A wise man once noted that the essence of successful political presentation was authenticity. Once you could fake that, you’d got it made.
Now, as applies Judith Collins’ apparently entirely unscripted and totally sincere church-visit en-route to vote over the weekend … well, reasonable minds may differ as to whether the above quote applies. Many are certainly suggesting that the motivation for Collins’ apparent Conversion On The Road To Oblivion (via way of Clevedon) is to head off the prospective growth of the New Conservatives , Advance NZ , and other such fringe-right parties who tend to be big on ‘politicized Christianity’ in pursuit of an Evangelical-esque appeal. Because while these vehicles are unlikely to hit five percent apiece – every percent they DO get comes at National’s likely expense. Particularly due to the prospect of various splinters of National’s own base decamping (or simply staying home) due to their possible lack of desire to support a leader who’s voted in favour of abortion and euthanasia.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You can read elsewhere those sorts of analysis for the strategic impetus for WHY Collins may have chosen to engage in a performative posture of prayer en-route to a polling place (in Kohimaramara, oddly enough).
Rather, it’s the very concept itself – that of public piety in politics – which interests me here.
Despite the aspirations of pretty much every party I’ve mentioned thus far (National, the New Conservative party, and Advance NZ, for those of you playing at home) inter alia, New Zealand is not that much like America. And by this, I do not just mean that religion is a far less active and overt portion of our public life here than it is over there – the quantitative metric. There’s also something qualitatively different about it, as well.
While it’s definitely and demonstrably true that we have American-style Evangelicals operating here – including prospectively within our next Parliament assuming one of their number beats a certain Seventh Day Adventist in Botany later this year (that’s Christopher Luxon and Jami-Lee Ross, respectively); we also have always had something else, as well. Older style, and dare I say rather ‘left-wing’ strands of Christianity that are unafraid of taking directly political stands on things which affect their parishioners and the broader country. Michael Joseph Savage famously described the work of the visionary First Labour Government as being ‘Applied Christianity’. The Methodist Church here regularly overtly opposes neoliberal developments, such as the TPPA. For comparison, the most prominent Methodist saliency in American politics of recent times was probably George H.W. Bush.
This is not to suggest, either, that community-oriented and economically progressive religious bodies are unknown across the Pacific (or, for that matter, across the Tasman – which has its own Evangelical Christian political projection within the corridors of power). Only that those groups tend to be marginalized and shoved/crowded out both in the popular imagination, as well as the political hublands of power, by the more happy-clappy or otherwise ‘performative’ (seemingly at the expense of substance) varieties.
And in THAT situation, I tend to think that EVERYBODY suffers. Both because the more ‘right-wing’ amenable Christianities tend to have some rather funny ideas which thence find forceful expression through the political system (some might say ‘infliction’); and as a direct result of all of this, the ‘crowding out’ effect continues apace. So whether you’re secular or religious, there’s something to be concerned about. People come to think that the ONLY form of religion in politics is the right-wing iteration – leading to a negative perception of these by those not keen on the (neoliberal/neocon) right, and an increase in support for the (neoliberal/neocon) right by genuinely religious people who think that this is now the only legitimate political expression for their beliefs.
We’ve seen this in India, wherein the BJP has sought quite effectively to ‘monopolize’ the political expression of Hinduism – an effort that has occasionally lead to bad theology being promoted upon occasion; and also to a certain level of people reacting to the BJP by either distancing themselves from their ancestral faith, or seeking to redefine it in opposition to the BJP ‘brand’. Which, not coincidentally, also occasionally leads to some rather bad theology.
All of which brings us back to Collins’ stunt on Sunday.
Now, as I have said – there is some debate as to just how ‘authentic’ Collins’ performative piety in fact was, upon that day. On the one hand, everybody seems to agree (other than Collins – which is perhaps unsurprising) that she has never before in her political career been this overt about her faith. On the other hand, Collins herself counters this by claiming that she’s always had it as a guiding principle, citing the remark in her 2002 maiden speech: “I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil.” Which is … not exactly a heavily Christian perspective, to my mind, even if some important fundaments are there. Fundaments, I would argue, shared with many other religions – and which, importantly, do not actually directly qualify what Good or Evil actually are other than words upon the page.
