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Is New Zealand a Christian country?

A Christian country?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 explicitly take up this issue, but would probably be in broad agreement with that approach. We take a secular framework for granted and operate within it.

The ambiguities and indeed shameful aspects of Christendom, after all, sit near the top of our consciousness. Our whole ecclesiology, we sense, must start elsewhere. We look uneasily at the alliance of the neocons and theocons in the States, and their denunciation of the ‘Naked Public Square’, as argued by Novak, Neuhaus, Weigel, Carl Henry, and others: conservative Catholics and Protestants passionately advocating a crusade mentality in foreign policy, and a rationalistic moral absolutism at home. The fruits of this, to mix a metaphor, are coming home to roost with a vengeance.

A Christian Country?But is the only response to such theocratic recipes to beat a retreat to the periphery? Must any radical Christian stance assume these days that the circumambient culture is a hostile or indifferent one, and that our mission is to offer, as cogently as possible, our contribution for public debate in the secular sphere, as one among many. It does seem a realistic and more modest approach.

Should the dream of a Christian society to be jettisoned? If (and it’s a big ‘if’, I know) we can no longer be seen as the bastion of ‘traditional’ values; if we are now sailing under a future-oriented flag, sniffing around again at the apocalyptic rootage of our faith; if there is something to what even Marxist philosophers are saying about the uniquely universalist flair of a St Paul, then doesn’t the niche we’re settling into look just a shade too comfortable?

Can Christianity really work within this sort of self-limiting ordinance? If we really believe in truth and justice and peace as transcendental values, won’t we want them applied to civic and national programs for the care of the young and the aged, to our education and foreign policy et al. Don’t we need to offer a comprehensive alternative to the almighty, omniscient, all-gracious market?

Sure, our dyspeptic eyes have seen far too much Christian imperialism. Thank God our pride has taken such a tumble. On a day-to-day basis it’s infinitely refreshing to work and live alongside folk of other faiths and none. And if a secular society means an open, pluralist one, then three cheers for that! But, faced, with the heartbreak of our world, a faith confined to the realm of private piety just won’t hack it.

Playing again, from a radical perspective, with what a Christian society might look like could spurn us into really rethinking our priorities, and tackling the ongoing disgrace of our current disunity. Itself, perhaps, a justification for some counter-intuitive thinking.



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