Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his wife Jenny at an Easter Sunday Hillsong service in Sydney. Picture: Gary Ramage
Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his wife Jenny at an Easter Sunday Hillsong service in Sydney. Picture: Gary Ramage

Sneering elites wrong to misjudge Hillsong

In the mid-2000s, I recall having a frosty disagreement in the newsroom with a group of reporters who were proposing my then-newspaper conduct a special investigation into the operations of Hillsong, the hugely popular evangelical church that was planning to hold a mass convention at Sydney's Olympic Park.

Outside of a Papal visit, it is hard to imagine any denomination in Australia that would need to hire as vast a venue as the site of the 2000 Olympics to accommodate its throng.

Anyway, in planning content for our newspaper, it was put to me as chief-of-staff that there was something suspect and possibly even sinister about the fact that all these so-called holy-rollers planned to gather for this mass conference, and that it would be worth mounting an undercover operation to infiltrate these mysterious Hillsongers and found out what made them tick.

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The thing that struck me as weirdly misplaced about this proposal was that it came at the same time as our newspaper had established a link between a group of hardcore radicals from a Sydney Islamic prayer group who, through their local bookstore, were selling DVDs of the attacks on the Twin Towers and other atrocities committed in the name of al-Qaeda.

 

Scott Morrison’s invitation for the press to film him at worship was regarded as a misstep by some commentators — but clearly it resonated with many Australians. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Scott Morrison’s invitation for the press to film him at worship was regarded as a misstep by some commentators — but clearly it resonated with many Australians. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

 

I suggested to the reporters that if they wanted to mount an undercover operation against any particular religious group, this deranged clique might be a more newsworthy place to start, given that as far as I could tell, Hillsong did not appear to be planning on launching its own armed wing or mounting direct attacks on people who didn't share its belief system.

Rather, the church seemed to be attracting the exact same kind of people who bought our newspaper - hardworking suburban folks who believed in the family unit, the rule of law and wanted a safe and happy future for their children.

It struck me as a pretty bad way to sell newspapers, treating their big national conference as worthy of some covert Woodward and Bernstein-style investigation to expose them for what they apparently really are.

Just to be clear, I am about as far away from being a born-again Christian as it's possible to be.

I don't believe in God, which rules me out for starters, and if you ever found me with my eyes shut on a Sunday morning waving one arm in the air, I would not be speaking in tongues but signalling for Beroccas after a particularly big Saturday.

 

The Prime Minister’s religious observance seems no more or less unusual than other devotional practices, writes David Penberthy. Picture: Gary Ramage
The Prime Minister’s religious observance seems no more or less unusual than other devotional practices, writes David Penberthy. Picture: Gary Ramage

 

But having said that, I struggle to comprehend the level of derision that the Pentecostal churches continue to attract from liberal secularists, who regard their brand of Christianity as being ripe for the most blatant brand of ridicule.

The most famous evangelical Christian in Australia right now is, of course, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the first leader our nation has ever had who adheres to this brand of modern Christianity.

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In this year's election campaign, Morrison let the cameras in on a day of worship at his Pentecostal Horizon Church in Sydney's south and was filmed and photographed in tongue-speaking mode, eyes closed and hands in the air.

As I said, not being a born-again Christian, this is a form of behaviour with which I am unfamiliar.

But it strikes me as no more or less unusual than having a wafer placed on your tongue, or lighting a stick of incense and chanting, or facing towards Mecca, or any of the other rituals and routines that are associated with prayer across the theological divide.

Yet it does seem to be unique, in that if you do go down the tongue-speaking path, you will be casually slapped with labels such as born-again, happy-clapper - the type of insults that could get you hauled up before the Discrimination Commissioner if you levelled them at people of other faiths.

 

A Hillsong congregation in 2004. Pictures don’t lie, and you can’t deny the success of the church. Picture: David Anderson
A Hillsong congregation in 2004. Pictures don’t lie, and you can’t deny the success of the church. Picture: David Anderson

 

Morrison's candour and comfort with his faith attracted a wave of scrutiny from the mainstream media, and a continuing barrage of ridicule across social media from all the trendies who hate the bloke.

I heard sensible people discussing his decision to be photographed that day as a tactical mistake.

This has had the net effect of doing him a tremendous political favour.

Perhaps on account of living so close to the CBD, it has been lost on the inner-city Morrison haters that churches of the kind the Prime Minister attends are the fastest-growing in the land, and predominantly found in suburban and outer-suburban areas, in the kind of electorates political parties must win to form governments.

As someone who is ultimately in the business of winning seats, Morrison's preparedness to go public with his brand of faith, to treat it as normal and unremarkable, is something that will resonate very favourably with those voters who share that faith, or have plenty of friends and neighbours in the suburbs who share it.

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The reality is that when many Australians say they are going to church, they simply mean going to places such as Hillsong, or churches such as The Edge.

 

Scott Morrison is not the first senior political figure to attend a Hillsong event. Then Federal Treasurer Peter Costello (with wife Tanya) addressed the Hillsong conference in Sydney in July 2004. Picture: Sam Mooy
Scott Morrison is not the first senior political figure to attend a Hillsong event. Then Federal Treasurer Peter Costello (with wife Tanya) addressed the Hillsong conference in Sydney in July 2004. Picture: Sam Mooy

 

That's where you get a bit of rock 'n' roll thrown in with your dose of gospel and the guy giving the sermon is wearing jeans and a polo shirt, rather than the dusty old institutions where the priests are frocked up and pontificating in impenetrable language that is far removed from the day-to-day.

We do not want to go down the American path of electing leaders who have God on their side, or where elections become a bidding war as to who is the holiest but there is nothing I have seen to indicate Morrison is doing that.

He is simply being honest about who he is.

His detractors would do well not to bag these churches but to get along to one just for one day, as they might learn that the people who go are actually normal, and deserve the same kind of respect and representation as any other group.

 

@Penbo



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