And that goes to the heart of why I’m feeling so iffy about this whole thing. Because it is, in the most literal sense, “virtue signalling”. And, with what is meant by the term in its idiomatic context – a potential lack of actual, tangible, deeply-held ‘virtue’ to be signalled. Instead replaced merely by the words, the forms, the exterior-perceptible symbols so as to disguise the lack of substance. Which is also a bit of a risk, because again – some may then have their perception that ALL religious expression in politics is like this .. performative in a pantomime sense rather than rolling its sleeves up to be performative in a potent one ; and others may take the opposite view – that as it is ‘genuine’ expression, this means that all that goes with it is suddenly sanctified into the bargain. Because, as we all know, JC (the *other* JC – not the two-letter sign-off Judith Collins has begun appending to all her tweets these past few weeks .. presumably entirely coincidentally) was obviously all about supporting small business and deferring the Rendering Unto Caesar with a temporary tax-cut so as to stimulate the economy.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do think that there’s a place – and quite a strong one – for religion in our public sphere. Partially this is because, as a religious fundamentalist zealot, I would be entirely hypocritical if I suggested anything to the contrary. But also because it enables one to get a better sense of who a politician (or a voter, an institution) actually is and what they really stand for. Politics, as with religion, is about the immanentization of values out into our mortal world. And I quite like that we know who the potentially-fringe Evangelical sorts are BEFORE we might vote for them and find out the hard way through their conduct in office – precisely because they tend to directly tell us that this is what they are, themselves.
Which does not mean that religious values, religious expression in our politics is above criticism, above contention, above reproach. I mean, both Tony Abbott and Simon O’Connor would hardly be criticized for being ‘inauthentic’ with their religious adherence – both were, if memory serves, in-training to become Catholic Priests prior to their lives in politics. However, as applies Tony Abbott’s recent remarks about how Covid-19 should effectively be allowed to go unchecked because of the cost of preserving the lives of the elderly … both myself and the Rev. Rolinson were rather chagrined that this apparent lack of regard for life in favour of coin was coming from a man so vocally “Pro-Life” in his other political enthusiasms.
Similarly, when Donald Trump had protesters cleared from near a Washington D.C. church so as to carry out a bible-wielding photo-op – I think many quite justifiably looked in askance at this Election-year (re-)discovery of America’s majority symbolism. Noting the degree of divergence between what’s actually in said book and building and the way Trump’s generally conducted himself both in politics and in personal life.
Trump’s maneuver is quite relevant for Collins, however – as what he had sought to do, was portray Christianity, Christian Values in America as being under attack, under threat, under siege during the waves of protest and rioting going on over there at the time. Positioning himself, perhaps, as a self-appointed ‘Defender of the Faith’ [a title more usually held by the Kings of England … and ironically referring to the *Catholic* Faith, despite the well-known Protestant allegiance of these men; Prince Charles, interestingly enough, is considering amending this to “Defender of the Faiths”, plural] – and disregarding all of those people of the faith in question who were actively participating in the collective outrage as to America’s race-relations situation at the time.
Collins may have anticipated that she’d receive a wave of criticism for her gesture on Sunday – and factored that into her calculations. She’d have seen the commentary from various vectors in relation to her sudden frequency of “As a Christian … ” remarks in the course of the Leaders’ Debates. She’d know that being photographed in an about-as-stereotypically-“
In the same way that you find people in America (and, to be fair, here too) voting for Trump or other Republicans in order to “trigger the Libs” (regardless of whether he or they are almost an opposite to what the voter would usually prefer) – so, too, may you find some rallying behind Collins in order to “trigger the Sickulars”, the left, the “Woke” (and thus, apparently, the Reserve Bank) or whatever it is this week.
Having said that, there are other possibilities to consider. I know, better than many, how a sudden outpouring of religiosity during a difficult time can in fact be quite genuine. It is for the same reason that there are rarely to be found many ‘Atheists in Foxholes’. Perhaps Collins’ prayer prior to voting on Sunday was, as somebody on Twitter put it, a “Hail Mary”.
The real test of this, is the extent to which the religiosity in question persists after the the cessation of the immediate crisis correlate with its promulgation. Whether, following the Election, we still see Collins conducting herself in a manner that might be thought of (or perhaps ‘confused for’) as religious.
That might not be such a bad thing, as it happens. It would be good if the implicit coterminity between Collins and Bill English – extended beyond the prospects for an unsuccessful election result (the 2002 one, I mean), and on to some of the man’s values. The same ones which saw him describe our prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure” during the same term which saw Judith Collins wanting to escalate this failure via shipping-crate cells and double-bunking for ‘deterrent value’ (well, more what would likely come with the double bunking as the deterrent value).
In line with the Hindu axiom – “Hands that help are holier than lips which [merely] pray”, it is the actual conduct that goes beyond the prayer via which commitment to religious values (in politics or without) ought be meaningfully assessed.
Although there is one further consideration Collins may wish to bear in mind.
Last week, a day or so prior to his Covid-19 circumstance, Trump invited a Hindu Priest to the White House to carry out a puja for peace and protection. It would not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that this prayer was answered – in a rather more general sense than had perhaps been intended by the President.
Or, phrased another way – Collins may find that endeavouring to call upon (the) God(s) may lead to Divinity Answering. And doing so in a manner that serves a Plan, an intent, other than one’s own.