Press: Hillsong not welcome at the White House 

27 September 2019

PA

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, near Brooklyn in New York, United States, on Wednesday

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, near Brooklyn in New York, United States, on Wednesday

THE GUARDIAN had an extraordinary little story, picked up, it seemed, from The Wall Street Journal: the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, apparently wanted to have Brian Houston, the leader of Hillsong, as a guest at a state dinner hosted by President Trump. As a mark of the influence of Charismatic megachurches, this could hardly be plainer. The second thing that made the story notable was that the White House reportedly turned down the request.

The reason suggested was that, in 2014, the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse found that Mr Houston had failed to alert police to allegations that his father had sexually abused nine children. Mr Houston, who was the Australian national president of the Assemblies of God when his father confessed to one case in 2000, did nothing publicly when a further investigation produced eight more children whom his father had abused.

Considering some of the religious leaders whom President Trump does honour with the light of his countenance, this seems a rather inconsistent outbreak of scruples. But, perhaps, it tends to show the way in which the new Pentecostalism, although it is an international movement, has nothing like an international organisation. Each country’s churches are anchored in their own nationalisms and loyalties. Paula White would not get invited to a state banquet in Australia, and Mr Houston cannot get into the White House.

HILLSONG, Morrison, and Trump are all anathema to mainstream European Christians. But that is no guarantee that nationalist or ethnically based Christianity does not represent the future. One of the few people to take this seriously is the philosopher John Gray, who had a long and laudatory review of Tom Holland’s book Dominion (Books, 13 September) in the New Statesman.

Gray believes, as I do, in Holland’s argument that Western humanism is an outgrowth of Christianity, and makes very little sense without it. In fact, I think that it was some of Gray’s earlier work which first made this argument coherent to me. But he’s prepared to go one step further — just as he was in his earlier work on Isaiah Berlin — and ask: what are the consequences if Christianity isn’t true?

What follows is a fairly long quotation, but I don’t think that I could improve it by paraphrase: “Holland seems to be suggesting that liberal values cannot survive the collapse of their Christian foundations. This is not a view confined to Christian believers. The nihilistic French author Michel Houellebecq appears to be thinking along similar lines, as are some atheists and agnostics. Yet I think this misreads our situation.

“It may well be that liberal values as they were understood in the past are on the way out. But the source of their decline is more paradoxical than the mere loss of Christian belief. Beyond the West, Christianity is undergoing a revival. In post-communist Russia, for example, the Orthodox Church has re-emerged strongly. But the distinctive pattern of development through which Christianity generated liberal values in western Europe was not replicated in eastern Orthodoxy, and there is nothing liberal about resurgent Christianity in Russia. . .

“The rise of Christianity was an accident, and the liberal West a spin-off. Of course the hand of God can be seen in the decision Pontius Pilate made to have Jesus crucified. In recognition of Pilate’s pivotal role in the Christian story, he is canonised as a saint in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. But unless these and later events were providentially ordered, the triumph of Christianity was fortuitous. If any one of an uncountable number of contingencies had not occurred, Europe might still be shaped by a mix of polytheistic cults and classical philosophy and Christianity would never have spread across the globe.

“Such a world might be better, in some respects, than the one that actually exists; but it would lack the vision of human equality and moral progress that formed the modern West. If they read Dominion, as they certainly should, secular liberals might pause to reflect that they acquired their deepest values by chance from a religion they despise.”

RURAL clergy in England might feel a sharp pang of recognition if they read the Washington Post this week: there was a well-written story about a married couple who are looking after three widely separated churches in rural West Virginia.

“Every Sunday, one of the Felicis starts the day at 7.15 a.m. with a 57-mile drive to the farthest of their churches, New Hope, in Minnehaha Springs. After the service, that pastor drives all the way back to Franklin, where the Felicis live, to preach at the 11 a.m. service at the church next door to their parsonage. Meanwhile, the other pastor makes a mad dash through three church services.”

The distances are one thing that distinguishes this from England; the other is the “100 year old parishioner coating cotton balls in peppermint oil to get the smell out when the skunk gets under a church building” — almost enough to reconcile you to the bats of English churches.

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