Australia’s first Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison, has been trying and failing to address revelations of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment in parliament. These crimes, both historical and more recent, are alleged to have been committed by Liberal Party politicians and staffers against their female colleagues.
The culture in parliament is unquestionably patriarchal. But that culture didn’t come out of nowhere. Misogyny is deeply ingrained in the Coalition, reinforced by an unholy alliance between Australian conservatives and right-wing Christian churches and lobby groups.
The basis for this alliance is partly ideological. As in the United States, ultraconservative, neoliberal Christianity supplies many Australian conservatives with a worldview emphasizing the most bigoted elements in the Christian tradition. Australian conservatives have cited “religious freedom” to justify exemptions from antidiscrimination laws.
There’s also a material basis for it. Many Liberal and National Party politicians rely on right-wing Christian organizations for funding and other forms of support. This toxic mixture of power and conservative ideology perpetuates a culture in which sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are commonplace.
So far, a brutal historic rape accusation has been leveled against Attorney General Christian Porter, who denies the allegations. A parliamentary staffer, Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped by a male colleague in the office of then defense industry minister, Linda Reynolds.
Initially, Morrison denied knowing about the allegation until a few days before it was reported — although Higgins has rejected that claim, adding weight to accusations that the prime minister’s office sought to cover up the crime. Then, another staffer was caught sharing sexually abusive images — and the list goes on.
Scott Morrison’s main response has been to reshuffle his cabinet — a worse than inadequate move, because it elevated Senator Amanda Stoker, a hard-right Christian, to the position of assistant minister for women. Stoker is a regular speaker at anti-abortion rallies who previously described accusations of bullying within the Liberal Party that led women to quit as “pathetic.” She has argued that women who have children could be seen as “having baggage,” making them less desirable in the workplace than men without children.
In March, Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year and feminist activist, criticized Stoker for her defense of a “fake rape crisis” university speaking tour. As part of the speaking tour, Bettina Arndt, a prominent men’s rights activist and rape apologist, hosted the convicted pedophile who abused Tame when she was his student. Stoker also came to Arndt’s defense following the backlash when she was awarded an Order of Australia in 2020.
Stoker’s ministerial post gives her misogynistic opinions real institutional power, as Tame argues:
This is how destructive systemic cultures are both born and reinforced. Either the Prime Minister is ignorant of the cultural issues at hand, or he understands them completely, and is making calculated moves to perpetuate them.
Conservative Christians have long campaigned to roll back progress in the fight against gendered and sexual discrimination. At their head stands Scott Morrison.
Morrison attends Horizon Church in Sutherland, NSW, part of the Australian Christian Churches (ACC) denomination — previously known as Assemblies of God — which originated in the United States. The most well-known offspring of ACC may be Hillsong Church, which created its own breakaway denomination in 2018 as part of its global expansion plans. Its music, which is hugely popular among Christian audiences, was an aid to such efforts.
Although Morrison does not attend Hillsong, he credits its senior pastor and founder Brian Houston as his spiritual mentor. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that Houston failed to report that his father had sexually assaulted children. The church has also faced scrutiny recently in the United States over an email reportedly sent to Hillsong congregants the week before Christmas asking them to pray for the Houston family — but not for the victims of Houston Sr’s abuse.
Brian Houston’s wife and co-senior pastor Bobbie Houston is responsible for the church’s ministry to women. This work includes a 2008 book called I’ll Have What She’s Having. As feminist academic Marion Maddox argues, Houston’s work demands women submit and be “gorgeously available for Jesus’s army.”
Such patriarchal teachings are common coin among white conservative Christian churches and denominations, and they serve a political purpose. Data from the United States shows that white evangelical protestants were the most likely of any religious demographic to support Donald Trump. They also consistently hold more conservative views than other religious groups on issues like discrimination against women, racism, and climate change. And they are the religious group least likely to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
United Against Women
While much of the focus in Australia remains on Hillsong and Pentecostalism, conservative Christian politicians come from all denominations, including the more established and mainstream Anglican and Catholic churches. For example, moderate Victorian Liberals have claimed that the party’s religious right is stacking branches with Mormon and Catholic groups in order to preselect more conservative candidates.
