Reflections on the Path of Religion-State Relations in New Zealand

By Ahdar, Rex J. | Brigham Young University Law Review, May 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Path of Religion-State Relations in New Zealand


Ahdar, Rex J., Brigham Young University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Recently, religious controversy has caught most New Zealanders rather unprepared. New Zealand earned the ire of some Islamic nations when two of its major city newspapers reprinted the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.1 That was followed by an outcry over the screening of an episode of South Park, the American satirical television cartoon show, which showed a statue of the Virgin Mary menstruating.2 The Prime Minister, Helen Clark, denounced the screening of the episode as "quite revolting."3 She insisted, "I think the critical thing is we show respect for other people's beliefs."4

In New Zealand, public consternation and debate over religious matters is unusual, for religion seldom appears to occupy a prominent place in the lives of most of its citizens. In one sense, this may be viewed as a positive thing; for New Zealand, by and large, has not witnessed the large-scale and bitter religious turmoil that has beset many nations. This is, of course, a broad generalization, and it would be remiss to ignore, for example, the spasms of fierce sectarian feuding between the transplanted Protestant and Catholic communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that punctuated this seemingly serene religious landscape.5 Furthermore, various emergent public expressions of religiosity by the indigenous people (the Maori) have been vigorously and swiftly suppressed by the state.6 Nonetheless, the general picture, I suggest, is one of comparative tranquility; at least in comparative global terms. As professor John Stenhouse notes, "what is striking about New Zealand's past is not that bigotry existed but that it so seldom erupted into violence. By world standards, New Zealanders handled their religious differences remarkably well."7 The explanations for this fortunate turn of events are undoubtedly diverse and complex. It may be that the comparative absence of religious tension, violence, and rancor is simply due to New Zealand's relatively short history as a modern nation state.

Perhaps the comparative calm reflects a somewhat benign indifference and coolness toward organized religion in general by sizeable segments of the population. Certainly, that has been the predominant view of many New Zealand historians who, guided by implicit assumptions of the steady march of secularization, depicted religion slowly receding into irrelevance.8 As Sir Keith Sinclair-perhaps the leading post-World War II New Zealand historian-dryly observed, "The prevailing religion is a simple materialism. The pursuit of wealth and possessions fills more minds than thoughts of salvation."9 Similarly, sociologist Michael Hill stated that

[d]espite some early attempts to transplant various Christian denominations to New Zealand on a regional basis-the Church of England in Canterbury, the Free Church of Scotland in Otago, vestiges of which can still be found in regional patterns of religious adherence-no denomination managed to establish claims to monopoly, and from the mid-nineteenth century there was an acceptance of pluralism and a secular stance on the part of the state. . . . While a majority of the population adopted some form of denominational label, nominalism was evident in the considerably lower proportions who engaged in regular religious activity.10

However, this received historical view of religion may well be misleading. The downplaying of the importance of religion in ordinary New Zealanders' lives, and in the shaping of society, may owe much to a prior commitment by scholars to see the nation forge an enlightened, secular, left-liberal path.11 This Article briefly traverses the evolution of religion-state relations in New Zealand.

Part II will summarize roughly the first century of this evolution. This Article argues that the de jure stance of non-establishment, religious equality, and pragmatic secularism was also marked by a de facto or cultural establishment of a generic, yet heavily Protestantinfluenced, Christianity. …

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