Spiritual and political memoir a mixed blessing

In late February 2022, after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, then-prime minister Scott Morrison and his wife Jenny attended the Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy in Lidcombe, in a show of solidarity.

Morrison was rapt, joining in the unfamiliar prayers as best he could. After the service, he announced on the church steps that Australia would contribute military support, and not only humanitarian aid, to Ukraine.

Some thought the Holy Spirit had changed his mind. But perhaps he spent the liturgy praying over a decision already made? Or maybe he came just to use the ceremony as a backdrop for his political theatre?

Of course we will never know, and could never, but nobody was worried about the “genuineness” of ScoMo’s faith at that moment. We were happy to have a leader join us in prayer (as well as stop by for the photo and announcement).

Plans for Your Good, Morrison’s “testimony of God’s faithfulness” during his time as PM, is easy to criticise for the same reasons as its author. What the former PM holds out to be his genuine source of strength, his Evangelical faith, is the hallmark of his inauthenticity for non-believers.

Morrison’s combination of spiritual advice and political memoir seems destined to attract this same critique. Is God invoked to justify a PM who left office deeply unpopular? Or are the political tales designed to show that faith really does deliver the goods?

It doesn’t help that Plans is written in the “You Got This!” inspirational style now typical of almost all mass-market books, and is pitched to a US audience, with the Australiana interpreted for Yanks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, light a candle for peace in Ukraine. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Episodes from his time in the top job are organised under a sequence of interrogative chapter headings—Who am I? How should I live? What should I hope for?—and combine anecdote with scriptural exegesis, drawing on a wide variety of texts from the Old and New Testaments. It’s clear the former PM reads and loves his Bible.

Some chapters have moments of true pathos: his actions in the aftermath of the 2005 Cronulla riots, his friendship with the Abdallah and Sakr families, which concludes the book, and his retelling of the 14-year ordeal he and wife Jenny suffered to conceive their two children—reminding us that Morrison’s “daggy dad from the Shire” persona was hard won.

The epilogue, in which he writes about his own decision to follow Christ in his teenage years, is also very sympathetic, and true to many Christians’ experience.

“[The chaplain] said to stand in your place and join him in a prayer,” Morrison writes.

“The next thing I knew, I was standing, as if someone had pulled me to my feet, but I didn’t resist. I gave my life to the Lord there and then.”

Less convincing are his accounts of the intersection of faith and politics in the leadership spill that brought him to power, the AUKUS defence partnership, COVID-19 pandemic and other moments of statecraft.

For instance, God’s role in the establishment of AUKUS was to grant Morrison the courage not to give in to French protests after his government reneged on their $50bn submarine contract in favour of access to US-supplied nuclear sub technology.

“Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah understood there would be life-and-death consequences when they said no to Nebuchadnezzar,” Morrison analogises.

It’s not a particularly deep analogy, nor is Plans for Your Good a particularly deep book, because Evangelical Christianity is not a particularly deep religion.

It’s a religion of intensity. Of intense feeling, driving the Christian to immediate action, in the belief that God has matters in hand.

That’s its appeal and was Morrison’s as PM. Intensity can substitute for depth, and perhaps should when action is required, as in the pandemic.

“If you can’t trust God with everything, you cannot trust God with anything,” Morrison writes in the book’s refrain, which also serves as his testimony.

It’s intense in the personal burden it places on the reader, and expressed in such a categorical way that even those who believe in God are put on the defensive.

Yet the book’s gift is to provoke the lukewarm Christian reader into asking what stops them from embracing a more enthusiastic faith, even when occupying high office.

Here Morrison has something to teach world-weary Catholics. Do you really believe that you could trust God with absolutely everything?

And in a pinch, would you rather have Kevin’s nerdy Christian socialism, Tony drawing up battlelines, Malcolm weighing his options, or Albo invoking the Rabbitohs?

Or would you want Scott, putting everything in God’s hands, trusting that the Lord has plans for our good?

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