are chosen not by formal training but by whether God has “gifted” a person with the ability) make it ideal for uneducated working class people.

These elements also make it ripe for abuse by autocratic leaders and exploiters of desperate faith. Not that it is alone among religions when it comes to that of course (the epidemic of sexual abuse in churches has not been to the same extent in Pentecostal churches, though it still exists, notably including Hillsong founder Frank Houston). In my time in the church I certainly saw my share of petty dictators and theatrical charlatans. A memory that still stings is the episode of Mike Gugliemucci, a pastor at a megachurch who travelled the country for a year falsely claiming he had cancer and was miraculously being kept alive.

Some of the theology heard in Pentecostal sermons is truly extraordinary in its stretching of the bible and selective choosing of passages, but this is somewhat to be expected from a philosophy that believes God reveals things directly to believers. What empowers the average person to believe they have an intimate connection with the creator of the universe also empowers preachers to say things that have nothing to do with the bible and claim it came straight from God.

One of the effects of Pentecostalism’s mainstreaming is that for the sake of its identity it has to find ways to retain its sense of distinctiveness. It once rejected rock music, now its churches are set up like concert venues. It once denounced worldliness, now it runs business courses. The movement has grown stable and comfortable, yet its theology demands a radical faith. What do you do? A solution has been that Pentecostalism has become an enthusiastic participant in the “culture wars”.

I’m not really sure when this crossover happened, though like many things the influence of US culture surely plays a major part. Once politics would have been seen as a waste of time when there were souls to save, or as part of a sinful world. But these days most Pentecostal services will include some railing against The Greens, Safe Schools or other kinds of Godless modernity; and a defence of conservative values and God-fearing leaders.

And now we have a Pentecostal Prime Minister. This fact alone seems to be a symbol of Pentecostalism’s unlikely absorption into the mainstream.

The thing about aligning your religion to a set of political beliefs though is that you can become subsumed. Pentecostalism had once radically put women in positions of power, now it defends traditional gender roles. Where once missionaries trekked to the corners of the globe to bring all peoples to Jesus, now they are against migration. Once it had beseeched believers to change a heathen world, now it finds itself defending “the way it has always been”.

When you look at Scott Morrison’s policies and how they reflect his his faith you can see this. His anti-gay beliefs at least reflect his believe in the bible (even if I would disagree with his application). His love of coal has nothing to do with anything from scripture; while his treatment of asylum seekers is a clear betrayal of biblical values – done seemingly for the political expediency of being able to claim he “stopped the boats”.

In Morrison’s maiden speech in parliament in 2008, he cited the examples of William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu as people who “stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process.” He quoted Tutu: “we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

Morrison said that day “For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social“. Yet evangelical Christianity like that of Scott Morrison and much of Pentecostalism has promoted an individualistic notion of faith which is about a personal relationship with God removed from broader social implications. Where morality means personal sin (especially the sins of those conspicuously different from myself, rather than the more widespread sins common to us all); without any critique of whether our broader society or economic system reflects biblical values. I hope Scott Morrison continues to reflect on that Desmond Tutu quote and whether his policies have really worked towards that end.

Scott Morrison may be our first Pentecostal Prime Minister, but it remains to be seen whether we will see anything distinctively Pentecostal in his leadership. Maybe not speaking in tongues (which would be inappropriate), but believing without fear of ridicule in an active God at work in the world to make it better. Or will we see a God defined by traditional social conventions, by financial success, by doing what it takes to win re-election?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Our first Pentecostal Prime Minister

  1. Maybe you should put your concerns directly to the PM in an interview?

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