With Judith Collins foregrounding her religious faith in recent days, Justin Latif talks to candidates of faith in the most Christian electorate in the country, attends an event for first-time Christian voters and hears from experts on the intersection of religion and New Zealand politics.
On a bright Sunday morning in central Auckland, before casting her vote, Judith Collins knelt in prayer at St Thomas’ Tamaki church below a large stained glass window depicting the feeding of the five thousand and the phrase “there is a lad here”.
While Twitter went it a bit wild over this rare show of supplication by a significant party leader — sparking a biblical retort from Winston Peters — for many New Zealand Christians it was a reminder that the potential prime minister is a person of faith like them.
But will it be a factor at this election? It depends who you ask.
Most churches ‘per square inch’
If you’ve ever been to Māngere on a Sunday morning you’ll be familiar with the 9am rush hour, as large people-movers stream through the suburb on their way to one of the many services taking place around the suburb.
According to Statistics NZ, the south Auckland electorate has the highest proportion of Christians of any electorate, with close to 70% identifying as adherents to a form of Jesus’ teachings, compared with less than 40% in the rest of the country.
Not surprisingly, the majority of candidates in Māngere are openly committed Christians. In fact both the Green Party’s Reverend Peter Sykes and the New Conservatives’ Fuiavailili Ala’ilima are trained ministers.
Ala’ilima says his decision to run for the New Conservatives came after an almost literal road to Damascus moment, where he was blinded by a shining light while exercising in David Lange Park and he felt God asking him to run for parliament. He’s a big fan of Donald Trump, is firmly against the recent abortion law reform, the End of Life Choice Bill and the proposed cannabis legalisation, and he believes that to be a Pacific Christian is to be “naturally conservative”.
“Māngere has more churches per square inch than anywhere. And there’s a whole bunch of Pacific Islanders who are being led down a wrong path towards secularism, socialism and communism, away from conservatism,” he says.
“But as a Christian, I believe the words of the Bible are a manual for how man should live so this is the reason it’s important to speak out because I believe the conservative voice is being squashed by our parliament.”
Sykes is an ordained Anglican minister and was the Selwyn Church vicar in Māngere East in the early 1990s, before shifting his focus to run a social service in the area. His political positions are virtually opposite to Ala’ilima’s, and having worked in the area for almost 30 years he questions whether conservative values line up to what’s best for Māngere.
“If God is the God of love and inclusion, why are we so judgmental? If God is the God of creation, why are we destroying and extracting and not taking the environment seriously? The challenge for Christians is to be about inclusiveness not exclusiveness,” he says.
“The Green Party embodies my spirituality and for me it goes back to [the Bible verse] Micah 6:8, which says we have to walk justly, and love mercy. There’s no easy solutions, so when it comes to the referendums, I’m thinking who I am trying to protect through this legislation? During the lockdown we had guys driving around dropping off tinnies. But we can’t deal with the root cause of smoking weed, because people are too scared to talk about it. If we can talk about it, we can work out how to help people struggling with it.”
Current Māngere electorate MP Aupito William Sio and National’s candidate for the seat Agnes Loheni are both practising Catholics, and while they hold different positions on abortion, both are voting no on legalising marijuana and the End of Life Choice Bill.
Loheni says she wasn’t surprised to see Collins pray before casting her vote and she expects issues of faith to play a big role in this election.
“I’ve always known she had an Anglican background, but actually a lot of people in parliament come from some kind of faith, Christian or otherwise and each has their own individual way of how they communicate that,” she says.
“I think we’ve had a number of conscious issues in a short period of time, which has brought faith to fore. I think what people feel in this current climate is they deem that traditional family values have been under attack or undermined and you’d link traditional family values to the Christian faith.”
She also cites Donald Trump’s outspoken support for certain Christian organisations as something that’s caught the attention of many in Māngere.
“A lot of Pacific people do support Trump and that’s because there’s a perception that he’s the most high profile pro-life leader in the world and he’s appeared as someone who stands up for those foundational family values.”
Sio, however, says he was surprised about Collins’ display of faith. “I didn’t know she was an Anglican. But when I heard that I just thought, ‘that’s new’, and to me that seemed like a deliberate targeting of that vote.”
Despite Labour being responsible for passing a number of socially liberal pieces of legislation over the last 20 years, Māngere has continued to be a stronghold for the party. Sio says this is because his constituents understand the split between the church’s role and what the government can provide.
