In the lead-up to Scott Morrison’s re-election last year, concerns were raised about Australia having a Prime Minister with such an overt Christian faith. We all remember well the photos taken of ScoMo inside of his church where he worshipped with eyes closed and hands raised. It was something of an uncomfortable sight for many Australians.
A little over a year later, Morrison’s approval rating has hit a record high of 59 to 26—well over doubling his rival Anthony Albanese. The Coalition is also enjoying a run of good polls on both a primary and two-party preferred basis.
Whatever Scott Morrison is doing right—which undoubtedly includes his response to COVID-19—his charismatic Christian faith doesn’t seem to be getting in the way of his popularity.
In the context of other western nations, we shouldn’t miss how remarkable this is.
Across the pond, Jacinda Ardern has spoken openly of her rejection of the Mormonism of her childhood; while in the UK, Boris Johnson feels only a faint connection to his Catholic upbringing. Justin Trudeau speaks of a private faith, but has alienated many of the faithful by labelling certain traditional Christian beliefs ‘unCanadian’. And then, of course, there is Donald Trump, who seems to defy explanation.
By contrast, Scott Morrison stands out in the English-speaking world as a leader with a deep and unashamed Christian faith. Despite this, he maintains immense popular support.
It turns out that, in the broad sweep of Australia’s history, this is not so unusual.
Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second Prime Minister, declared that “Without God and without immortality there can be no true or efficient morality from generation to generation, no task for the race, and no goal for it to attain.”
The first work of philosophy published in Australia was by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Barzillai Quaife. According to academics Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish, “clergymen played a significant role in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century NSW, as naturalists, political thinkers, and newspaper editors.”
There is a popular myth, says Chavura, that Australia’s convict origins have made us more worldly and irreligious than our British ancestors or our American cousins. But in fact, convicts were only arriving here until the 1850s. Before and after this, many free settlers arrived from all over Europe and the British Isles especially, building places of worship as a priority once they arrived.
The countless churches, chapels and cathedrals peppered across Australia still stand as evidence of Australia’s strong religious roots. My own hometown of Lobethal, for example, was one of many German settlements in South Australia founded in the 19th century. Lobethal was Martin Luther’s translation of the “valley of praise” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:26.
Australia’s Christian identity was rigorously discussed in the lead up to Federation in 1901. This was to be expected, given that the percentage of Aussies identifying as Christians at the time was in the high 90s. Australia didn’t federate as a specifically “Christian nation”, but we did proclaim our proud British identity—and by definition, that also meant Protestant.
The phrase “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God” appears in the first sentence of the preamble to the Australian Constitution. Chavura explains that, when the federation delegates considered leaving this phrase out, thousands of Aussies petitioned their delegates to make sure it stayed in. So strongly, in fact, did they feel about this that had their pleas been ignored, Australia may not have become a Federation at all!
Writing about this time, a federation delegate from my own state of South Australia, Patrick Glynn, explained that religion “pervades all the relations of our civil life. It is felt in the forms of our courts of justice, in the language of our Statutes, in the oath that binds the sovereign to the observance of our liberties.”
Our Constitution also includes an entire section on religious freedom. Section 116 reads: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
It’s true that Australia has become significantly less religious since Federation. Most of this has taken place since the 1960s; as late as the 1950s, only 10 percent of Australians identified as non-religious.
In recent decades, a rising tide of secularists have quoted Section 116 and spoken of the separation of church and state as a way of purifying the public square of any notable references to religion. They seem particularly precious about the political sphere, arguing that religion must be kept out of politics—as we saw last during last year’s election campaign.
But this would have been news to our Constitution’s drafters and our nation’s founders. The great majority of the federation delegates were deeply shaped by their Christian faith; what they sought to stop with Section 116 was the government’s overreach—financial or otherwise—into religious life.
Chavura also points out that when words like “secular” and “secularism” were used in early Australia, they didn’t describe a society free of religion. They described an Australia that all Christians—whether Protestant or Catholic—could agree on. This was important given how many Irish Catholics had come to call Australia home.
All this to say that when an openly religious Prime Minister like Scott Morrison is elected, we needn’t be awkward about it. And when he continues to poll well, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Faith always has been a significant aspect of Australian life. In fact, it’s why we have religious freedom at all—including, ironically, the freedom not to believe.
Praise God for that.