What is the Narnia-inspired Caldron Pool and is it fomenting ‘Christian nationalism’ in Australia?

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<span>Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

On a Narnia-inspired website, amid anti-vaccination, anti-mask and anti-abortion posts, sit two petitions named for Hebrew prophets.

The website, Caldron Pool, has become a locus for conservative Christian opposition to some of the measures taken by Australian governments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and has attracted contributions from right-wing politicians such as George Christensen and Mark Latham.

Both have written in favour of the Ezekiel Declaration, which was published on the site alongside the Moses Statement. Those two documents have been signed by thousands of religious leaders who oppose some public health regulations proposed during the pandemic and in some cases challenge the right of secular governments to impose them on Christians.

The Ezekiel Declaration, written by Baptist leaders, says vaccine passports would “inflict terrible consequences on our nation” and refers to a historical quote claiming vaccine certificates were as real a threat as smallpox.

Written as a letter to Scott Morrison, it questions the effectiveness of Covid vaccines, and says a passport represents “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”.

The Queensland branch of Australian Baptist Ministries says it does not endorse the Ezekiel Declaration and it does not represent its views.

The Moses Statement, written by mostly Presbyterian authors, has been signed by about 1,400 religious leaders from Hillsong, Baptist, Lutheran and other churches.

The authors write that it is wrong for any government to obstruct gatherings for public worship, and that “God alone controls everything in the universe, including disease and death”.

“We do not want to be put in the position where we must choose between obeying God or our government,” they write.

Church services have been banned under lockdown restrictions imposed in several states, and like secular venues will have to restrict access to vaccinated people only in New South Wales when restrictions are eased once certain vaccination targets are reached.

Ben Davis, named as the founder of Caldron Pool on the website, writes: “In the end, to ban healthy believers from public worship for any reason other than unrepentant sin, including those based on whatever arbitrary medical treatments the government deems necessary at any particular time of the day, is to ultimately exchange the gracious staff of the Great Shepherd for the often cruel and unforgiving rod of Caesar.”

Some of these constraints have also been condemned by mainstream church leaders, including the Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, and the Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel. The Catholic archbishop of Tasmania, Julian Porteous, has called for priests with a “conscientious objection” to vaccines to be allowed to continue visiting aged care homes.

But theologians and other religious leaders have warned that some of the sentiments expressed in forums such as the Caldron Pool represent a new strain of “Christian nationalism”, largely imported from the US, that privileges the rights of believers to religious freedom over their obligations to fellow citizens under civil laws.

The site is replete with articles fulminating against vaccine passports (one commentator calls them the “cold, dark, bony-fingered hands of socialism proper reaching for the throats of Australians”), and questioning whether Christians should feel bound to obey secular law on a range of coronavirus regulations, but also matters such as anti-discrimination legislation, abortion clinic protests and gay “conversion”.

One article on the site alleges: “What is happening in the once-free West over Covid is just too similar to what occurred in the once free Germany in the 1930s.”

What does this have to do with Narnia?

The Narnia Chronicles series by CS Lewis are widely seen as Christian allegories, and articles on the Caldron Pool credit Lewis with warning about “fake news” 70 years ago.

The site takes its title from a fictional place in the Chronicles where an ape (Shift) convinces a donkey (Puzzle) to don a discarded lion’s hide, turning him into “fake Aslan”, a pretender to the throne of the lion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in the Chronicles series.

The Caldron Pool – motto: “Make common sense common again” – aims “to demonstrate the truth of Christianity over all other religions while discerning the underlying deceptions of alternate worldviews”.

The term “Christian nationalism” has been used to describe a broad range of groups and views, but at its core is the idea that Christianity is the natural bedrock of a nation but has become embattled and under threat from external forces – such as governments that want to impose limits on church gatherings. In this context, the concept is not about ethnicity or ‘nationalism’, as traditionally understood, but reasserting the rights of the faithful against perceived encroachment by the secular state.

The role of Christian nationalists in the 6 January US Capitol riots was criticised by more than 100 evangelist leaders. One study of attitudes towards vaccination among adherents to Christian nationalism in the journal of the American Sociological Association called the doctrine “a pervasive ideology that rejects scientific authority and promotes allegiance to conservative political leaders” and said belief in it was “consistently one of the two strongest predictors of anti-vaccine attitudes, stronger than political or religious characteristics considered separately”.

