(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 7.)
The census figures say it all, really.
Since 1991, the number of New Zealanders describing themselves as Christian has tracked consistently and quite sharply downwards, from nearly 70 percent to 48 percent.
There has been a corresponding upward trend in the number claiming no religious belief – up to 42 percent in 2013, the most recent census year.
If this pattern continues, it would be no surprise if the 2018 census showed non-believers outnumbering Christians in New Zealand, confirming our status as one of the world’s most secular countries.
As a point of comparison, 83 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christian in a poll last year and only 13 percent said they had no religion. In Australia the figures are 52 percent (Christian) and 30 percent (non-believers).
Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of New Zealand residents adhering to other religious beliefs besides Christianity – notably Hindus (whose numbers doubled between 2001 and 2013), Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.
This is the consequence of a radical change in immigration policy dating from 1987, when the Lange government shifted from a system that gave preference to applicants from Britain, Europe and North America to one that was essentially skills-based. This opened the door to migrants of diverse ethnicities and religions from Asia and other parts of the Third World.
In the light of all this, it was unsurprising that Trevor Mallard, who became parliamentary Speaker following the change of government, decided that the explicitly Christian prayer which opens proceedings when Parliament is sitting was overdue for a rewrite.
When Parliament resumed after the 2017 election, reference to Jesus Christ and the Queen had been deleted. Mallard apparently made this decision unilaterally, short-circuiting what was expected to be a consultation process.
It seemed high-handed but it was consistent with his style. And he was within his rights, since the Speaker is the boss in Parliament in much the same way as judges decide how their courts are run. It may seem paradoxical, but Parliament is not an institution run on strictly democratic lines.
After the summer recess, however, Mallard back-pedalled. When Parliament resumed last week it was with a compromise version of the prayer. The Queen had been reinstated – as she should be, given that she’s our head of state. But of Jesus Christ, there was no mention. And just to rub salt into the wounds of traditionalists, Mallard recited the prayer in Maori.
Setting aside the question of whether he should have consulted before barging ahead in the first place, the muted public reaction to the change suggests that most New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about it.
That’s not surprising, given that fewer than half the population now profess to be Christian. I suspect that if the census drilled down a bit further and asked respondents whether they solemnly believed that Jesus Christ was truly the son of God, which is what defines a Christian, they might be even fewer in number.
Many people who think of themselves as Christian use the term in a much looser sense, denoting someone who tries to live according to Christian values. Such people are unlikely to take great offence at Christ no longer being mentioned in the parliamentary prayer, the wording of which was clumsy and archaic and thus due for revision regardless of religious feelings.
Those who believe in the existence of a supreme being will be consoled that the prayer still acknowledges “almighty God”, although in such a way that adherents of other religious beliefs besides Christians can feel it refers to their God too.
Naturally, not everyone is happy with this compromise. The TV news showed a rally at Parliament protesting at the change. The ecstatic singing, the blissful facial expressions and the waving of arms toward the heavens suggested this was an evangelistic fringe of New Zealand Christianity rather than the mainstream.
If I understood him correctly, the protesters’ leader argued that our system of government largely derives from Judeo-Christian principles and that Parliament should therefore acknowledge and honour Christ as embodying and inspiring those principles.
It’s a legitimate argument but it only goes so far, because modern democracy requires that we acknowledge and respect other religious beliefs.
Some devout Christians struggle with this idea, because their faith in Christ is absolute and allows for no alternatives. Most of us, though, accept that modern New Zealand is a pluralist society that accommodates a range of belief systems, just as long as they don’t intrude on anyone else’s rights.
We should thank God, if you’ll pardon the expression, that we live in a tolerant, liberal society rather than an oppressive theocracy, such as Iran, or one of those countries where religious passions can lead to murder and mayhem, such as India or Myanmar.
Mind you, it does our MPs no harm to start their day with an acknowledgement that they are answerable to a higher power. If only they could make a more sincere attempt to live up to the sentiments expressed in the prayer, particularly the bit about humility.