When I went to bed on the night of the election — early, to escape the growing fear and despair on my social media — I had a knot in my stomach about what I’d wake up to. For many people, their own knots of anxiety formed as they realised that Peter Dutton would not just hold onto the seat of Dickson, but that there was a swing towards him. My knot had been forming since Easter Sunday, when Scott Morrison invited cameras into his Pentecostal Church.
I knew he was a Pentecostal Christian when he was first elected leader of the LNP, but seeing it made it more real.
The first picture I came across from the series taken at Horizon Church in Sydney was ScoMo with his hand raised, eyes closed, mouth open in prayer. Scrolling through the news article, my palms began to sweat, my mouth went dry, and for the first time in years I had a trauma flashback.
I joined a Brisbane Pentecostal church at the age of twenty-one. I started going because it was one of very few social activities my then boyfriend approved. We both still lived at home: him on the south of Brisbane, me on the north side. If I was going to church on Sunday night, he’d concede the day (and sometimes Saturday) to my side of town. And when my friend came to pick me up for church, he’d go home leaving me without his looming presence for a few hours.
When I first walked in the door at that church, they saw me. I was broken and ripe for recruiting. They built me up and made me feel strong. Even though they helped me get away from my relationship, it wasn’t long until the church became an abusive relationship in itself.
Pentecostal churches like Morrison’s Horizon and my former group here in Brisbane are massive: thousands attend services every week. They are devoted, faithful, and loyal. They worship to pop music and are full of young, attractive and well-off people who desperately want to be good and kind and do the right thing. That’s what terrified me so much when I saw our Prime Minister at worship. Because the right thing to Pentecostals, is not going to be the right thing for most Australians.
There’s something about those images that made me connect the dots with my own experience of sitting in a crowded Sunday service with people who claimed to love everyone. People who love everyone – but also believe homosexuality is against the Bible, that life begins at conception, that sex out of marriage is a sin and that anyone who is not a Christian is worshipping a false God. It made me think of the time I was told my parents, who are good and kind people, would go to hell if they did not come to church. The alternative, for my parents and anyone guilty of any number of grave sins – including the sin of simply not being a Christian – was to get ‘Saved’.
Pentecostal churches are evangelistic. Witnessing to and converting the unchurched is critical to their doctrine. At my church, pastors often preached their hopes that the whole world would be converted. As a small group leader for university-aged youth, part of my role was reporting back to leadership each month as to how many new members had attended my sessions and how many of those newbies had been saved. Those numbers were fed from each of the church’s demographic groups back to senior leadership. If they were good, we’d be praised. If they were bad, we were chastised and sometimes re-assigned to other areas. It was imperative that the church be growing all the time.
Witnessing was done through acts, by receiving prophecy and speaking God’s truth to the unchurched, even in difficult and dangerous situations. I was encouraged to witness to everyone unchurched in my life, and while freedom to practice my religion protected me from potential repercussions from my constant preaching in the workplace, it placed my housing and relationship with my parents at risk. Not to mention the massive toll the constant pressure put on my mental health.
When I went to my leader and said I was struggling, I was told to work harder. Every time someone prophesied over me, I prayed they would see that I hadn’t dealt with the trauma my ex-boyfriend had inflicted on me and give me some magic answer to make it feel better. But the more broken I got, the less they saw me. I was likely no great loss to my church when I left because I wasn’t growing the flock, nor was I prosperous or powerful enough for them. I wasn’t even black enough to contribute to their diversity quota.
Though Scott Morrison professes to ‘love all Australians,’ I believe his love comes with conditions. His abstinence from the 2017 Marriage Equality Survey, his belief that those who ‘have a go will get a go,’ his decision to end his victory speech on election night with the words ‘God bless Australia’ and his willingness to be photographed at worship are all demonstrations of what those conditions are. Those of us who are queer, black, have uteruses, have immigrated, who are not Christian, who aren’t in secure jobs with savings, and who care about the environment, may be loved by the prime minister, but we are not his priority. Our issues and the things we need and care about can’t be his focus while he lives a faith that excludes the people who are struggling the most. I’ve heard the sermons and I know that the Pentecostal doctrine allows little room for separation between ideology and other aspects of your life.
Pentecostals take a literal, miracles-based approach to interpreting the New Testament. This is where speaking in tongues, being ‘slain’ in the spirit (falling to the ground), laying on hands, healing, and other acts which they perceive as invoking the Holy Spirit all come from. Pentecostals preach a prosperity gospel and expect that members will tithe not only ten percent of their wage (that’s before tax, by the way), but also make offerings above that. While they’re making those offerings, they believe that God will reward them for their faith, and for those high in the ranks of the church —in my experience, people who are white, attractive, and valuable to the church in some way — there are rewards. It wasn’t uncommon for people to give testimony about how they’d been struggling financially, but pushed themselves to increase their offering, believing that God would remove whatever financial hurdle they were facing. In these testimonies, God didn’t just meet them their needs, but rewarded them ‘a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown’ (Matthew 13:8).
When I finally left the church, I realised that those giving testimony had usually been rewarded by the church or received gifts by wealthy members of the leadership: jobs, cars, wedding and house deposits were given to those people who would use those gifts in ways that made the church look good. House deposits went to those who would open their shiny, perfect lives up to small groups and Bible studies which were used to recruit new members. Jobs to those who had particular gifts for evangelising. Wedding money to attractive couples being groomed for leadership.
I was an overweight, depressed, white-passing Aboriginal woman with issues at home and at work, and it didn’t matter how much I sewed and believed. (I estimate I sewed at least a house deposit’s worth of offerings.) It didn’t matter how many unpaid roles I took on at the church, or how many groups I led, or how much I witnessed to other people. I was not godly enough to receive even tenfold of God’s promises.
It’s understanding the meaning behind Scott Morrison’s words that make me terrified for minority and marginalised communities in the face of his continuing prime ministership. Our black, uterus-owning, queer, elderly, immigrant, poor people are not the ‘right’ kind of people to receive the blessings that the Liberals are promising. If people don’t have jobs or money, that’s their lot. If they’re LGBTIQA+, that goes against the Bible. And if you go against the Bible you’re not getting into heaven, so what would be the point in trying to understand what you need and want out of this life?
To believe in religious freedom is to believe in it for all people, including those in power. Despite my own experiences, I don’t want to dictate what others believe. But if Scott Morrison’s faith is personal and separate to his leadership, then why invite the cameras into church? Why talk so publicly about your belief in miracles? Why would you ask your god to bless Australia? Scott Morrison is not the first religious prime minister of this country. However, the subtext of his words and the extremely public display of his faith makes the combination of his particular brand of religion with politics deeply unsettling.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that he will lead with grace and compassion that extends beyond the white, rich, and powerful. I hope that he stops asking God to bless Australia and starts listening, learning, and fixing. But until we have someone in power who can genuinely separate church and state – or, better yet, has no connection to any church – I think I’m right to be afraid.
Image: Thomas Hawk