January 9, 2020

Federal politics

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

By James Boyce
Image of Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the bushfire-affected regions of the Blue Mountains. © Wolter Peeters / AAP Image

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the climate crisis?

After more than a year of debate, there are two broad views on Scott Morrison. The first is that he is essentially a pragmatic politician with few firm convictions. The other qualifies this portrait by focusing on his fervent Pentecostal faith.

My view is that both positions are true: this is a prime minister who can shift ground on almost any issue, and he can do so with conviction because his faith teaches him that God is always on his side. To understand this paradox, it is important to know that Morrison’s distinctive religion stands outside the tradition of evangelical Western Christianity. Australia is dealing with a new brand of religion here – a faith that puts primary emphasis on the direct and transformational experience of the Holy Spirit over dogma or creed. Pentecostal spirituality is defined by the titanic struggle between Christ and Satan, and the individual believer is personally directed by God as he fights, moment by moment and day by day, for the final victory to come.

There is always a degree of scepticism in Australia when the private religious views of politicians are raised in the public sphere, and while such scepticism is warranted, it’s nevertheless also reasonable that we seek to assess the values and beliefs underpinning our leaders’ actions. In fact, it’s an essential component of a healthy democracy. And, as I wrote in The Monthly last year, an informed understanding of the PM’s political career is impossible without considering his religion: Morrison’s professions of faith are regular and straightforward, and there is no evidence that age, politics and the struggle for power have moderated these beliefs.

While much of Morrison remains a mystery (and perhaps there really is not much more to know), his complacent response to a burning continent has seen an increasing recognition that there may be a strong link between his personal beliefs and political actions, and that his Pentecostalism may be having some impact on climate policy.

Should we not “go there”? The alternative argument assumes it is just a coincidence that all Pentecostal leaders share the prime minister’s complacency. The probability is surely that, for all the multiple political and economic forces at play, it is the religious faith of the Western world’s first Pentecostal leader that gives conviction to his reassuring words concerning the emergency unfolding in this nation and around the globe.

Almost all Christian churches are increasingly vocal about climate change. Every mainstream denomination has recognised the need for greater government action. From the Pope to the World Council of Churches at the highest level, to synods and local priests in local communities, the call to stronger action is being made.

The standout exception to this is the Pentecostal churches, which an estimated 400,000 plus Australians attend each week.

Given the congruence between the PM’s and the Pentecostal response to the current emergency, understanding the basis of the religion’s distinctive climate complacency has become a matter of critical public policy importance.

The silence of the PM’s denomination, Australian Christian Churches (ACC), and other Pentecostal groups is partially explained by their focus on individual salvation. Whether people will be saved is not a question that science or government policy can determine. Salvation is solely decided by a person’s response to Christ. This focus is shared by most evangelical groups, some of which have a long history of engagement with public-policy concerns going back to the anti-slavery campaign. And it hasn’t stopped a Pentecostal engagement with other political issues. For example, when Morrison was immigration minister, doing whatever it took to “stop the boats”, there was even a period when he was not universally welcome at the best known Pentecostal church in Australia, Hillsong, because some in the congregation thought there was a conflict between Christian faith and government policy. So why is there not a similar level of engagement with the climate emergency?

The broad paradigm that God is in ultimate control of what happens on Earth surely contributes to Pentecostal indifference about climate change. Again, this is hardly unique: all Christians struggle with the paradoxes associated with God’s supposed omnipotence. However, Pentecostals are unusual in the extent they deal with this by emphasising the worldly influence of Satan. And while global heating is not explicitly seen in terms of the cosmic struggle between good and evil, there would seem to be no inherent reason why this could not be the case.

The more important reason for Pentecostals’ distinctive disinterest in climate change is likely to be their equally distinctive interest in the End Times. Belief in the Second Coming has always been part of orthodox Christian belief but mainstream churches emphasise that little can be said about where, when or under what circumstances this will occur. The spirit-led Pentecostal churches that emerged in the past century rejected this restraint. Like the Christians of the first Pentecost who inspire them, Pentecostals actively look forward to Christ’s imminent return.

It is true that as Australian Pentecostal churches have sought mainstream status in recent decades, most have put less public emphasis on the impending end of the Earth as we know it. However, it is equally clear that there has been no change in their core belief. One of the non-negotiable doctrines of the ACC, which all member churches must actively subscribe to, is that “We believe in the premillennial, imminent and personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ to gather his people to himself”. The PM’s Horizon Church has a link from its website to the ACC doctrinal statement to explain what its members believe. The End Times was also the theme of the most recent Katoomba Easter Convention, an annual and highly influential evangelical retreat.

Certainty about the return of Christ explains why Pentecostals can accept the science of climate change – few are outright deniers – but also be reconciled with its implications. The fate of human beings and the future of creation will not be determined by the burning of fossil fuels but by Christ when he remakes heaven and Earth.

The reality of global heating means that Pentecostal theology about the forthcoming return of Christ to gather his people, judge others and set up his reign on Earth is no longer an interesting eccentricity but a dangerous heresy. It is the responsibility of mainstream church leaders and theologians to challenge this understanding of the End Times and provide much-needed support to the brave Pentecostals who are questioning it from within.

It is equally important that journalists show more confidence in putting pressure on the prime minister to answer questions about his religious beliefs. Until he does so, it is surely reasonable for Australians to assume that the PM’s understanding of his faith is consistent with those of the denomination of which he is a long-time and committed member.

Morrison has forthrightly stated that he believes his government’s existing policy is a sufficient response to climate change and that it is irresponsible for activists to heighten community fear through “apocalyptic” forecasts. Given there is no scientific evidence for this assurance, it is Australians’ democratic right to know if our prime minister shares Pentecostal certainty about an alternative apocalypse to come.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

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