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Evangelical Christianity in the age of coronavirus

Apr 30, 2020 • 17m 10s

The Prime Minister’s relationship to the founder of Hillsong has focused attention on the church. But what does evangelical Christianity look like in an age of climate change and coronavirus? Today, Lech Blaine on the appeal of Hillsong and how it influences the most powerful politician in the country.

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Evangelical Christianity in the age of coronavirus

213 • Apr 30, 2020

Evangelical Christianity in the age of coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am..

Scott Morrison’s relationship to the founder of the Hillsong Church has focused attention on the evangelical Christian movement in Australia.

But what does being a pentecostal look like in an age of climate change and coronavirus?

Today, Lech Blaine on the appeal of evangelical Christianity and how it influences the most powerful politician in the country.


RUBY:

Lech, you wrote a feature in the latest issue of The Monthly about Pentecostalism and politics. As part of your reporting, you went to a Hillsong service in Brisbane. Can you tell me what it was like?

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

Standing on the edge of history.

LECH:

Yeah, it was it was like nothing I'd really seen.

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

This conference will not be like any other conference we’ve ever had.

LECH:

… and nothing like what I expected. There was young there was old.

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

We’re going to a whole new level.

LECH:

It was very multicultural.

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

There’s gonna be a deeper dimension.

LECH:

People were high-fiving, there’s DJs...

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

People will never be the same again.

LECH:

Guys on motorbikes doing wheelies… Drake and Kendrick Lamar playing from a balcony.

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

I pray we will always be people who concern ourself with who god says you are.

LECH:

It was just really like a festival. And that's what Brian Houston calls these men's events: a festival without the drugs.

Archival tape -- Hillsong service:

You’re a man of god. Yes. Called by him. To serve the lord. To live your life for he. So all of us have to find out who we really are.

LECH:

There was initially rock music, so you had hunters and collectors blaring, and then after hunters and collectors, they moved into some dubstep...

[Christian dubstep plays]

LECH:

… which really got the younger members of the audience going.

[Christian dubstep plays]

LECH:

Swarming to the front, singing and chanting and just dancing and having a blast.

[Joel Houston fades in]

LECH:

… and it was just a totally intoxicating experience even for someone like me who wasn't raised religiously and who'd never been to a Pentecostal congregation before, I never at any stage felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.

[Joel Houston live / applause]

RUBY:

So this service that you were at was led by Brian Houston, who is actually the founder of the entire Hillsong church - can you tell me about him?

LECH:

He's extremely charismatic. And that's when everyone sort of notices about him.

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

There’s still this confusion about who you are and there’s confusion about what god has called you to do and who he’s called you to be.

LECH:

He's got slicked-back grey hair and a deep emphysemic voice - he reminded me of The Godfather, actually - and this kind of dark, yet compelling aura which completely contradicts how optimistic the guy is, like, he sort of like makes you want to be him to listen to him.

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

More and more the world’s full of the thought police. People telling me what I think, or what they think I should think, and they try to tell me what they believe I have to think...

LECH:

He really pitches himself as a harvester of tall poppies, just like an ordinary, everyday Aussie bloke. This is a guy who, you know, you could just have a beer with and he constantly sort of takes a piss out of himself. He presents himself as a daggy dad and...who is more interested really in sport than a lot of the political issues that you might associate with evangelical Christians.

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

I want to keep living my life according to what god says and who god says I should be and what I should think.

LECH:

But Brian Houston I think, ultimately, is a Goliath cosplaying as David. I think he's obviously one of the most influential people within Australian public life at the moment. And I think that calling him a pastor is sort of like calling Rupert Murdoch a newspaper publisher at this point, and they have a fair bit in common. Houston and Murdoch are two sons from the lucky country who revolutionized their father's vocations beyond recognition.

RUBY:

Mm. But Brian Houston's late father, Frank who was also an evangelical pastor, was accused of child sexual abuse...

