Religious cartoon feature

BooksJune 25, 2019

The uncomfortable history of religion in New Zealand cartooning

Religious cartoon feature

A new book about the depiction of religion in New Zealand editorial cartoons reveals some disturbing truths.

Last week the NZ Cartoon Archive at Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library published Mike Grimshaw’s Bishops, Boozers, Brethren & Burkas, which looks at religion in New Zealand through the eyes of the country’s cartoonists from the 1860s to the present day.

Grimshaw’s book shows that the events of 15 March in Christchurch were not simply an appalling aberration. The cry of ‘This Is Not Us’ was heartfelt but much more hope than reality. Anti-Māori, Chinese, Indian and Jewish sentiment at various times in New Zealand history has been virtually ignored in general histories until cartoons showed, sometimes in exaggerated form, ‘evidence’ of these commonly held community views.

Today, Grimshaw says, as more people from Islamic countries settle in New Zealand, Islamphobia is alive and well. His book looks at a wide range of topics from the 1860s when there was considerable tension between religion and politics, but religion was a key part of the fabric of society, to today when religious beliefs are increasingly seen as out of step with modern society.

Mike Grimshaw chose to build his book around editorial cartoons. He says: “Cartoons are an invaluable resource for all who seek to make sense of both the present and the past. They can and should make us feel challenged and uncomfortable; they should make us reconsider what we think, believe, do and say.”

Bishops, Boozers, Brethren & Burkas by Mike Grimshaw. NZ Cartoon Archive/Fraser Books. $39.50

The Muslim population in New Zealand increased considerably from the 1980s with the halah slaughter of meat for Middle Eastern markets. But to most New Zealanders, particularly following 9/11, Islam was often seen as Islamist terrorism. Apocalypse now!, Bob Brockie, National Business Review, 28 September 2001,. ATL: DX-003-033.


This 1985 cartoon suggests that, for many, opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform was viewed as the expression of a particularly rabid and violent form of Christianity with strong political links. At the head of the protesters were conservative Labour and National MPs, Geoff Braybrooke and Norman Jones. A right cross, Trace Hodgson, NZ Listener, 27 April 1985.


While New Zealand has no official or state religion, the claim that ‘rugby is the national religion’ circulates with periodic regularity. Minhinnick’s cartoon of the rugby faithful worshipping the Craven (graven) image, with its reference to Dr Danie Craven, is far closer to the truth than both the 1981 anti-tour protesters and the pro-tour supporters might wish to think it is. The Craven Image, Gordon Minhinnick, NZ Herald, 26 June 1981.


There was strong opposition to Labour’s social policies during the 1980s with conservative Christianity playing a leading part.  Hodgson’s portrayal of a suburban Christian fascist caused considerable offence at the time. On a quiet Sunday morning, Trace Hodgson, NZ Listener, 19 October 1985. ATL: C-128-033.


There have been a number of cartoons attacking Brian Tamaki’s celebration, in his Destiny Church, of a prosperity gospel and promotion of a fear of homosexuality – which he links to a masculine decline and lack of purpose.   “In the book of Leviticus …”, Tom Scott, Dominion Post, 19 November 2016. ATL: DCDL – 0035185.
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