It is not suggested that Christensen or Latham share all the views expressed on the website, or that they subscribe to a doctrine of Christian nationalism.

Christensen, the LNP MP for Dawson, writes on the site that masks are “near-useless” and that “we need to fear God, not the virus”. On his own website he has written that “the sad truth is that we are not truly free to express our faith in Australia”, citing the Israel Folau case among examples of “the more difficult faith-based views” that have repercussions for those who espouse them.

Latham, the leader of One Nation in NSW, says in an interview on the site that he is best described as an atheist, but nevertheless describes Christianity as “one of the essential pillars of our civilisation” and declares lockdowns have “failed in every respect”. He has previously expressed the view that “the fastest growing form of discrimination in our society is against people of religious faith, especially Christians”.

Davis did not respond to a request for comment. Latham and Christensen also declined to comment on how their beliefs related to Christian nationalism.

The Australian response

Australian religious commentators say there is a clear divide between traditional Christian views and some of the views expressed in forums such as the Caldron Pool.

An expert in the intersection between religion and politics at Macquarie University, Prof Marion Maddox, says the language of persecution is increasingly being used by conservative Christians in Australia. Some Australian Christians “peculiarly” see themselves as persecuted, and persecution as “something quite attractive or noble”, Maddox says.

Reverend Tim Costello, a fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, says the libertarian and individualistic streak is foreign to mainstream Christianity, which has always been community minded, but that the pandemic “is stirring a sort of madness within them”.

And Reverend Andrew Dutney, theology professor at Flinders University, says there is a distortion of Christian ethics in the push. Christian authorities would generally teach that people have an obligation to vaccinate “as a way of loving your neighbour”, he says.

Evangelicals David Ould and Murray Campbell have described the Ezekiel declaration as “a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations”.

“In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments,” they say.

Throughout the pandemic, opposition to restrictions in Australia has brought together extremely disparate groups of protesters, all under the banner of “freedom”.

The underlying clash is between individual rights (with any restrictions seen as an end to freedom) and obligations to society – such as following public health orders.

Dutney says the pandemic is a “perfect petri dish” for fringe groups that are suspicious of authority and have a tendency towards apocalyptic thinking. Former US president Donald Trump fed this type of anti-authoritarian thinking, he says.

“Generally in Christian ethics the authorities would teach that people have an obligation to vaccinate … it’s a way of loving your neighbour,” he says.

“You do it not primarily for yourself, you do it for your community. That’s a well-established principle in Christian medical ethics.”

Besides, he says, there is no biblical argument for large church gatherings, quoting Jesus’s statement that he would be wherever “two or three” people gathered in his name.

Maddox also says the focus on resisting health authorities on vaccination decrees in the declaration was striking.

“There are so many other ways to think about [vaccination]… as love for your neighbour, for community. But they’ve interpreted it as though the only frame that matters is the frame about authority,” she says.

She says around the world Christian thinking that pits God’s law against human law is growing, with an increasing belief that human laws are persecuting the God-fearing.

Maddox says there is an increasing tendency for Australian Christians to see themselves as embattled.

The thinking goes that “if they’re coming for you, you must be doing Christianity right”, she says.

Religious persecution is not a myth, she says, and Christians are certainly persecuted, but “the idea that it’s happening in Australia to Christians is very, very peculiar. It’s the dominant religion in Australia.”

Costello says this type of resistance to authority appears to be driven from the US.

“There’s no question it stirs the libertarian instinct of believers who say this is the test – whether we’ll obey God or humans,” he says.

“I’d just say to them Christian faith was always communitarian, not individualistic. This individualism and libertarianism is quite foreign.”

The Ezekiel Declaration is “subtly undermining vaccination,” he wrote earlier this month, and hampering efforts to reach the targets that will allow restrictions to be eased.

“A significant minority has a veto over us reaching that point in the name of their religious liberty,” he says.

“And they torpedo the very thing they are demanding – namely, the liberty to open up.”


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