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New Zealand's model for public religion

  • 05 June 2019


After the response to the Christchurch murders many Australians have looked more attentively to New Zealand for wisdom. Some remark on the part that the Maori religious culture plays in public life. Public events include traditional Maori blessings, in which all are expected to join. The religious dimension, which is inescapably articulated in public life, demands that people are at home in both a secular and a religious culture and familiar with the symbols and languages appropriate to each.

This contrasts with Australia where the public culture is secular, enjoying its emancipation from an earlier time when Christian faith and morality were privileged and enshrined in law.

Central to the Australian relationship between religion and public culture is wariness of any attempt to proselytise or to impose religious beliefs and moral practices. Instead public and religious language are compartmentalised, and participation in religious ritual is optional. Any exceptions to this rule are controversial and reasons always need to be given to justify them. The virtue that is sought in the relationship between public and religious culture is tolerance. It is defended by fencing the boundaries that separate them.

This framework shapes the conduct of religiously based social agencies, almost all of which employ and serve people who do not share their faith. In their work they can appeal to the religious tradition that shapes their humane values. They may also expect the people who work in them to share the values which shape their work. But they may not demand that their staff ascribe to the faith that grounds these values.

In practice, when passing on the tradition and values that inform their work they will translate the faith and stories that underlie the values into a public language accessible to all the participants and workers in their projects. The virtues they seek in their members are a commitment to humane values and an openness to the religious tradition that underlies them, with which they are free to engage or disengage.

This way of working is effective as long as the values of the agency permeate the relationships between staff and with the people they serve, and are seen to flow from the tradition of the agency. At the heart of all values and relationships is the implicit conviction that each human being is precious and may not be used as means to someone's wider ends. This conviction, of course, will be grounded in many