Max Weber, where are you now that we really need you?
Weber’s reference book, Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism (1905), advanced the revolutionary hypothesis that the great transformation of Western economies had its origins in the evolution of religious beliefs. Weber was not claiming that Martin Luther and John Calvin wanted to replace feudalism with capitalism, or that they hoped their followers would get rich; instead, he identified the unintended effects of Protestant beliefs on economic behavior.
The Protestant idea of a virtuous life – hard work combined with a frugal lifestyle – provided fertile ground for the accumulation of capital, and the honesty and application of the followers of the faith made it attractive business partners. As followers of an otherworldly religion, they wondered whether eternal salvation or eternal damnation awaited them. In their insecurity, some saw prosperity as a sign from God that they were among the saved.
Whether or not it has become easier for rich men to enter the kingdom of heaven, the question has arguably become less urgent. As life expectancy increased, scientific knowledge improved, and material living conditions became more secure, people were more and more happy to postpone reflection on a final judgment.
All contemporary religions have adapted to a more secular world, but some have strayed considerably from their roots. The most shameless accommodation to worldly values has been the rise of the “prosperity gospel”. Note the title of a book written by highly successful religious entrepreneur (and Scott Morrison’s mentor) Brian Houston: You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life (1999).
Despite its wealth, contemporary capitalism brings its own contradictions. Celebrating economic dynamism does not always go hand in hand with conservative respect for tradition. The emphasis on competition and individualism is in tension with the desire for community and security. The rhetoric of opportunity is too often contradicted by the reality of inequality. For many, the financial demands and constraints make up what Weber called an iron cage.
So, as Weber may have observed, what we can loosely call the spirit of capitalism helps promote the growth of evangelical Protestant sects. Both in push factors (the frictions and frustrations of modern social structures, the anonymity and alienation of urban life) and in pull factors (a sense of certainty, personal meaning and close community ), the ground is ripe for the growth of groups like the Pentecostals.
The political importance of this type of religious belief took on new significance in Australia following the leak in April of Scott Morrison’s 23-minute address to the National Conference of Australian Christian Churches (formerly the Assemblies of God). Morrison is the first Australian Prime Minister from a non-traditional Christian tradition, and the second Pentecostal head of government in the world (after Zambian Frederick Chiluba).
Because the major denominations are either static or in decline, the Pentecostal Church is often described as the fastest growing branch of Christianity in Australia. But the increase is from a very low base: around 260,000 people described themselves as Pentecostals in the 2016 census, making them about 2% of professed Christians and 1% of the total population.
So far at least, Morrison’s religion has likely brought him electoral advantages. On Easter Sunday during the 2019 election campaign, a day when parties were to take a campaign break, Morrison invited the media inside his church for photos of him happily worshiping. As Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen observe in their recent book, How good is Scott Morrison?, “few Australians know much about Pentecostalism, but it can relate to faith and family.”
But Morrison is walking a tightrope. The more Australians learn about Pentecostal beliefs, the more they will realize how distant these views are from theirs. Pentecostals believe that evil has a personal embodiment, the devil, or “the evil one” as Morrison calls him. They believe speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the holy spirit. They have an apocalyptic mindset and anticipate the Second Coming of Christ, many of them believing that we are already living at the “end of time”. When Morrison, as Prime Minister, comforts people after natural disasters, he told conference delegates, he actually lays his hands on and prays for them.
Morrison played the regular suburban guy very well, but in many ways his religion-based social conservatism is out of step with the mainstream. As Malcolm Turnbull recounts in his memoir, A bigger picture, Morrison was completely deflated when the outcome of the marriage equality investigation became clear. “I don’t feel like this is the country I grew up in anymore,” he said. On another occasion, he told a radio interviewer that he would not send his children to public schools because he does not like the morals taught there.
Do Morrison’s Beliefs Affect His Government’s Policies? In accordance with the prosperity gospel, he seems indifferent to the importance of social inequalities. “If you have a chance, you have a chance,” he said briskly. There is only one step between believing that everything is the will of God and blaming the victim.
Many religious conservatives have been slow to recognize the reality and urgency of global warming. Morrison’s flippant stance undermined informed debate. Perhaps the threats of global warming speak of a much larger reality than its religious cosmology readily admits.
When we look more generally at the religious beliefs of Australian politicians, they seem to tell us almost nothing about how they behave politically. To be sure, there is no evidence that the most religious are more virtuous – or less virtuous, for that matter.
A generation ago, Australia’s most publicly held religious leader was Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a teetotaler who combined his Lutheranism with racism and corruption. Former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are both Catholics but share very few points of view; indeed, Turnbull observed that “more than anyone I have met Abbott is motivated by hatreds, fears, prejudices – anything negative”.
The most publicly religious of recent Labor leaders has been Kevin Rudd, a man who is not known to treat his colleagues with charity (or, after his loss to Julia Gillard, with leniency).
Despite Morrison’s reluctance to recognize the realities of social inequality, and despite his reluctance to act in any meaningful way on climate change, he is viewed by Errington and van Onselen and others as a politician without strong ideological commitment – an essentially transactional figure responding to immediate political pressures. This trend manifested itself earlier this year when the government was embarrassed by a series of sex scandals and accused of not being responsive to women’s concerns. Morrison’s previous inaction on these issues has been replaced by a wave of gestures and announcements.
But its apparent pragmatism also has its pitfalls. Morrison is still determined to find a quick fix, to deflect the immediate controversy. The government has come under increasing criticism for making announcements and then failing to deliver them, or for announcing investigations that take excessively long to produce bland reports. Although no reaction has yet emerged in the polls, the lack of follow-up has become a more prominent theme in political commentary.
Through it all, Morrison exudes an impenetrable self-confidence, and it is perhaps in his personal style, rather than specific policies, that the influence of his religious views is strongest.
In his address to Australian Christian churches, Morrison revealed that he believed it was God’s will for him to become Prime Minister, that it was a call “for a time and for a season, and God would have us let us use it wisely ”. When God tells you to do something, there is little need to listen to mortals. George W. Bush once said that God told him to invade Iraq; it might have been wiser to follow more earthly advice.
The GuardianKatharine Murphy recently got to the heart of the matter: “Australia, right now, could use a Prime Minister who doubts himself a little more, because that would mean Morrison would listen more than him.”
Again, when you fight the right fight, it’s easy to think that all tactics are allowed. If you think that you are the instrument of God, it is only a short step to thinking that anything that advances your cause is justified.
Although Morrison proclaimed after his 2019 election victory that he still believed in miracles, this particular miracle was preceded by underhanded tactics. The Coalition waged an essentially negative campaign that savagely distorted many Labor policies. Election campaigns are always rife with questionable claims and distorted accusations, but the Coalition’s 2019 campaign was on the darker end of the spectrum. More than usual, taxpayer-funded advertising has been misused to advance the Coalition’s cause.
More importantly, it emerged that a series of taxpayer-funded schemes had been used to improve the Coalition’s electoral prospects. The sports rorts case is the best known, but we now know that regional employment and investment programs, the Urban Congestion Fund and the Safer Communities Fund have also been hijacked. Independent opinions were dismissed in favor of a massive distribution of funds to Coalition voters.
The government’s refusal to be responsible for these schemes, and its disregard for proper processes in general, has set a new low. In many ways, the Morrison government is the most shady in recent Australian politics. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
- Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. Her latest book (with Anika Gauja, Brendon O’Connor, Ross Gittins and David Smith) is How America Stacks Up, published in 2019 by Springer. This article first appeared on Inside the story.