When The Brethren Stray

New Zealand' Brush With The Religious Right

We don’t get too many opportunities to appear on radio or television in New Zealand, but Pat Robertson’s now notorious comments suggesting that the United States “take out” the president of Venezuela led to a flurry of international interest, including in Kiwi country.

I was particularly eager to accept an invitation to be a guest on New Zealand’s version of public radio because I was scheduled to go on a vacation there about a week later. Host Sean Plunket treated the subject seriously because, sadly, Robert­son does represent for many around the world both modern Chris­tianity and the moral leadership of the United States. Plunket was what I’d call a knowledgeably aggressive interviewer and concluded his questioning by asking, “What does it feel like to be an American today?” My response was brief: “Embar­rassed.”

Having now returned from the South Pacific, I can say that New Zealand appears to be just about as deeply politically divided as the United States. The national election was held the last full day we were visiting and it appeared that the more liberal parties had garnered just about 51 percent of the seats in parliament.

What is also interesting is that religious influence on politics seems to be growing there, reflecting some of the same unhealthy tendencies of the United States. Imagine my surprise one morning to see the following headline in the The Dominion Post, the major paper in the capital of Wellington: “WE’RE DOING GOD’S WORK: Christian Sect Tells of Role in Smears Against Labour and the Greens.”

The story was disturbingly familiar. Religion and politics were mixed in a partisan political campaign, with misinformation being spread about progressive politicians. Could Jerry Falwell have relocated? As it turns out, the aforementioned “sect” is called the Exclusive Brethren, and seven of its top leaders had formed a front group that paid for $500,000 worth of fliers claiming that the current government was responsible for radical moral decline, including support for “euthanasia” and laws that would put pastors “in prison for reading the Bible.”

These sounded remarkably like echoes of our Religious Right’s claims about the Terri Schiavo case and some of U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones’ fantasies about the effect of tax laws on moral arguments in the pulpit.

Ironically, members of the Exclusive Brethren urge their adherents not to vote at all, so their advertising efforts were designed to influence on-the-fence voters. The reaction this intervention garnered was quick and almost completely negative even though there was apparently nothing illegal about the pamphleteering. (Allegations were raised that the party benefiting, the more conservative National Party, had encouraged the action, but this remains unproven.)

One local columnist pointed out that since some of the group’s members had indicated their belief that God had already decided to remove the incumbent Labour Party from power, it seemed a little superfluous to spend so much money working to defeat it. (Again, I heard those echoes, as when Pat Robertson told television viewers in early 2004 that God had told him that Bush would be re-elected in “a blowout” but still managed to encourage the distribution of vast quantities of “voter guides” through the Christian Coalition he had created.)

My wife Joanne and I did a lot of driving on this trip (on what has been referred to by some as “the wrong side of the road”), and as we moved literally from glacial fields to beaches on the same day, we also listened to the radio quite a bit. We had a chance to listen to the last party debate one afternoon, this one focusing on education. Seven parties with seven approaches to reform of public education took part, and yes several of them supported tuition tax breaks for private schools and government support for faith-based childcare. Where have we heard that before?

While I was over there, the New Zealand papers didn’t carry too much news on the U.S. legal front. It took me a full day to verify that Chief Justice William Rehnquist had died after hearing a local resident say she thought she had heard it on the radio. The press was uniformly hostile to President George W. Bush’s seemingly cavalier initial reaction to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. It did carry the story, almost as a curiosity, that Bush had declared a national day of prayer for the victims. But, as I indicated, the local election activity reminded me of my daily activities at AU enough that I didn’t risk forgetting what I do for a living.

AU staffers kept me up to date about the Roberts nomination battle via e-mail. I was happy to learn that Americans United’s Board President Paul Simmons did a superb job of speaking on our behalf during a press conference of civil rights and other groups opposing Roberts’ nomination and that several Judiciary Committee members grilled Roberts with some vigor over his position on the separation of church and state (even though, as expected, his answers were fashionably opaque in most cases).

And, just to come full circle, the fellow from public radio who interviewed me before my departure himself made news a few days after we got there. Plunket was apparently too pointed in his questioning of a Green Party official and later had heated words with his news director over the affair. Plunket ended up being suspended for a few days.

I guess controversy follows me wherever I go. In any case, I’m glad to be back and am looking forward to leaping into the fray again.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.