Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Is New Zealand a Christian country?

  • 13 June 2007

The last three days of May saw an international gathering of different religions at Waitangi, a New Zealand holy place if ever there was one. Representatives of the Maori tribes covenanted there with the British Queen in 1840, acknowledging her sovereignty in exchange for recognition of their rights, including that to land.

Its call for more religious education in schools to increase understanding of other faiths has gained widespread support here. A group of Destiny Church members, however, some 2000 in number, protested loudly against any questioning of New Zealand’s status as a Christian country. Destiny Church is a Pentecostalist group with support especially among urban Maori.

Simultaneously the Speaker of the House has circulated a questionnaire to members of the House of Representatives, asking for their views on the continuance of the opening prayers for Parliament, which have a Christian content. Like Australia, New Zealand has low church attendances and considerable hostility to the churches, especially amongst intellectuals and the media. Yet this is balanced by an upturn in interest in spirituality, and recognition of the importance of faith for newer immigrants, not least the Pacific Islanders, but also for the small Islamic population. Distinctive to New Zealand, too, is the growing role of Maori prayers and rituals in important civic and national events, although their content and language are largely Christian.

The question of whether New Zealand should see itself as a Christian country has bubbled up in an unexpected way. The word ‘Christian’ itself has become almost unusable, associated in the public mind with fundamentalist bookshops and the like, or with short lived political parties which tout moralistic codes, and then shoot themselves in the foot when their leaders scandalously flout them. So-called ‘Christian schools’ have recently been at the forefront of resistance to a sensible piece of legislation, now thankfully passed with support from the major parties, which removed the defence of the use of reasonable force in child assault cases.

The bigger issue, however, is the whole idea of a Christian society. In New Zealand, a campaign for Christian Order, as it was called, was launched shortly after the Second World War, and despite considerable church expansion at the time it never even looked like catching on. I vividly remember an ardent Labour Party supporter in Scotland, and a Christian, : "Our role in politics is to humanise society, not Christianise it". Frank Brennan’s Acting on Conscience doesn’t