• 18 SEP 05
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    Step to the right as the brethren gather force

    Step to the right as the brethren gather force
    September 14, 2005

    A scandal in New Zealand over election money from a fringe group reflects a trend, writes Marion Maddox.

    The women wear headscarves in public. Their religion opposes assimilation, and they educate children at home or in their own schools. Fearing the taint of the godless, they refuse to eat with unbelievers. They reject democracy, and work towards God’s rule.

    Yes, it is the Exclusive Brethren, a conservative Christian fringe group whose more than $NZ500,000 ($457,300) in electoral help was denied initially the by the New Zealand Opposition Leader, Don Brash. Brash’s embarrassment has brought a frisson of scandal to an election campaign otherwise strictly about tax cuts.

    The Brethren’s glossy, professionally produced anti-Green and anti-Labour leaflets look familiar. In the weeks before John Howard’s re-election in October last year, half- and full-page advertisements appeared in local and metropolitan newspapers endorsing his Government and attacking the Greens. The advertisements echoed the content and style of Liberal Party advertising, but none of the endorsers’ names and addresses belonged to the party.

    In the US elections, the Exclusive Brethren spent more than $US500,000 ($649,900) on newspaper advertisements supporting George Bush and the Florida Republican Senate candidate, Mel Martinez, known for opposing gay marriage and hate crimes legislation, and linked to the Republican strategy for turning Terri Schiavo’s 15-year coma into a “great political issue”.

    The Exclusive Brethren is a branch of a British movement formed in the 1820s. Its founder, John Darby, was a developer of “premillennial dispensationalism”, a set of beliefs about the end of the world made famous by the bestselling Left Behind novels. Followers expect an imminent “Rapture” of believers to heaven, heralding the return of Jesus.

    Exclusive Brethren take a dim view of government by the people, traditionally eschewing politics. Since government properly belongs to God, they do not vote. But in recent years they have moved closer to the political activism of other fundamentalists and pentecostalists, including enthusiastic lobbying. According to them, God’s law rules out homosexuality, single parenthood, hate speech legislation and “big government”.

    The restoration of Israel is crucial to Christ’s return, so they endorse pro-Israel policies. Holders of such views welcome authoritarian Christian government as setting the stage for the final showdown between God and Satan. They also incline to a “prosperity gospel” in which wealth is a sign of God’s favour, and the poor have only themselves to blame, so taxes and welfare subvert the divine order.

    The Exclusive Brethren irruption into the New Zealand election points to a broader coalition of right-wing business, political parties and religion.

    Bush relies on the votes of evangelical, pentecostalist and fundamentalist Christians, who want conservative government in the Last Days to oppose evil abroad (Iraq) and at home (by cutting taxes and welfare).

    Howard’s support base for his 1995 return to the Liberal leadership included the conservative Christian Lyons Forum. The religious right has become increasingly outspoken within the party, with the Treasurer, Peter Costello, arguing that Australia’s problems will be solved not by legislation but a return to the Ten Commandments, and John Anderson declaring while deputy prime minister that without Jesus, “we’re a mob of dirty rotten sinners and we’re on the path to hell”.

    In New Zealand, a loose coalition is now pushing New Zealand down a right-wing path, as seen not just by the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren, but by the rise of the pentecostal church-based Destiny Party, the “family”-focused United Future (formed from a 2002 merger of the centrist United party with Future NZ, an explicitly Christian party), the largely evangelical-funded conservative Maxim Institute think-tank, and even a branch of the Christian supremacist Parliamentary Prayer Network.

    With conservative politicians, business and Christian leaders finding common ground, and heartened by electoral success in the US and elsewhere, no wonder even moderately religious politicians such as Howard and avowed agnostics such as Brash, the New Zealand National Party leader, are hitching their stars to the conservative Christian comet.

    Dr Marion Maddox is senior lecturer in religious studies at the Victoria University of Wellington and author of God Under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2005).

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