The problem of Hillsong & Stephen Harmon
The megachurch's stance on Stephen Harmon's Covid death speaks volumes
I want to talk a little about Hillsong Church — the megachurch started in Australia in 1983 by Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie. The church got big — really big — spreading to the United States and beyond, its adherents including Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt.
I’ve always been fascinated by this cult, and it was in the headlines over the weekend when one of its members died from Covid.
What made this particular death capture people’s attention was that 34-year-old Stephen Harmon was an outspoken anti-vaxxer, who back in June made his thoughts very clear:
It turns out that was a problem — and Harmon ended up on a ventilator, absolutely riddled with Covid-19. As he continued to openly post his experiences and thoughts, the “How It Started vs How It’s Going” memes predictably went ballistic.
What made it more frustrating was that his comments were still so vehemently anti-science, you couldn’t help but feel slightly wound up reading them:
“If you don’t have faith that God can heal me over your stupid ventilator then keep the Hell out of my ICU room, there’s no room in here for fear or lack of faith.”
I am sure by this point he wasn’t in the best brain space, but there’s something about referring to an intensive care room as “my ICU room”. I mean — others would love that space, you know? People who actually wanted the care.
Harmon died on July 21st, almost two months after the “99 problems” tweet.
And the next day, his pastor — the founder of the Megachurch he loved so dearly — posted his condolences on his Instagram. Rather, he tweeted his condolences, before screenshotting his tweet so he could post it on his Instagram with some added commentary underneath:
And I imagine it was heartbreaking for Houston. And it was certainly heartbreaking for Stephen’s friends and family. A man had died. That’s awful.
But something about Brian’s post bothered me. The “NOTE” bit; the afterthought he’d tagged on at the end:
“NOTE: Stephen’s thoughts on vaccines were his own. They do not represent the views and thought of Hillsong Church. Many of our pastors, staff and congregation are fully vaccinated and more will be when vaccines became available to them in their countries.”
Look — on the surface this seems like a good sentiment. But also, Brian very specifically avoids suggesting any of his congregation should get it. He remains in this safe, politically neutral space.
And keep in mind — this was his time to shine. An anti-vaxx member of his congregation had just died from Covid. This was a very clear example of why vaccines are good. It wasn’t a puzzling cause and effect. It couldn’t have been any clearer.
Why does this matter, you ask? Well you have to look at the context of what’s going on in Australia right now — specifically at various anti-lockdown marches around Sydney. You may have already seen the photo of one protestor punching a police horse in the face — but something else awful was also going on:
Twitter user Soug Paul posted some other signs from the march:
Those snaps are from pastor Brian’s Australian backyard — but we’ve been seeing signs like these in other big cities as well.
So I think it’s fair to say there’s a very strong contingent within evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity that think exactly like Stephen Harmon thought. And pastor Brian knows this.
And Brian Houston isn’t some low-key hack. He’s a multi-millionaire who heads a global Church that boasts churches in 30 countries on six continents. He has influence, and at this moment (or any moment!) he could have specifically urged his members to vaccinate. It seemed like a good time.
He didn’t take it.
And so with all this in mind, I posted on his Instagram account:
Within 20 seconds, pastor Brian Houston — man of God, man of Jesus, man of Justin Bieber — had blocked me.
How did other people respond? Well, I think it’s important to note that not all Christians think this way. They really don’t. Plenty of them got in touch:
There was also a lot of talk about whether me politicising the issue was appropriate. I guess I’d argue that science isn’t politics (this is a naive reading, perhaps) and the very nature of Brian’s “condolences” post with its added “NOTE” was already political.
And then there was plenty of this stuff, too —
Anyone who uses the term “fake news” in a post Trump world is best to ignore — but I think this is a good time to note that Brian Houston’s attitude towards Covid has always been a little, er, fucked. This headline from October last year says it all:
You guessed it — one of those leaders was Brian Houston, kicking up a similar fuss to New Zealand’s own grifting Brian, Brian Tamaki.
“From Friday (October 23), congregations of up to 300 will be allowed to attend services in NSW.
They had previously been limited to 100, regardless of venue size. The continued restrictions sparked criticism from Hillsong founder Brian Houston, among others.
“It’s getting to the point where it is discrimination,” he complained on social media this week.”
His social media complaint has since been deleted (I do find it funny when harbingers of the truth block people and delete posts: the idea of a Church covering up anything is so unexpected!) — but I found it for your pleasure:
“Christians stand up!” — a sentence which speaks volumes about pastor Brian’s attitude towards a pandemic.
He was lashing out over livestreaming rules, but a string of complaints from the church lead to an exemption from the Minister for Health and Medical Research, for church gathering sizes in general:
But yeah — I think this is valuable background into how seriously Hillsong takes Covid.
In addition to all this, Brian Houston — the man who blocked me on Instagram for telling him to make a stand on vaccines — stood by his decision not to report father’s child abuse to police.
Brian’s dad Frank Houston was a pastor in New Zealand and Australia who routinely sexually abused boys during the 60s and 70s. In 1999 the mother of one of his victims reported the abuse to the Assemblies of God organisation.
Who was the National President of Assemblies of God in Australia back then? Brian Houston.
Legally, Brian needed to report that crime — but chose not to dob in his daddy:
“Brian Houston has defended not reporting his father’s confession to police, stating he had a ‘reasonable excuse’ because he said [the victim] had said he did not want to go to the authorities. He also said that because [the victim] was an adult when the abuse was first reported, it was his prerogative to report it. [the victim] has denied telling Houston not to go to the police.”
As an aside, abuser Frank Houston once described how his wife had “the honour of being the first person in all of Australia” to die in a McDonald's restaurant.
Jesus. How bleak is that.
My final beef with Hillsong? They make music so terrible you want to gouge you eardrums out.
All in all — I guess you could say I think Hillsong could do a lot better, probably by ceasing to exist.
But they could start by taking a stand on something that actually matters: like directly encouraging their followers not to make the same mistake Stephen Harmon made.
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