Church has vital place in our secular society
The National Partyís deputy leader, Bill English, believes the Church still has an important role to play in society and politics. An active Catholic, he spoke to JOHN McNEIL about the way that role has changed in the past decade, where religion fits in the public square today, and what part his own faith plays in his life as a politician.
How does National view the role of the church in society in New Zealand?
Our philosophy is that big government is not the answer to everything. So we tend to encourage and support other civil organisations. Thereís a whole range of those. We think they are an important source of identity, community activity, mutual support. In the case of churches, they have a history much longer than democratic government, so they have a vital role for the people who are of them, but also as a participant in debate with government about how a society should be.
I think churches have views that are respected, and perhaps are becoming more respected in recent times, although itís a secular society. I think itís more respected because weíve been through a long phase where there was a lot of pressure to dismantle the framework of social order. No-one advocates that any more. If anything they want to see a rebuilding of frameworks of social order, and the wider community recognises that churches have institutional knowledge thatís useful for that.
Against this, there is the view that because New Zealand is a secular society, the Church should be marginalised.
That might have been a fair comment in the past Ė I donít think it is now. In a pragmatic and non-religious way, people see the churches as having knowledge about social order, ways of behaving, that they now regard as useful, which perhaps in the past they regarded as oppressive.
I think that if churches are too accommodating to the social mores of the day, they lose respect instead of gaining it. The churches are more strongly expressing their identity, and I think thatís a good thing. You also need to remember that no matter how secular you are in New Zealand, people are grappling with all the issues raised by Muslim activism around the world, and they are looking for some way of understanding the religious mind, and of course thatís something the churches do know about.
So how do you feel about the latest Census figures, which show a fall-off in church adherence?
Iím a churchgoer, and I certainly notice the change in the proportion of people who go to church. I would not regard that as the only measure of interest in religion or the only measure of relevance of churches. Some churches are growing, some quite fast, and I think thatís bound to continue. And the long history, institutional knowledge and the fact the Church has survived as a non-government, civic institution is just as relevant as changes in religious observance. Despite the drop-off in the figures, the actual influence of churches in civil society is growing.
The inter-face between Church and politics tends to be vexed at times. Is National worried that there is a religious Right in New Zealand, or that it could potentially arise?
There has always been a religious Left and a religious Right. I donít agree with todayís political fashion for condemning every person who has a religious belief and thinks they might act on it. I recall when the churches played a significant role, with critics Ė very aggressive critics Ė of government. Thatís part of their prophetic role. So Iím not worried whether thereís a Right or a Left in the Church.
What I do worry about is when churches get into the political game and take cheap shots. Politics is often about making trade-offs, and often churches and church leaders donít recognise that. The other thing thatís important for churches to do is not be partisan. I respect those who continue to bring attention to issues regardless of whoís in power. Itís always a tension of church leadership how to contribute to the political process but not get so close to it that it neutralises them.
In the past 15 years we have seen both: churches that are aggressive critics; and churches getting so close to politics that they get neutralised.
The media tries to demonise the religious Right, such as it exists. They see it through the filter of the American religious Right, which is a more potent force than in New Zealand. Do you think there is any likelihood it could become a force in New Zealand?
It will become that sort of force if it can generate the growth in membership and activism that makes any group an active political force. In that sense, the churches arenít anything exceptional. Weíve had activism from environmentalists, from people pursuing peace, farming groups, and I donít share the view that thereís some fundamentally different threat from people who are motivated by a particular religious belief.
I donít think they are any more dangerous than environmental fundamentalists. They both show an unwillingness to get to grips with the reality of the world. Well, they can make that choice, itís a free society.
I have been disappointed with the campaign of almost persecution. We run the risk in New Zealand that if someone is branded as a fundamentalist they are therefore stupid and we shouldnít listen to them. Thatís just as bad as branding someone as a union member, therefore they are stupid and you shouldnít listen to them.
It seems to be an easy label to throw at them. Obviously, the Exclusive Brethren have become that sort of target. Itís almost become a hysteria, it seems.
Well, itís become very fashionable, and I think worryingly so. Fundamentalism represents much less of a threat to New Zealand than welfare does. Itís unnecessary, and I hope it doesnít work in discouraging people.
The National Party was once a conservative party. It has struggled to articulate those values in recent years. Do you think it is possible to do so again without appearing either fundamentalist or passť?
National is developing a broader base of support again. It has always been an amalgamation of social liberals and social conservatives, and I donít think thatís ever going to change. I think the party, though, will reflect a growing conservatism in the community.
