Sunday, April 8, 2012

Whatever happened to the Church of The Left?

Anthony Hubbard makes a striking claim in his Sunday Start-Times column on 8 April 2012. He says that "It's the God of the far Right that causes the trouble, and it is striking that Christian politics is so often of the Right."

That's a sentiment with which I find it difficult to disagree.

But it does raise an interesting question: Has it always been thus, at least in New Zealand?

And the answer has to be: No, it hasn't. And in fact one could argue that this phenomenon is only a relatively recent one.

You see New Zealand has quite a history of what in the nineteenth century was called 'muscular Christianity'. And if it didn't always have what could be called a liberal or left-leaning viewpoint, it was at least concerened with social action and social justice or progress.

To illustrate. Some of the earliest 'social welfare' legislation passed by the Liberal Government of the 1890s, was inspired by the preaching and social evangelism of Rev Rutherford Waddell, a Presbyterian Minister in Dunedin. He spoke out, famously, about the evils of 'sweated labour' - of the exploitation of workers, in other words.

Many of the middle-class Temperance campaigners from the same era were members of the Women's CHRISTIAN Temperance Movement, who sought to curb the sale of alcohol because of it's pernicious effects on the lives of women and children, especially in the working classes.

This same late-nineteenth century period also saw the rise in New Zealand of the Salvation Army with it's social action programmes.

These campaigners, and others like them weren't just outsiders, agitating for change. Their views were often echoed by, or inspired, the emerging 'party political' activist class which developed in the early twentieth century.

The Methodist Church's own website says"
"Some working-class Methodists sought to pursue the lessons of their faith through political action. The Methodist enthusiasm for egalitarianism, and for protecting the needy, found a voice in left-wing politics. Methodist missionary Colin Scrimgeour, known as Uncle Scrim, hosted ‘The friendly road’, a popular but controversial religious radio programme in the 1930s. In it he criticised the government and urged support for the Labour Party on humanitarian grounds."

There was a strong Christian presence in some of the union movement, and a number of prominent early Labour politicans had an explicit background in Christian organisations or affiliations. Michael Joseph Savage, Harry Holland, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, and Arnold Nordmeyer all had clear ties to various churches. A number of Labour politicians were Conscientious Objectors during World War One.

Norman Kirk and then David Lange were later politicians whose political views were deeply informed by their religious upbringing and background.

So what's happened? The overwhelming impression presented by the Christian churches of the late twentieth- and early twent-first centuries is of, on the one hand, a focus on individual salvation, and, on the other, a wish to impose a narrow set of beliefs as the underpinning of social policy. Missing are the champions of social justice, a wish to reduce or reverse social inequality, and undo the perniciousness of modern social alienation and anomie.

It's hard to avoid noting the parallel with the decline or reduction in influence of the traditional 'British' segment of our society and the gradual 'Americanisation' of our society and especially economy. The replacement of the traditional mainstream Churches (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbytarian) with the newer, pentecostal-orentated churches like Arise and Destiny with their mimicry of US 'tele-vangelists' and contrived audience hysteria.

You wonder if Christ is spinning on his Cross.

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