Within the parliamentary Liberal Party, Morrison maintains a faction known as the Prayer Group that meets on Tuesday evenings during parliamentary sitting weeks, uniting center-right and hard-right Liberal Party MPs. The Prayer Group was crucial to Morrison’s successful 2018 leadership bid that saw him replace Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.
Since the parliamentary sexual abuse crisis has unfolded, the media has given prominent space to conservative Christian commentators who are predominantly men with no particular expertise in sexual abuse prevention. Figures like Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, have argued that the crisis was caused by a “loss of … Christian ideals.”
A large part of the Australian right clearly sees faith as a vehicle for capturing positions of political power and promoting reactionary ideologies and policies. Indeed, this is a thought-out strategy. At the recent Church and State Conference held in Queensland, Nationals MP George Christensen stressed the importance of conservative Christians growing their numbers, and spoke about the need for religious conservatives to “pick the battles that we can win on in the public arena,” while waiting to enact other agendas once in office.
Other speakers at the conference included Cardinal George Pell, who has since returned to Rome after being cleared of child sexual abuse charges, and the director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Martyn Iles. Iles described “the transgender thing” as the “most fragile” part of the LGBT rights movement. He suggested that the ACL target transgender people in the aftermath of their failed campaign to oppose same-sex marriage in Australia.
On April 8, Iles returned to these transphobic talking points as a panelist on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program Q+A. He also claimed that Christians face the risk of workplace persecution as a result of widespread opposition to homophobia — a view other panelists rejected, noting that it doesn’t represent progressive Christians.
Progressive Christians Push Back
It would be simplistic to blame Christianity in general for this conservative campaign. As conservative Christian groups have grown in influence, they’ve marginalized progressive Christian denominations and churches like the Uniting Church in Australia, which prides itself on supporting refugees, and opposing homophobia and sexism.
Dr Janice McRandal is a feminist theologian and director of The Cooperative, a Uniting Church in Australia affiliated think tank. She told Jacobin that “the Christian right voice in Australia is really punching above their weight,” and they are presenting themselves as “the dominant voice of Christians in public discourse.”
This helps legitimize misogyny. As McRandal explains, several of the speakers at the Church and State Conference “teach a form of subordination” in which
…Christ is at the head, and the husband sits below Christ, and the wife sits below the husband … and the way we manage society is governed by that subordination — so a woman’s place is in the home, raising children.
McRandal cautions against seeing this agenda as new. Rather, she explains it as a backlash against progress in recent decades toward equality for women and an attempt to reestablish “family values” and “patriarchy.”
Similarly, Sarah Alice Allcroft, a theologian and co-organizer of the Sydney March for Justice, has highlighted the conservative role of the Australian Christian Lobby. In her speech, Allcroft drew the connections between the attacks on transgender people, herself included, and all women:
The conservative right and the Australian Christian Lobby are targeting groups like the trans community and sex workers [in order] to steamroller legislation through that will further oppress women and will remove already hard fought-for rights. And this all comes on top of the erosion of the Family Law Courts, which is only going to put more women and children in danger.
Speaking to Jacobin, Allcroft insisted that progressive Christians have a responsibility to organize and push back against the Right, religious and otherwise:
It’s even more important when the people calling for destructive policies are doing so from beneath a Christian banner. As a theologian, I keep coming back to the question: When did feed the hungry, heal the sick, and liberate the oppressed become “subjugate women, vilify the poor, and demonize the LGBTQIA+ community?”
March for Women
Australia is increasingly a secular nation, with 30 percent of Australians identifying as having “no religion” on the 2016 census, a figure that is up significantly from 19 percent in 2006. When Scott Morrison became Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister in August 2018, only 1.1 percent of Australians identified with his denomination.
More recently, the March for Justice movement, inspired by survivors of sexual violence such as Grace Tame and former political staffer Brittany Higgins, has seen tens of thousands take to the streets, not only in capital cities but also in small towns.
This points to a growing tension. The ACL, the Liberal Party, and Scott Morrison seem determined to promote misogyny under the cover of faith. And at the same time, the March for Justice movement has shown that that a growing number of Australians — and especially women — will not stay silent about sexual abuse and harassment, in parliament or elsewhere.