You think there is a growing conservatism in the community?
There is a growing conservatism about the need for self-government and social order. People no longer believe that Government can fix every social problem by throwing some money at it. They know that if youíre going to have functioning families, that requires people with some moral framework who behave in good ways. Thatís widely understood in the community, I think. Even the present Government has reflected that.
I can recall a time in New Zealand where to even mention family on the political platform was regarded as an aggressive act of criticism of the Prime Minister, even though every other New Zealander is a member of a family. That changed in the 2002 election when one party that stood for family was required in order to form a government.
From then on, family came back in to the political lexicon. Thatís an indication of a growing community understanding that people need to order themselves in ways that create society, and that some of the traditional structures that used to do that can provide the tools for it. A lot of people lament the loss of those structures.
Most New Zealanders are in favour of functioning families and they donít want to see policy that undermines it, whereas 20 years ago that was less clear. There were a lot of people advocating changes in legislative structure with the purpose of making the family a less ďoppressiveĒ institution. Thatís changed.
Is that what underlies the opposition to Sue Bradfordís anti-smacking bill?
Yes. That sums up the change thatís occurred in the community, that people have become more suspicious of ďrightsĒ discourse, that somehow society works if everybody knows what their rights are. So they are not as easily persuaded by ďchild rightsĒ arguments as they were, because they know we arenít atomised individuals with a mechanical set of rights.
New Zealanders are also drawing a line about how far theyíre willing to allow Government to tell them what to do, because they donít see governments as having the moral authority to do that. They might accept it from a Church, or a celebrity or a newsreader, their own family, but not from Government. I think it also reflects an anxiety about the role of parents. Parents feel they have to work against a whole lot of influences over their children, particularly media and educational influences, and they want to be supported, not undermined.
To what degree do you think we have lost personal freedom over the past decade?
The public should always be suspicious of ideology, particularly social ideology, whether itís ideology about rights or an anti-institutional ideology, which weíve had phases of. The thing that preserves personal freedom in the long run is civil society more than Government.
Good government arises out of the community; you donít create a community with good government. People want personal freedom, but itís one of the contradictions of freedom that they need to work for the institutions and the behaviours that are going to preserve it. If they leave it to Government, you will end up with a mechanistic, rights-based morally desiccated view about how people should live their lives. Thatís less than we deserve.
Government appears to have been able to make the changes it has because it has felt it could do so without the public rising up and rioting in the streets.
You have to accept that sometimes the public will tolerate changes they might not like but think donít matter much. My experience of the democratic process is that if the public really donít want it, they really let you know. If they donít really care, they donít mind, even if they donít support it. So Iím less concerned about that.
Is there the political will Ė is it possible Ė to change some of the social engineering legislation that we have seen over the past decade? Or is it too much a fait accompli?
There isnít a political will separate from a social will. If the public want things changed, they will change. I think you will find that Parliament has learned a few lessons about getting ahead of the community. I know that politicians believe - one of their roles is leadership - and in some respects, of course, it is. But we are now getting two or three quite strong public reactions to what they regard as social engineering. These things can change if thereís public support.
All the same, I think politicians are going to stop leading with their chins on social engineering; I think they will be equally reluctant to lead in unwinding changes of the past without a clear public mandate.
How much is your own personal faith a part of what you do?
Itís an important part, and it offers the challenge every day of asking myself: does my faith mean I have behaved any differently than people who donít believe? Sometimes the answer to that is yes, and sometimes itís no. Iím sure at times it makes a difference in ways that I donít recognise or understand, but I would hope so.
What I do know is that it is very good for someone in public life to spend a minimum of an hour a week participating in ... in my case, going to Mass and hearing language like forgiveness, mercy, sinfulness, worship Ė none of which you hear about in day-to-day political life. And also hearing stories of humanity going back four or five thousand years. It creates a more rounded perspective on the events of the day.
Iíve been in here 17 years, and for the first 15 years I was almost never asked to speak about religion. One time I might have gone to a Catholic school and spoken to them about Catholicism and public life, but never in any other forum.
In the past two years I must have been asked 10 times, which has made me think much harder. I have spoken to school dinners, business groups, university classes, and Iíve really enjoyed it. The measure of it is this: in American politics, you have to talk about God; in Australian politics you can and get away with it; in New Zealand you never would.
But thereís a growing interest in religion in the public space. I donít think itís because people are getting more religious, itís because they are starting to see it as a resource that might help them to understand the wider world, where religion is clearly a potent force, and maybe help them solve some of the problems of their domestic world, where fundamental social disorder worries them.