“Spirituality is an integral part of me being Sāmoan, and I know that’s something many of our people also share. Our spirituality is central to who we are and our cultural practices, and it also guides and directs us,” he says.
“But I think people fundamentally understand that government is not a church and the government’s role is about the physical wellbeing of people which is to provide jobs, to increase home ownership and advocate for better working and living conditions. While our spiritual values have to be taught and strengthened by our religious institutions, and in our family circles.”
The youth vote
Across town, at a Christian student hostel down a leafy side road in Mt Eden, I attended a discussion on faith and politics along with about 30 university students. According to the assistant hostel manager Jordan Jones, there’s been a marked increase in how politically engaged the residents are.
“In previous years young people were fairly apathetic, but this year there has been great engagement. This health crisis has been a political issue as well and has raised awareness about the election. And there’s also a new mood around climate change in that people are more aware of it, instead of denying it.”
Jones, who’s doing a doctorate in theology, says seeing Judith Collins’ prayer is unlikely to sway his peers.
“She mentioned that she’s a Christian previously, so it’s not completely out of left-field,” he says. “But there are actually Christians on both sides of the spectrum on most political issues who are using morals as the basis for their position. But progressive Christians do tend to be less vocal about their faith so we’re often not aware of them.”
Eden Hostel residents Isabella Beale and Caitlin Head are first-time voters and both attend the large Pentecostal Life church.
“I helped organise the climate strikes last year in Taupo,” Head says. “I talked to a lot of local government politicians down there and I came to realise that politics can be really messy and twisted. But ultimately as a Christian, we have to bring love, acceptance and harmony. So for me, it’s important that Māori people have more of a voice and also that there’s climate justice, so those are two things that are swaying me with my vote.”
Caitlin will be working as a scrutineer on polling day as a way to learn more about the democratic process. She says it’s been a challenge sifting through all the policies as well as trying to get up to speed on the two referendums.
“For me at this election I am trying to see both sides of things. But mental health is definitely an important issue for me.”
Jeremy Vargo, who was one of the speakers at the hostel’s event, works in public policy and goes to St Augustine’s in Freemans Bay. He says the referendums have probably focused the attention of Christians.
“There have been some big moral issues in this election that’s seen a proliferation of Christian-adjacent parties,” he says. “They are all trying to grasp at a sense of loss of control and it’s really that last gasp from that generation who grew up with a Christian majority [in New Zealand].
“The government also indicated that the hate speech legislation is back on the table, and while that has come about for decent reasons, there’s also genuine concern for people about whether they will still be able to express their theological views in public.”
Massey University professor emeritus Peter Lineham has written extensively on the role of faith in New Zealand society. He tells The Spinoff he rang the minister at St Thomas’ Tamaki to find out if Collins’ photo was a set up and has been assured it was completely unplanned. However, he does believe National will be aware of the need to pull more centre-right Christians away from parties like the New Conservatives.
“This is hardly the first time Christianity has appeared in an election, but the unusual factor here is that a main party leader is throwing their lot so publicly in one direction. But there’s very strong evidence since 1995 that the Christian vote will never carry enough traction. The potential Christian vote is roughly 10-12%, so in theory it ought to be significant, but in reality the Christian vote has consistently placed itself within the main parties. But given Labour have consistently alienated some Christian voters with their liberal policies, it would cause some in National to say there’s a need to throw out some crumbs in the Christian direction.”
Labour’s selection of Arena Williams for the Manurewa electorate is a sign, however, that the party is aware of the need to placate Pacific voters, Lineham suggests.
“Labour is concerned about the Christian vote and proof of this could be seen in the striking removal of Louisa Wall from Manurewa and they’ve gone for a much more conventional church-going candidate,” he says.
“They’ve also just put out financial support of $10 million to help provincial Pasifika churches, so they must be concerned about the softness of that vote. There’s often been speculation about why that vote stays with Labour when they get very little out of it, but it seems the Pasifika churches are quite pragmatic.”
For now, the polls appear to bear out Linehan’s contention that the Christian vote is mostly absorbed in the main parties. In the last Colmar Brunton survey, both Hannah Tamaki’s Vision NZ Party and the One Party, which have been touring the country preaching the Christian message, registered 0%.