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March 25, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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God of Nations: At Our Feet?

religion! It’s a tricky thing sometimes, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to politics. despite trends in the other direction, religious people in New Zealand are numerous enough to make excluding their beliefs from politics entirely an absurd suggestion. The separation of church and state makes absolute sense—expecting people to leave their faith out of the political equation, however, is absurd. how, then, do the two interact today?

For the past few decades, the number of New Zealanders who consider themselves irreligious has increased remarkably. In this year’s census, the number of Christian respondents is predicted to drop below 50 per cent for the first time since the figures have been collected. It might not happen, but that’s hardly the important thing. In the2006 census, the number of respondents who declared themselves as having no religion stood at 34.7 per cent, having risen from 29 per cent in 2001. The 2011 census was cancelled due to the Christchurch earthquake, which could mean that those figures could leap more dramatically this time around. But, while Christianity is in no way the defining characteristic of contemporary New Zealand, it is still an important part of our past and, indeed, our present. The set of moral laws and other social guidelines that we are encouraged to follow in our daily lives owes much to Protestant values, which in turn owes much to a hundred other things. That’s the way history works.

Religion is a distasteful thing to quite a few people, especially in a country where religion’s claim to mainstream relevance is increasingly less tenable (although still very robust). When it’s brought into politics, those people tend to get very upset. Louisa Walls Marriage (definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, an emotive subject for many of the religious for a variety of reasons, passed its second reading recently, and several MPs either voted against it or abstained on religious grounds. Religion and politics are the uneasiest of marriages, and in many countries, they are divorced more or less entirely. In others they are inseparable. Most Western countries have long since cleaved the two apart and New Zealand is part of that tradition. That said, in many ways a religious conviction is not terribly different from an ideological one and occasionally the two rub up on each other.

Although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, what has been surprising about New Zealand’s journey towards gay marriage so far has been how polite and  sensibly conducted the political debate has been.

Mostly. This is a far cry from the dogmaticwailing that was a feature of the debate around the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill. The scenes that were seen then are the sort that we imagine these days might happen on the streets of Tehran or Kampala, not Wellington. MP Norman Jones, who admittedly was something of an eccentric, advised a crowd that it would not be advisable to “gaze upon them [homosexuals]… you’re looking into Hades… don’t look too long—you might catch AIDS”, and although that sounds dreadfully exciting, it should not be taken as accurate medical advice (one hopes).

Christian parties have in the past tried to have a go at mainstream politics, with limited success. When the Destiny Church, for instance, announced that they were planning a foray into politics, and that Brian Tamaki was entirely confident that they would rule New Zealand by 2008, the responses ranged from either polite giggles or outright mockery. These days, direct religious participation in the legislative process is often kept to the fringes, or from members of more mainstream parties.

How, then, do those politicians, many of whom are devout Christians, manage the miasma of negativity that surrounds certain elements of their faith? MP for Whanganui, Chester Borrows, said in his speech at the Marriage Equality vote that he was disheartened by some of the submissions received from the religious community. “I would call myself a committed and conservative Christian and… I become very concerned when others that carry the same label speak out in what I think are very harsh ways that don’t reflect the Christian faith. Obviously not all Christians view their faith in the same way… or express it in the same way so we aren’t always going to have the same views… our Christian faith calls us to exhibit an… unconditional love. when I see hatred and vitriol expressed as part of someone’s expression of their Christian faith, I find that abhorrent.”

Borrows is a practising Presbyterian and a lay preacher in his local community. Does he ever feel a tension with his role as an MP? “Well, I do manage the way I speak about my own faith because Christians get a lot of bad press. If you look at the way that some leading politicians have expressed their Christian faith and… how they might apply it to their work as a politician they’ve been absolutely castigated by the media, and ridiculed by the media. And so I’m very careful about drawing fire from the media because of that faith.”

Tim Macindoe, MP for Hamilton West, who voted against the Marriage Equality Bill because of his religious convictions, feels similarly: “I’d rather be voted out for having a values base and the courage of my convictions than be re-elected many times by always trying to read which way the wind is blowing.” He also points out that “Christians don’t all think alike, and I don’t pretend for one moment to be a Biblical scholar or a model for others to follow.”

While religion might be on the slide, should that have any bearing on the way elected officials behave? Do we ask of all our elected officials that they abandon their faith upon taking office? Borrows offers that “…a person who is genuinely a Christian can’t then divorce themselves from their faith in respect of their work, so if you’re a plumber, a drainlayer, a taxi driver, a policeman, a lawyer or a politician, should their faith impact on their job? Yes it should.”

While that is a sensible way of considering the matter, the duties of an elected representative should be first and foremost to those constituents who put them in power. Is an MP who regards their religion as something to be conferred with when making decisions bound to that rather than to the people they serve? Borrows doesn’t think so. “I think that all MPs applying themselves to the question under consideration have a duty to be who they are. If that MP happens to have a faith, no matter what that religion might be, or happens to be agnostic, or happens to be an atheist, then they should apply themselves as who they are. In my case, I am a man of faith… I think my duty as a Member of Parliament is to say ‘this is who I am’. someone who is considering me as a candidate in the Whanganui seat, or is considering me as a candidate in the National Party should know who I am.” And who is he? “It’s no secret that I am an ex-policeman, an ex-lawyer, a father of three kids, I live in the electorate, I enjoy the outdoors, I’m a regular church attender and I’m a lay preacher.” with that in mind, “they should get some sort of some sort of perspective on how I will be voting on issues not terribly different from that will come before me. If they want an MP who is never going to apply their own faith or beliefs to conscience issues which come before them, they should vote for someone else.” Borrows adds that, with that in mind, MPs should be consistent and predictable, and that their performance as a representative should reflect the person who campaigned for votes—“having expressed a faith, if I didn’t stack up as a Christian, I wouldn’t stack up as an MP.” however rigid, there is something to that logic.

Macindoe, who received a wide range of ‘colourful’ responses to his decision at the vote, understands that disagreement is part of the game and was “glad we don’t all think alike and that people are following the issues and are free to express their views,” and that “I just try to ensure that I search my faith and my conscience when I have to consider some of the more personal issues that MPs have to consider.”

The rub for some people is probably that this mind-set sounds a little inflexible – as if an individual’s autonomy is robbed by adherence to religious teaching. If New Zealand is increasingly irreligious then surely giving religious belief as a reason for a political decision isn’t as valid as it was 50 years ago? This isn’t necessarily the point. As Macindoe puts it, “I have no difficulty seeing good in my opponents or merit in their arguments even though I sometimes strongly disagree with them. After all, one day I might decide they were right and I was wrong!” In other words, we vote for people, and it might be a bit disingenuous to be horrified when they, you know, turn out to actually be people. Then again, if we stick to the issue of Marriage Equality, there is something about these arguments that is infinitely unsatisfying for those on the other side of the divide, and it is hard to imagine it ever being otherwise. When does religion become so inflexible that it prevents process? It’s rather hard to say, and in another ten years this might be an altogether different discussion.

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