Images of Aussie PM at prayer draw flak, raise concerns

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison allowed the media to follow him as he attended an Easter service at Horizon Church. Critics accused him of trying to make political gains from his religious worship, while others said the images helped to demo
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison allowed the media to follow him as he attended an Easter service at Horizon Church. Critics accused him of trying to make political gains from his religious worship, while others said the images helped to demonstrate Mr Morrison's "authenticity".PHOTO: DPA

Photos taken by media prompt debate on role of religion in Australian politics

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a devout evangelical Christian, attended a church service during Easter and - despite the apparent concerns of some of his advisers - allowed the media to follow him inside as he prayed.

Mr Morrison, who is in the middle of an election campaign, then proceeded to worship. This led to photographs and footage of Mr Morrison, eyes closed and hand aloft, as he stood and clapped and sang along to the prayers.

This was an unusual pose for an Australian leader - a country where religious affiliation is in decline - and it led to some scathing criticisms, as well as questions about the role of religion in politics.

On Twitter, comments denounced Mr Morrison as "shameful" and "disgusting", accusing him of trying to make political gains from his religious worship.

But Mr Morrison, who leads the conservative Liberal-National Coalition, hit back, describing his critics as "gutless keyboard warriors".

"I mean, it's disgusting," he told reporters. "Australians are bigger than that. And I know that the great majority of Australians are bigger than that. These grubs are gutless and keyboard warriors in their mother's basement trying to make heroes of themselves."

Mr Morrison is not just religious, but is believed to be the first Australian leader to belong to a Pentecostal church. This denomination includes some of Australia's largest churches, which hold stadium-style services that often involve energetic sermons, bands and dancing. Despite the struggle by churches to attract new members in recent years, such churches have proven popular and have a particularly strong appeal to younger Christians.

 
 

The images of Mr Morrison's praying prompted debate about the role of religion in Australian politics, and whether voters at this election will be put off by his overt show of religious zeal.

In Australia, religious observance is largely in decline. At the last census in 2016, 30 per cent of people said they had "no religion", compared with 17 per cent in 1996. The most common religion was Christianity, accounting for 52 per cent of the population, followed by Islam (3 per cent) and Buddhism (2 per cent). Twenty years earlier, 72 per cent of the population was Christian.

Yet, despite this declining religious affiliation, Mr Morrison is a shrewd campaigner and appeared to be aware of the political impact of being photographed mid-prayer.

Some analysts suggested the images helped to demonstrate Mr Morrison's "authenticity".

"Morrison's minders would have worried that pictures of the Prime Minister singing with his arms in the air praising Jesus… would make voters uncomfortable," wrote commentator Chris Kenny, a former Coalition adviser, in The Australian.

"But you get the sense most Australians respect his choice and his authenticity. He didn't appear contrived or uncomfortable."

In addition, several swing seats in suburban Sydney and Melbourne have large religious populations. They include large pockets of migrants from countries such as Lebanon, India and Vietnam, who are often more religious than the rest of the population.

Labor leader Bill Shorten also attended an Easter service at an Anglican church, a denomination which is more common in Australia than Pentecostalism.

Most Australian Coalition and Labor leaders in recent years have tended to be Christian. But religion has not always had a noticeable impact on their political views or policies.

Mr Morrison spoke of his beliefs in his first speech as an MP in 2008, but insisted his faith in Jesus "is not a political agenda". However, religion appears to have guided his views on social issues, such as his opposition to same-sex marriage despite it being at odds with the public. Same-sex marriage was strongly endorsed by Australians in a public vote.

 
 

An expert on Australian politics, Professor John Warhurst from the Australian National University, wrote last year that Mr Morrison's social conservatism appears to have religious roots. Yet, Christianity is typically too diverse to reliably mark specific political positions.

"Not all Christian politicians are overt about their religious beliefs," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "Some of that may be strategic when building bridges across social divides, but it may also reflect a belief that faith is a personal matter not to be paraded in public."

Mr Morrison is clearly comfortable about parading his beliefs, and his form of worship. It remains to be seen whether this will affect his personal approval ratings, which have remained relatively strong despite his Coalition trailing in opinion polls.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Images of Aussie PM at prayer draw flak, raise concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe