"New Zealand Still has to Master the Ways of Religious Tolerance," a Commentary by The Press

March 24, 2007

Author: The Press

Source: The Press


The chance holding in Canterbury of two unusual religious gatherings, within days of each other, has focused attention on the limits of religious tolerance, writes The Press in an editorial.

The Exclusive Brethren welcomed their world leader amid tight security and an amorphous band of Christians huddled to discuss what they proclaimed as the threat of Islam.

Few New Zealanders, religious or agnostic, would regard either event as mainstream. Indeed, both are on the fringe, involving a tiny sect and militant believers. Moreover, many New Zealanders probably feel something between hostility and unease about the presence of this unusual manifestation of religion in their midst. Understandably so. The anti-Muslim conference and the Brethren gathering have different aims, but that is of less concern than their shared position outside what most regard as orthodox religion – outside moderate beliefs and practices and an openness to all people and religions. The discussion of an Islamic "threat" is downright provocative.

This negativity is unlikely to lead to the hurling of missiles by a disturbed citizenry – although the anti-Muslim conference is likely to be picketed by Muslims. But that does not mean New Zealand is a paragon of religious tolerance. The limits of a willingness to calmly accept those on the fringes of belief is shown in the demonising of the Exclusive Brethren. The sect has gained notoriety because of is poetical activities in recent years. But even before that venture the Brethren were a focus of dislike because of their pacifism and exclusivity. In a nation that held conformity and a willingness to defend by force its way of life, the Brethren were widely seen as subversive, not just odd.

That was the historic foundation upon which the funding of the political pamphlets grew into a major row, and partly explains why Don Brash was so mauled by the affair. The Brethren entered the political arena in a foolishly surreptitious way and their views were extreme. It was inevitable, therefore, that their right to enter the political process became such a row. It should not have been. Our healthy democracy puts no bar to religious groups having their political say – a freedom that the mainstream denomination have exercised many times. They sometimes get into trouble when they are seen to be too partisan or meddling in issues outside their expertise, but on the whole their opinions on social and moral questions that connect with politics are accepted without much comment.