The first New Zealand Parliament … in 1854 separated church and state more sharply than in the Australian colonies. In rejecting a state church, New Zealand was more secular than its parent societies.
- Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand (original emphasis)
Addressing Rurawhe as "Mr Speaker
Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern recited a phrase in Te Reo Māori.
"Translated it means, 'may the mouthpiece of e hoa, the temple of Rātana
support and guide the mouthpiece of the house'."
– 1News 24 August
Well, I for one hope that ‘e hoa’ – or any temple for that matter – doesn’t do anything of the sort.
When I asked Google whether NZ is a secular country, I got the following answer:
New Zealand is a secular State with no State religion, in which religious and democratic structures are separated. In legislation and policy, the State respects freedom of thought, conscience and religion. (original emphasis)
Now of course Queen Lizzy 2 is Head of both State and church – C of E to be precise (gasp) – and is also the Head of State of NZ. While she doesn’t often turn up in the Beehive, she, through the Gov-Gen, gives Royal Assent to bills that then become Acts, and can even dissolve the NZ Parliament. These anachronisms need to be addressed some time, but the point I want to make today is that these powers have no connection with her being the Head of the C of E as well as Head of State.
There are seats in the British House of Lords reserved for C of E bishops, but while that casts a shadow over the secular nature of Her Majesty’s Government, it does not affect us here even indirectly.
What is a secular government anyway? To refer to Wikipedia,
A secular state … is or purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. A secular state claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen based on their religious beliefs, affiliation or lack of either over those with other profiles. (emphasis added)
It follows that the secular State should not discriminate against people on the basis of their non-adherence to a religious faith either.
Should a secular government have a parliamentary prayer? Google this adding ‘nz’ and you will be directed to the NZ Parliament website where you will see the following:
WEDNESDAY, 23 JUNE 2021
SPEAKER: Almighty God, we give thanks for the blessings which have been bestowed on us. Laying aside all personal interests, we acknowledge the Queen and pray for guidance in our deliberations, that we may conduct the affairs of this House with wisdom, justice, mercy, and humility for the welfare and peace of New Zealand. Amen.
This version had replaced an earlier one that was specifically Christian in orientation. After all, we should be inclusive and accommodate other faiths, right? That includes Islam, a religion which categorically does not believe in the separation of church – or rather, mosque – and State. It opens the door to religious bickering in relation to matters of State, as the erudite sociopolitical commentator Brian Tamaki explained in referring to Islam as
Here in NZ we have a situation where a composite religion containing elements of Christianity (reference to the Queen – Head of the C of E – in the parliamentary prayer makes a mockery of the claim that the prayer is non-sectarian) alongside ethnocultural beliefs invoking various spooky entities is being foisted on us all through instruments of the State – spooks in science classes for example. Some people don’t want anything to do with the one, some don’t want anything to do with the other; some people (yours truly for instance) don’t want anything to do with either. Government and law should be spook-free zones (see my article ‘The non-religious origins of law’, Breaking Views 5 December 2015).
Freedom of belief is a fundamental human right. Freedom to impose religious beliefs on others is an infringement of their right to not believe. People in high places with religious beliefs that they regard as being superior to the system of governance and law that prevail in their country are dangerous in that they are ideally placed to force their religious beliefs on society at large. I have argued elsewhere in these annals that we need to be circumspect about appointing such people to very senior positions in government and the judiciary (‘Do candidates’ religious beliefs matter when appointing senior public figures?’, Breaking Views 5 October 2020).
My position is very straight-forward: NO RELIGION IN GOVERNMENT AND LAW, end of story, full stop. That includes monarchs who head a church as well as the State, Christian or any other deities, parliamentary prayers in any guise. Well, at least I’m consistent. I know many readers will argue against me in relation to Lizzy 2 but they are harming their own case – if prayers referring to a Head of State who is also the head of a Christian sect are OK, so are karakias.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek is a retired academic who taught at universities in Papua New Guinea, Botswana and Lebanon.