LECH:

Brian Houston is open about the fact that his father was a pedophile, and I found it kind of breathtaking because I wasn't expecting him to address it within the event. But he did. He said, I was 45 years of age, 1999, when I first ever got told anything about my father abusing kids. I often thought about what would have happened if I found out when I was much younger, when I wasn't so sure of who I was. I'm not sure I would even be here today.

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

And uhh-... He knew he’d done it. He knew he’d done it and he admitted that he had did it. Y’know so I was tense and stressed and I did what I had to do, which was at that time suspend his credential, his ministry credential...

LECH:

That's sort of overlapped, I guess, with where a lot of the questions about the relationship between Brian Houston, Scott Morrison come from and that's sort of hung over their relationship and led to a lot of these questions being asked.

RUBY:

Mm. And the relationship between the Prime Minister and Brian Houston has come up a number of times over the years… What do we actually know about it? How did they meet?

LECH:

It's pretty imprecise. I was kind of surprised because it's just accepted as public knowledge that there is a relationship there but as far as we know, Scott and Brian met at Hillsong's Waterloo campus.

And he subsequently joined a different but connected Pentecostal church called Shire Live and stopped attending Hillsong on a regular basis. He still acknowledges the important influence of Brian Houston. He ranked the influence of his faith above the Liberal Party and also John Howard in his maiden speech. So I don't think that that connection can be understated.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Growing up in a Christian home, I made a commitment to my faith at an early age and have been greatly assisted by the pastoral work of many dedicated church leaders, in particular the Rev. Ray Green, and pastors Brian Houston and Lee Coleman.

LECH:

For Morrison, religion is a deeply personal matter, and that's something that he says again and again, he doesn't like to go into it publicly, even though he acknowledged in his opening speech that it is really guides his personal principles.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Mr Speaker, Australia is not a secular country. It is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose.

RUBY:

So Morrison wants his religion to remain a personal matter, but that hasn’t stopped it being raised by journalists and commentators so do you think it’s appropriate to delve into this aspect of his life?

LECH:

I don't think that it's it's bigoted to wonder how Morrison's religion - which he admits is extremely influential - interplays with policy issues. I think that that is totally fair game. And yeah, I I think that there's a genuine public interest in finding out what he believes just because he's the leader of our country.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Lech we're talking about Hillsong and its founder Brian Houston's relationship with the prime minister. What do you see as Hillsong's ambition, politically speaking? What do senior people in the church want?

LECH:

Well, I interviewed Kevin Rudd and he's watched the rise and rise of the Pentecostal churches, especially Hillsong. And he was pretty unequivocal. He thinks that they've made a strategic decision to assert influence within the coalition rather than crusading from the sidelines.

Hillsong want to be part of the party of government and they want to be central to power, they want to protect certain freedoms for the churches. And they want people in positions who share those beliefs, beliefs.

So we have seen tangible expressions about what Hillsong want. So we had Brian Houston on stage at the conference last year asking Scott Morrison to reaffirm his commitment to protecting religious beliefs.

And then we saw not that long afterwards the introduction of a religious discrimination bill, which was in the middle of the bushfire crisis. And we heard him say, I gave a commitment that we would ensure that people would not be discriminated against in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

What Australians believe is really important for them and to me. Whether you have a religious faith or you don’t, it doesn’t matter. But you shouldn’t be discriminated against in this country because of what you believe when it comes to religion.

LECH:

And that's why they've encouraged the rise of multiple Pentecostal politicians and I think that that's sort of most notably come to fruition with Scott Morrison's rise.

RUBY:

So what does the Coalition get out of this kind of political alliance?

LECH:

It's been extremely beneficial for the coalition because at the same time as organised politics has sort of been dying in terms of the membership levels for both the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party. The Coalition have found a really fertile ground for recruitment and finding these super motivated people who can hand out how to vote cards at elections and go to branch meetings and vote against moderate measures within the Liberal Party as well.

RUBY:

Okay you’re describing this broad partnership between evangelicals and the Coalition, which is playing out at an organisational level, but what about personally? Did you learn anything in your reporting about how Scott Morrison’s stance on big policy issues, like for example, climate change might be influenced by his religious views?

