Associate Professor Peter Lineham

Among the believers

Associate Professor Peter Lineham writes

In the space of less than a year religion has gone from being at the bottom of the social agenda to the top! It has been an astonishing rise. And all because of Brian Tamaki and the 'Enough is Enough' march, it seems.

We can give too much credit to Tamaki for this. The media loves to hate Tamaki, just because he is so black and white. It makes a colourful story! But ever since the Twin Towers, religion has been the centre of a great deal of controversy, and the recent United States election has confirmed this.

Mind you, the Destiny story is an interesting one, and I'm surprised that it took the media so long to discover it.

The most obvious aspect of the Destiny phenomenon is its place in the colourful and highly politicised world of fundamentalist Pentecostalism. Pentecostals are not a new group in New Zealand. Pentecostalism has been here since the 1920s, although from early on it was divided into three sectarian denominations. Only in the 1960s did a modern 'Charismatic' form emerge. As the mainstream Protestant churches declined, it became a form of Christianity with a powerful appeal to contemporary people, who wanted a faith which fitted modern lives. It is highly individualised and commodified, yet it is sufficiently counter-cultural to appeal to those who want to be Christians in a very secular society. It has more recently become slicker and more internationalised, using a formula of handsome pastor and glamorous pastor's wife controlling an enterprise, often based in a warehouse, and attracting younger people through loud music and simple exhortation. The Destiny churches are a split from the old Apostolic denomination, which emerged after a power vacuum in their old denomination. Splits and new movements are very common in the Protestant world.

But Destiny is in some ways very different from other Pentecostal churches. The latest Destiny stories have focused on its growing links with Ratana, its presence at Waitangi, its Legacy march down Queen Street and the title of bishop which its founder and leader, Brian Tamaki has taken. The explanation for the title of Bishop is relatively clear. Brian Tamaki has in recent years been deeply influenced by the African American religious tradition. He has spoken at the churches of the Baptist mega church leader, Eddie Long, and Eddie Long calls himself a bishop. Of course Tamaki has made himself ridiculous in the eyes of respectable middle class people who know that there is a little history behind such titles, but I don't suppose this will worry him or his followers.

The development of Destiny over the past few months has focused on political issues, with growing links with the Ratana Church cemented at Waitangi. We must recall that it is Ma-ori at heart, although not tribal Ma-ori. It trains people in Kapa haka (and performed them all too vehemently at Waitangi); it captures the hearts of many Ma-ori women, perhaps appealing particularly to detribalised Ma-ori. And it has a political agenda which places treaty issues high on the agenda.

It reminds me of the beginnings of Ratana in the 1920s. In those early days Ratana was a faith healing movement, and was roundly criticised for this by Pakeha medical practitioners. Its doctrinal views so upset the Church of England that all Ratana followers were excommunicated in 1926. Ratana reverenced their leader, and their appeal was principally to detribalised Ma-ori (the Morehu as they were called).

Why is the Destiny movement venturing into politics? One factor is its Fundamentalism. Pentecostals are in one sense very anti-traditional, but part of their appeal is a widespread fear of trends in modern life that undercut the family and traditional moral values. Since the early 1980s, when Pentecostals protested the adoption of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Pentecostals have expressed their noisy brash conviction that God has appointed them to save New Zealand, and they need to identify and attack their enemies. For Destiny the additional element is the way in which politics and religion have always walked hand in hand in Maoridom. New religious movements are common in the Ma-ori world, and they have always gone into politics, because their aim is to rescue the people as a whole.

So what does the future hold for this kind of religion? The Pentecostal strand is becoming more common in religion throughout western society. In some ways it is the form of Christianity which is most truly at home in post-modern society. The phenomenon is very apparent in Australia, where the Hillsong Church achieved some political influence. In some respects Australia is more conservative and less secular than New Zealand. The overall religious and social scene is generally more conservative than New Zealand, and politicians there are more inclined to use conservative rhetoric. John Howard has strongly opposed gay marriage and members of his cabinet have been very vocal on the Christian base for Australian society. But we should not assume that the future is secular. Conservatism is perfectly consistent with a very modern society. Within the United States there are strong conservative electoral and social forces evident in the Bush administration. Everywhere New Age spiritual movements are flourishing.

And I don't think Fundamentalism will go away in the new age. Maybe in very secular societies the alliance of fundamentalism and politics (whether Hindu, Islamic or Christian) is a response to its alienation. There clearly is some appeal in this religious style, with its blend of conservative morals, Black Power intimidation tactics and Pentecostal fervour.

The history of religion in New Zealand has been fairly anaemic in general, but there have been crises in times of national difficulty like World War I and the Depression Era. At such times extremist religions have gained ground over the normal New Zealand style of religion. For example the largest religious group in New Zealand, the Anglican Church seems effete, weak, nice but lacking influence at such times. Anglicanism with its establishment aura is not a particularly transformative or counter-cultural force.

And now we have a growing liberal political tradition which is intensely secular and liberal. The noisy sectarian minority is bound to grow louder.

Religion is in fact a perfect symbol of all the complex social and cultural issues of our society. Let me take you for a drive down Chapel Road in Flatbush in the South Eastern suburbs of Auckland. Here you will find a dramatic illustration of the profound changes in New Zealand religion, and how they reflect the changes in New Zealand society. Flatbush is a very new suburb, although Chapel Road has been there since the early days, and is named after the little Methodist Chapel half way down the road, which was erected in the 1880s as part of a circuit which also included four other churches in Papakura, Woodside and Mangere. They were farming valleys and preachers would retire to this circuit for a quiet end to their preaching days.

How different it is today! Flatbush has suddenly sprung up in the last five years as an overflow from the huge growth of new housing in the Howick area, primarily accommodating Asian people. The little chapel still stands, now a joint Anglican-Methodist church half way down the road that takes its name from it, but at the other end is the exotic Botany Downs shopping centre, a Truman-Show like phenomenon, looking like it has dropped as a unit from the sky, a whole plastic town centre modelled on traditional towns. The central focus of Chapel Road is the enormous, almost completed Buddhist Temple. On the other side of the road is a new co-educational Catholic School, reflecting a huge boom in Catholic education and in baptisms into the Catholic Church by Asians concerned at the violent tone of New Zealand. Other sites down the road have been purchased by Baptist churches, and doubtless the fine facilities of the new secular high school are rented out to a Pentecostal Church group on Sundays. It is boom time in Flat Bush and religion is booming there as well, but not in the little chapel. There is a plan for Anglicans and Methodists to build a big new church, but they are struggling to find the money. Meanwhile the Presbyterians have made a separate move. Their old Pakuranga congregation, famous for its evangelical and conservative tradition, has rebuilt just around the corner from Chapel Street and have attracted a large congregation including many Asian people with a formula that has something of the Pentecostal flavour mixed in.

Let there be no doubt, there are some deep tensions running through New Zealand society, troubles underneath the optimism, and fundamentally they are cultural differences. Culture and religion walk hand in hand. The issues facing us today involve a deep debate over values. We should never be confident that we know which side will win.

 

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