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Labour Party to resurrect Christian politics?

By Julia Stuart

“The Methodist Church has a glorious record of political involvement in this country, and has every reason to be proud of it,” says head of Victoria University’s Religious Studies Department Dr Paul Morris. “I would hope that the Methodist Church continues its well-developed liberal political tradition into the future.”

Paul gave a workshop on religion and politics at last year’s Labour Party conference that was widely reported in the media. Jewish himself and a keen observer of the church and political landscape in New Zealand, Paul says the 1935 Labour Party manifesto was full of references to the Christian church.

It boasted of having seven clergy standing in the 1935 general election, which Labour won in a landslide. Present-day Labour could usefully resurrect the first Labour Government’s slogan that its programme was applied Christianity, he says.

Labour’s response to his conference workshop was remarkable. Demand was such that he had to run it twice, there were about a 100 people at each session, and both had to be ended well before discussion had run its course.

What was so challenging about his content? “I was asked to talk on the Exclusive Brethren specifically and the Religious Right generally, about whether either was a threat to Labour politically,” he says. And his answer? ‘I think the Exclusive Brethren have run their political course here, and they didn’t perform well.

“The other conservative churches, however, are hostile to Labour. Along with allies like the Maxim Institute and Vision New Zealand, they seek ‘regime change’ Their post-millenarian theology aligns with their politics here, as in the USA and Australia. They believe that Jesus will return only when Christians control political power.”

His visit to Ted Haggart’s New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a centre of evangelical Christian power, made this clear, Paul says.

“New Life teaches three levels of authority: the personal, the pastoral, and the authority of Christian government. This third level prepares the world for the coming of Christ and the rapture of the saved. Such teaching has led Christians out of their churches and into local, state and federal politics in the USA.

“Right-wing Christian lobbies in Washington are both Christians and extreme free marketers. They identify the Christian moral agenda with the case for market reforms – a single law for all, lowering taxes, personal responsibility. ‘Leave it to God’ and cutting welfare can be extremely close.

“This grafts on to the prosperity gospel where material wealth and success is seen as reflecting God’s blessing.”

In New Zealand, the recently-departed leader of the National Party Don Brash courted the right-wing Christian vote and was embraced by them as the moral, ‘values’ candidate. Paul sees the rise of lobbying organizations such as Maxim and Vision Network as coming close to the USA model.

“At the Christian Leadership Conference [sponsored by Vision NZ] before the 2005 New Zealand General Election, I was disturbed to find extensive US links and a version of US post-millenarianism developing here.

“They were very clear which party served their moral purposes and shared a view about the moral decline of our nation.”

One thing that disturbs Paul Morris is the widespread public and media perception that to be ‘Christian’ means having conservative, right-wing political views. He believes that the Labour Party – at least in 1935 – is closer to the Gospel than the parties of the right.

“People attending the evangelical and Pentecostal churches tell me that ‘moral’ issues – abortion, homosexuality – are constantly topics for preaching,” he says. “Yet the Bible has just eight references to homosexuality (four of them repetitions) and over 500 verses about justice for the poor and relief of poverty.

“Poverty is the second most dominant theme in the Bible, after idolatry. The Old Testament prophets were obsessed with social justice and public morality – what we would call now economic justice. In the whole New Testament one in 16 verses is about the poor or about money, and the proportion is even higher in the Gospels.

“Yet the Left has allowed the right to claim the moral high ground and make an exclusive claim on virtue and values. The right insists that their way is God’s way and endorses it across the land every Sunday, while the left insists on a total separation of religion from politics.”

This was reflected in the New Zealand Labour party members’ response to his workshops. Speaker after speaker proclaimed their Christian faith, but many said they felt obliged to conceal it in Labour circles. Some said it was a relief to be able to acknowledge their faith.

All this may be about to change, however, Paul says Labour intends to set up a church liaison unit and a web page to build relationships with Christian churches and individuals, an initiative confirmed by Labour Party president Mike Williams. Watch this space for any major developments or keep an eye on