LECH:

I think the whole thing with Scott Morrison Pentecostalism and climate change is really playing a lot of guesswork because Morrison's never, intimately outlined the way that his theological beliefs interplay with the natural environment. So it's I think it's kind of dangerous to try and project too many things about what he believes about climate change based on Pentecostalism.

Many Pentecostals believe that Jesus will return to the Earth imminently following a period of great tribulation. And so you see in often cited Bible passages where Jesus Christ provided a prototype for a second coming, which eerily resembles a world besieged by rising sea levels, continent-wide bushfires and blustering dust storms.

RUBY:

Can you tell me more about the second coming? What does it mean for Hillsong and how does it relate to the crises that we've been dealing with over the past few months? Both the bushfires and Covid-19.

LECH:

Yeah, so Pentecostalism and many evangelical religions, I guess, have a really active sense of eschatology that the second coming of Jesus is imminent.

Ultimately, they will have a pretty literal interpretation of what the Prophet John predicted in terms of worldwide fires, ecological decay. You'd have pestilence. The winning horse of the apocalypse racing across the sky, followed by war, followed by famine, and followed by death, and then, yeah, Jesus would come back and save believers.

RUBY:

Is that something that Brian Houston himself is preaching?

LECH:

Yeah. He has sort of presented coronavirus as an opportunity not just for this or this great awakening of Christian belief, but yeah, as a way for Hillsong to get new members.

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

We’ve got a big big few weeks, maybe few months ahead of us. But god is on the throne, god is good, he has all in hand, and I still believe we need to claim the promises of the word that no virus, no plague shall come near my dwelling...

LECH:

Because he says that these sort of events create a great sense of desperation and that they are an opportunity for churches such as Hillsong to increase their influence amongst both old and new believers.

RUBY:

So if we view the recent and the current crisis covered 19 and the bushfires through this lens, what can we glean about some of Scott Morrison beliefs and therefore the way he has approached leading the country during these times?

LECH:

I don't think that Morrison is going to derail his entire project for power by pursuing the wishes of every Pentecostal. But he's ultimately proven that he is a pragmatic politician and yeah, I think that he, as his colleagues sort of said to me he is going to use, you know, opportunities to reaffirm his support for his is Pentecostal background and Pentecostal believers, but I spoke to many people who weren't Pentecostals, who said that ultimately Scott Morrison will be guided by staying in power.

He's a pragmatic politician. I don't think there's any doubt that Scott Morrison will do that, regardless of what he actually believes about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

RUBY:

Lech, thanks so much for your time today.

LECH:

No worries at all.

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RUBY:

Also in the news:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that Australia is “not too far away” from easing its coronavirus restrictions.

But he said that if Australians want to return to a more “liberated economy and society”, millions of people would have to download the government’s COVIDSafe app.

So far 2.8 million Australians have downloaded the app, but the government is aiming to have over half the population using it.

**

The Victorian Government has announced a $45 million fund to support international students in the state who are facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

A one-off payment of up to $1,100 will be made available for up to 40,000 international students in the state who can prove they have lost wages due to the pandemic.

150,000 international students will also be eligible for the Victorian Government’s rent relief program, which includes subsidies of up to $2,000 per person.

International students are ineligible for the federal government’s JobSeeker and JobKeeper support measures.

**

And Australia has repeated its call for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The demand for an investigation has been rebuffed by the Chinese government, which has accused Australia of acting as a proxy for the United States and damaging the bilateral relationship.

But the Prime Minister has defended his position, saying an independent investigation is the national and global interest.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

Scott Morrison’s relationship to the founder of the Hillsong church has focused attention on the evangelical Christian movement in Australia. But what does being a pentecostal look like in an age of climate change and coronavirus? Today, Lech Blaine on the appeal of evangelical Christianity and how it influences the most powerful politician in the country.

Guest: Freelance journalist Lech Blaine.

Background reading:

Hillsong’s strange tides in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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213: Evangelical Christianity in the age of coronavirus