Scott Morrison has told the opening session of the Hillsong annual conference that Australia needs more prayer, and more love.
Praying for Australia at the evangelical Christian event with his wife, Jenny, Morrison addressed the government’s growing internal debate about religious freedom by arguing that culture was more important than laws.
The prime minister told the conference the government would “do what we need to do from a legislative point of view”, according to a news report in Eternity that Morrison’s office confirmed was an accurate reflection of his comments before the 21,000-strong crowd on Tuesday night.
“But what all that boils down to is the culture in this country,” Morrison said. “It’s not the laws that make freedom of religion work, it’s the culture that accepts it.
“So I speak about my faith … because I want everyone in this place to feel comfortable talking about faith in this country. It’s not a political agenda, it’s who we are.”
Morrison said while freedom of belief in Australia was fundamental, Christians needed to prioritise love over judgments and lectures. “That’s what we all need. That’s what our country needs. That’s what our nation needs. That’s what we’re here to do as Christians. Not here to judge. Not here to lecture. Just here to show the amazing love of God.
“My job is the same as yours: love God, love people. We’ve all got the same job.”
He suggested the religious freedom debate was too rights-orientated. According to the report in Eternity, Morrison referenced the conditions faced by missionaries in Soviet Russia. “You didn’t hear stories about them complaining about their rights … They were just loving in that situation and they were out there for God. That was their response and this country needs more love and less judgment.”
Morrison prayed for veterans, young people battling suicidal ideations, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities and for rain to break the drought. “Our nation needs more prayer, and humility of leadership, and the wisdom to see what He sees and to move towards that,” Morrison said. “And to have grace. Grace really is amazing.
“Someone really should write a song about that!”
Morrison, who worships at the Horizon church, has attended the Hillsong conference for years. His attendance this year comes as Coalition conservatives campaign for a religious freedom bill, in a drive given additional fuel by the heavily publicised dispute between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia, triggered by a social media comment from Folau that asserted that gay people go to hell.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, has indicated that cases like Folau’swould be captured by the government’s proposed religious discrimination bill. Porter told Guardian Australia this week that legislation will include a “powerful avenue” for people of faith who face “indirect” unfair treatment.
But Porter is holding firm against calls from conservative MPs to establish a religious freedom act, saying such legislation could see “sensitive public policy” determined by the courts as it adjudicated competing rights.
The latest Guardian Essential poll suggests Coalition MPs are more enamoured with a legislative fix than Coalition voters are.
The poll indicates only 44% of Coalition voters would back a proposal like the one now being sought by a group of rightwingers in the government, and support for the idea across all the voting cohorts is even more tepid, with only 38% backing the move (16% strongly and 22% somewhat).
While the poll suggests Australians are reluctant to codify freedom of religious expression, the latest poll also indicates Australians feel constrained in what they can say and are concerned about the capacity of employers to dictate behaviour outside working hours.
A majority, 64%, agree that people now hesitate before saying what they really think because they are afraid of how others will react, and a majority, 58%, agree that employers should not have the right to dictate what their employees say outside of work.