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NZ religious politics turn green and red

By Paul Titus

New Zealand politics tends to be a secular realm. Conservative Christian political parties have made little impact, and the other parties mostly ignore religion.

This has started to change. Two of the larger parties now acknowledge and accommodate the spiritual views of their members and the public.

In the past year religious-minded members of the Green and Labour Parties have independently formed networks through which they can share their ideas and promote dialogue.

Christchurch Green Party activists David Hill and Margaret Glover began SpiritGreens at the end of 2008. David is a Methodist lay preacher and Margaret is a Quaker. Their initiative began as an email list for party members interested in spiritual matters. It quickly expanded and is now an official interest group in the party with local groups across the country.

Glenn Livingstone Margaret Glover David Hill

"We have about 100 members on the email list, which is about two percent of party members," David says.

"The network embraces people who hold to any faith. We are non-judgemental and open to anyone on a spiritual path or seeking one.

"Among our members are Catholics and mainline Protestants, including a number of ministers. We also have followers of Celtic Christianity, Evangelical Christians, Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans."

David and Margaret say the SpiritGreens are not out to recruit Church people for the Green Party, though they do want to encourage churches to get involved in environmental and social justice issues.

SpiritGreen discussions focus on breaking down prejudices, and the relationship between spirituality and politics.

"Political parties tend to be suspicious toward religion. SpiritGreens provides a place where people can talk about their faith in ways they are not able to elsewhere," Margaret says.

"I think we have already changed the Green Party. No one realised how many people of faith there were in the party or the diversity of beliefs Greens hold. We are breaking down the stereotype that Christians are all rightwing and anti-Green."

Margaret says the SpiritGreens are mostly a happy, optimistic bunch and their spirituality gives them a certain strength.

"The ramifications of what we are doing to the planet are very serious. Climate change could lead to water shortages around the world and war over resources. But we are not all doom and gloom. We are people of faith and that stops us from slipping into despair."

As a network, the SpiritGreens have the right to propose policies that are put before the full party. Other networks within the Green Party include the the Young Greens, Te Roopu Pounamu for Maori, and Rainbow Greens for gays and lesbians.

The SpiritGreens have held public meetings, including a fundraiser for Christian World Service. More are planned and David has started Friends of SpiritGreens for those who would like to know about events but are not Green Party members.

Labour Interfaith is the religious network in the Labour Party. It was initiated by Labour Party member Rev Glenn Livingstone, a Christchurch Presbyterian minister.

Labour Inter-faith is registered as a branch of the Labour Party. It was formed in July and ratified as a branch at the end of last year.

It has a membership of about 30 people. They include Christians from a range of denominations and theologies, as well as several Muslims.

Glenn says Labour Inter-Faith is an initiative to come to terms with the diversity of New Zealand in the 21st century. Whereas Christian socialism once played an important role in the Labour Party, New Zealand is now home to people of various faiths.

"By virtue of its existence, Labour Inter-Faith is of the religious left. The religious left is more open to dialogue between the faiths than the right, so we are more able to develop a progressive path toward peace and justice issues.

"The growth of the Christian right-wing in New Zealand needs to be challenged by a progressive religious left," Glenn says.

Labour Inter-faith initially took the name Christian Left but this was seen as too exclusive.

Several members of the network are from the Pacific Island community in Mangere and they support its multi-religious approach.

"Helen Clark acknowledged the need to develop the religious left in New Zealand and she initiated the Inter-Faith councils that have been set up in many cities. She also said that New Zealand is a secular country. This was interpreted by many New Zealanders to mean the Labour Party is not a party of faith.

"In my experience that is not the whole story. I met lots of people at the party’s last national conference who are very supportive of our initiative to give people of faith a voice."

Mana MP Winnie Laban is Labour’s spokesperson for Interfaith Dialogue and she is a member of Labour Inter-Faith. Another former cabinet member also belongs.

Glenn says Labour Inter-Faith is currently creating a charter. The group will focus on social justice and environmental concerns through dialogue with people of different faiths.

The National Party currently has no religious subgroup.