It was a large crowd. With every seat filled, people sat in the aisles of the theatrette, gathered on the steps at the sides of the stage and squeezed in the doorways from the corridor outside. As many outside, it was announced, as there were in.
When David Marr, Sydney Morning Herald journalist and former presenter of Media Watch, finally reached the podium, he congratulated the audience on breaching the Public Halls Act. Everyone laughed. They were breaking the law, and they were doing it inside the NSW Parliament.
The debate, in the Parliament’s theatrette, was organised by the NSW Fabian society and titled: Are moral values the new politics? Timed to coincide with the induction of Family First’s Stephen Fielding into the Senate, elected on Labor preferences. Marr spoke first, followed by Brian Houston, president of the Assemblies of God churches in Australia and pastor of Hillsong Church.
Thanks to Hive
Throughout the night, Houston denied any connection between his church and politics. That the Liberal Party’s Louise Markus who holds the federal seat of Greenway is a member of his congregation is purely coincidental. At one point he remarked, ‘Christians have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else’, adding, ‘there is hypocrisy here friends: could you imagine a gay person bein’ banned from politics?’ Houston is more of a showman than an intellect and his speech was peppered with ‘bein’, ‘sein’ and ‘a course’.
Marr and Houston squared off in this tense atmosphere of the secular left versus the religious right, nonetheless affecting a bonhomie of good grace and charm, with Houston laughing when Marr quipped that ‘God does not exist, but Hillsong does’.
The crowd also laughed along with Houston when it was his turn to speak, but this time it was with mocking derision at his preacher style of delivery. ‘I believe in a book of promises, I believe in a book of chances, I believe in a book of victory’, he said. They weren’t going to buy any of it and they giggled at his simplicity.
This didn’t trouble Houston. He had members of his Hillsong flock planted in the audience. Among them his wife Bobbie, also a preacher of miracles at Hillsong and author of Kingdom women love sex, who wore a look of mild discomfort throughout.
Houston’s rhetoric blew out into a chanting mush of platitudes and prayers that the faithful followed with cries of ‘amen’, ‘thank him’ and ‘praise be’. Many closed their eyes in prayer as he warbled on. On stage at Hillsong, Houston’s husky baritone draws ecstasy and tears from enormous crowds as he promises miracles and hope.
Here, his voice was subdued but determined. Like a man shouting in a storm, he hung on to the core of his belief and drew strength from the bleating lambs that had come along to support him.
The nonsense was finally relieved when the final speaker, Stephen Crittenden, presenter of Radio National’s Religion Report, took his turn. Patrician in delivery like an Anglican preacher, Crittenden told of Jim Wallis, an American evangelical who is working with the democrats to reclaim religion from the right and bring it closer to the Christian socialism of the nineteenth century, with an emphasis on fighting poverty and racism.
Crittenden pointed out that it took no time at all for John Howard to realise the political potential of Hillsong (Howard appears each week in an opening film montage broadcast on two billboard-sized television screens before the service), while Mark Latham declined an invitation to visit.
Crittenden urged the left to engage in the values debate that lies at the core of religious belief. Sadly, the detail of his presentation was lost on the highly partisan audience, and the broad debate of values was narrowed down to just a few particular problems.
When the time came to open the floor to questions, everyone wanted to attack Houston on gay rights. No one, curiously, mentioned abortion. Marr helped this along with his own exasperated query, slapping the table as he asked why he and his partner shouldn’t be put to death after sex as it is decreed in the Old Testament. Le petit mort, indeed.
Though Houston replied with ‘absolutely not’, the tension remained and one man, on his feet to quiz the preacher, lost track of what he was saying and was shouted down as a time waster. On homosexuality, Houston quibbled, suggesting that he didn’t want to appear intolerant but, at the end of each question, wound his way back to saying that he was a man of the Book in which it clearly states homosexuality is wrong.
Cries of ‘amen’ from some; bared teeth from others.
Pleading with Houston to think for himself, Crittendon asked, ‘but even on a political and civil rights level, can’t you acknowledge a person’s right to decide their sexuality?’ The same bowed head, the same lip service to tolerance, but still the Bible is all.
In the end it was up to Senator John Faulkner, president of the Fabian Society, to stand up at the back of the theatre and boom from behind his Fearless Fly glasses.
He thanked Houston for speaking to an audience well outside his comfort zone and reminded everyone that 18,000 people visit Hillsong Church every weekend, while the ALP in NSW has a membership somewhere south of 15,000.
But still the rancour remained. Some may have wondered at the possibility of the left’s engagement with religious values, but most took home perhaps an uncomfortable notion: God doesn’t exist but Hillsong does.
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