Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The fear factor for politicians

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When I was about 13 years of age I was a choirboy - cassock, surplice, boy soprano et al. It was quite a commitment. Choir practice was on Tuesday and Thursday evenings; attendance at church was at 10 am on Sunday for Holy Communion and then again at 7 pm for Evensong. The venue was the St Matthews Anglican church in Masterton’s aptly named Church Street and the pews were pretty much fully occupied for both services.

I’m not sure what brought on this burst of piety which only lasted a year or two and probably ended when my voice broke and hormonal temptations in keeping with that experience made other options more appealing. Whatever, I have never regretted the episode as it seemed to herald the possibility of an extraordinary life. Tabloid newspaper headlines of the day would regularly scream: “One time choirboy now feared gangland boss,” or: “United Kingdom’s biggest brothel proprietor an ex-choirboy,” or even: “Wealthy playboy started out life as godly choirboy,” though it’s possible I dreamed up that last one.

Moving on; in his beautifully crafted autobiography, My Life, David Lange reckoned the Methodist church was the Labour party at prayer and in Britain it is claimed that the Church of England is the Tory party at worship. I’m not convinced that these categorisations were ever really applicable, though while I was hitting the high notes at St Matthews the Methodists were congregating literally just down the road and certainly one of their clergy, the Reverend Russell Marshall, became a minister of the crown in Lange’s fourth Labour government.

A totally unsurprising aspect of New Zealand’s recent general election was that religion seemed not to be a feature of the major parties ideological utterances, campaign leaflets or television advertisements.

This is undoubtedly an outcome of an oft-quoted but slightly skewed slogan that religion and politics don’t mix. Colin Craig’s Conservatives were about as close as we got to having a Christian-based party to opt for and although Craig himself reckoned he was not a regular church-goer, his local representative, Brent Reid, was more than happy to proclaim his Christian credentials.

But like it or not, politics and religion are inextricably linked.

Religion is taken seriously and practised regularly by more than a quarter of all New Zealanders and attracts more players than rugby, yet our mainstream politicians seem to believe that its dictums ought not be seen nor heard in the halls or on the hoardings.

The religious traditions that affect and mould our lives were conspicuous by their absence in the speeches and debates that our political masters and aspirants espoused, presumably at the behest of their campaign strategists.

And yet there are whole rafts of moral issues that are of direct concern for people of a religious persuasion. Among these are taxation laws, holiday trading hours, subsidies for schools, care for the elderly and the woefully underfunded district health boards.

There was a time of course when the church and government were virtually interchangeable. The first schools and hospitals were church initiatives as was social security. The great universities - Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, Yale and Harvard were established by the church and history shows that nations rose and fell according to their belief in the Bible.

Politicians who are agnostics and atheists could scarcely argue that Christianity is the essential foundation of Western civilisation. Most Western art, much Western literature and a good chunk of Western philosophy becomes fairly incomprehensible without at least some acquaintance with the old and new testaments.

However, perhaps as a direct result of their Christian-inspired good natures, New Zealander’s have also been pretty receptive to other religious influences. Mosques now dot our landscape and the diversity that they bring is largely welcomed. Even the Maori renaissance, with its gods and taniwhas, totally contradicting the good news the early missionaries implanted, is given more than a modicum of tolerance.

Unfortunately when the cardinal links between our religious tradition and political progress that are pivotal to this country’s understanding of itself are ignored, the human story that fused them together remains untold and leaves the field wide open for extremists to set the agenda. The end result is the worst kind of tyranny, directed by opportunistic charismatic leaders who claim with frightening audacity that God speaks to them exclusively.

The inevitable outcome is that the positive part of what faith has to offer a community and a country is totally misunderstood and to some extent ridiculed.

Canny politicians, sensing the confusion, sidestep the issues altogether and the vacuum remains.

From my limited observations it would seem that church congregations today are predominantly female. As in so many institutions the male members of the species seem to have abdicated their role to seek other more pleasurable pursuits.

Perhaps their voices broke.

“When a man talks loudly against religion, - always suspect that it is not his reason, but his passions which have got the better of his creed.” - Laurence Sterne


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