Sunday, January 13, 2008

Faith, Money, Power: What the religious revival means for politics, by Margaret Simons

Pluto books has an essay series called ‘Now’. I only came across the series as I was searching out information on the rise of Pentecostal churches in Australia. There are quite a few other interesting titles in the series. They seem to follow the format of the Quarterly Essays, but with more of a focus on investigative, on the ground journalism, rather than opinion, as features in the Quarterly Essay series. Each title runs for about 100 pages.

Margaret Simons in this volume examines the Pentecostal churches so popular with the young. For research she spent about two years attending Pentecostal services, and interviewed people who follow this version of Christian faith. She also investigated the finances of Hillsong church, looking for malfeasance, and found none.

As the title says, the essay is divided into three section. Faith, why people are so taken with these Pentecostal churches. Money, as mentioned above, is there any funny business going on with their finances. And finally, politics. How is this so-called new wave of faith impacting on politics? This last section was by far the largest part of the book. The money section the smallest (you almost wish it wasn’t there it’s so inconsequential.)

In the first part of the essay Simons interviews one of her journalism students, a bright young man who was saved by his belief from suicide. He also explains why Pentecostal churchgoers hold their hands upwards and close their eyes. It apparently means that you are giving yourself up to God, asking him to take you. It comes across as a kind of submission thing.

We learn one of the things these Pentecostals really dislike is modernism, the idea that there is no truth. The enlightenment values of doubt do not appeal. Interestingly, Simons describes the insides of these Pentecostal churches as being devoid of religious iconography. (This is so different to my Catholic upbringing, where you were confronted with it everywhere.)

On the political front, they don’t believe in political activism, because only God can really solve all problems. In fact these Pentecostals are almost apolitical, which is why Simons believes they have and will continue to have minimal impact on politics. The only political movement that they are really opposed to is the Greens, due largely to their socially liberal policies (gay rights, abortion).

There was an interesting section about Steve Fielding. Apparently he just put his hand up to lead Family First in Melbourne, and his political success there is really just a fluke. If Labor hadn’t preferenced him during the 2004 election, Family First would be a political phenomenon relegated solely to South Australia.

Simons says that of all politicians that she has interviewed, Fielding was the worst. During a forty-five minute interview she claims he never answered a question straight. This is interesting, because I called his office asking if he had read the Citizenship Test booklet, seeing he was voting yes on it. I spoke to one of his advisors, who indeed could not answer this question straight.

This is a terrific essay by a terrific journalist. Simons avoids all the hysteria that comes from the left when dealing with the ‘rise’ of this form of Christianity. Simons shows they are basically young people looking for answers to life and ways to solve their personal problems. They have next to no interest in politics.

Simons sees them as pre-modern, preferring emotion to intellect. Their hip, sexy exterior is at odds with their belief system.

I’m looking forward to reading some of the other essays in the series.

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