ST JOHN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Herbert, North Otago, has long since acquired the melancholy sobriquet of “Former”. Protected by the Historic Places Trust, the beautiful little building’s contemporary role is listed as “meeting place” and “museum”.
But, on the Sunday mornings of sixty years ago, its pews were filled with Herbertians of every station, augmented by the families from the surrounding farms. At the end of the service, the church’s broad green lawn would be occupied by stolid clumps of cockies discussing lamb sales; clutches of wives regaling each other with the exploits of their offspring; and kids of all ages chasing each other among the trees.
It is this bucolic image of a God-fearing, united, homogeneous rural community that New Zealanders should keep in mind when attempting to fathom the reasoning behind the Supreme Court of the United States’ revocation of Roe v. Wade. In spite of the fact that most Americans live in large cities, and that most of them no longer attend church regularly, the vision driving conservatives in that country – and ours – is one of upright men and women restoring a lost world of cultural and religious unity.
It matters little that the number of people who can actually remember this lost world grows smaller with every passing year. It lives on as a sort of ideological desideratum: presented to the younger generations as a world that once was, and will be again, if only the ungodly changes of the last sixty years can be expunged from the nation’s historical memory.
If those congregations of the early 1960s had been polled, argue the conservatives, there would have been something very close to unanimity on virtually all the big issues that have since divided the United States and culturally akin countries.
Virtually no one emerging from the picturesque Christian churches of yesteryear would have admitted to being in favour of abortion, or homosexuality, or sex before marriage, or women putting their career ahead of getting married and having children, or the idea that coloured peoples could aspire to anything more important than mastering the skills of European civilisation.
What baffles and enrages conservatives is how comprehensively these near-universal beliefs and attitudes were overturned – and how swiftly. The values that still governed the societies of sixty years ago had hardly changed in centuries. They were rooted in Judeo-Christian moral precepts to which all but a tiny minority of adult citizens happily subscribed. That such deeply-rooted notions could simply be yanked-out, like so many unwanted weeds, struck conservatives as proof of something truly diabolical at work.
Not to put too fine a point on it, conservatives see the cultural, moral, sexual and political transformations of the last sixty years as the Devil’s work. And the thing about the Devil is that he is not someone with whom you can, or should, compromise. The only thing to be done with the Devil is defeat him. And that is what America’s (and New Zealand’s) religious conservatives have been trying to do for sixty long years.
St John’s congregation began shrinking in 1967 when conservatives within the Presbyterian Church brought heresy charges against radical theologian, Lloyd Geering. Even among the supposedly conservative cockies of North Otago, the idea of trying a man for heresy in the Twentieth Century was an outrage. Some of them resolved to never darken the door of their little Oamaru-stone church again.
There was a lesson to be drawn from this sort of reaction to conservative extremism, if its practitioners had possessed the wit to learn it. The picture-book tableau of cultural homogeneity wasn’t real. The values cherished by America’s and New Zealand’s fundamentalist Christians only appeared to be widely shared. Beneath that early-sixties veneer of happy conformity, the trials and tribulations of ordinary men and women went on regardless. Occasionally their troubles were overcome by applying the teachings of Jesus, more commonly, though, by relying on the short-cuts and compromises called common-sense.
There is solace, of a sort, to be derived from pretending that the women and children of your community are not being beaten and abused; that vicious racism is not practised by churchgoers; that abortions, legal or not, happen every day.
The trick of conservatism is not to look Truth in the eye.
You might reconsecrate St John’s Presbyterian Church, but you couldn’t refill it.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 July 2022.
So much to unpick here – I'll have to leave much of it for later. But one thing stands out, and that is the idea – generally put forward by people like Brendan – that we are all going to hell in a handbasket, because of the disintegration of the family. That divorce and remarriage and split households mean that children are growing up without guidance – blah blah blah.
And you have gotten to the nub of it, because as someone who grew up at that time when ideas began to change, the late 50s and early 60s – I know for a fact that under the respectable face of conservative propriety, there was some really evil shit going on. And this evil shit was denied and treated as if it didn't exist. It's as if the country was actually fuelled by hypocrisy.
I grew up at a time where a "good hiding" was a weekly if not daily occurrence in some families, and regarded as a good thing – because without it kids would run wild. Luckily my father regarded good hiding is as a rare punishment so I could probably count the number that I got on the fingers of one hand, which is probably quite a good thing given he was a boxer. Not that I was ever hit with a closed fist, but he certainly had a reasonable technique.
And funnily enough, it seemed to me that those who got the most good hidings turned out worst. A number of the kids I went to school with ended up in jail at one time or another, and almost without fail they were the ones who were hit. A couple from one family where dad used to sit at the dinner table with a leather strap over his shoulder, in case anyone should do something wrong.
The family situation hasn't got worse because of divorce, it's gotten better – because women aren't hanging around in bad marriages where their kids are beaten up for no particular reason – and good on them. And people like Brendan, when asked if they would force peope to remain in terrible marriages are remarkably reluctant to say anything. I guess they'd rather it was all out of sight than in the open, but some things need the cleansing light of day.
The Bible is very clear on homosexuality.
Jesus said: "Get the behind me,Satan!" Matthew 16:23
Can't be clearer than that.
Would not the Leftist desire* to undo the Devil's Work of post-1984 fall into the same category? A hankering for a world that is gone, and which is not quite how the dreamers imagine it?
*Which I share.
A nice reflective column.
I liked old New Zealand when there were barely two million people, and petrol for my ’58 Ford V8 Custom 300 was 48 cents a gallon. The outrage when it went to 50 cents! A drive to Wellington on the weekend from Auckland with a well stocked chilly bin was quite achievable on a car plant workers wage, as well as paying rent and other living costs.
There was certainly a dark side to NZ homogeneity of earlier times. Pukekohe apartheid where there was separate Cinema seating for Māori customers was actually mirrored in various ways in other towns and cities. Even the Royal International Hotel in Auck CBD had a “No Maoris” sign in the 1960s.
Religion to me has always been riven with hypocrisy, not to mention relentless oppression of women and indoctrination of children before they have developed an independent world view, but the way Chris writes about the Herbert Church almost makes me miss it!
You seem to indicate that parental beatings are a thing of the past. That we have all grown beyond such behaviour. I think you need to remove the rose coloured glasses and look around. The beatings are just as prevalent, just as likely to be a precursor to jail time. If there has been any change it would be they are more openly discussed, not hidden away.
As someone who happily identifies as a socially conservative Christian, and who can remember life in the 1960’s, I can confirm that Kiwis of all religious persuasions and none often found themselves behaving in ways they would later regret. To that extent nothing has changed in sixty years.
However, there was a homogeneity of belief that bound both believer and non-believer alike; that Jack was as good as his master, a man was as good as his word, and mates didn’t bludge off each other. New Zealanders by-and-large shared a common identity regardless of ethnicity; one formed by a cultural and religious unity. Not everyone identified as a Christian, but our public morality was shaped by the teachings of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. The golden rule, objective truth, the importance of family, and yes, even duty formed our cultural backdrop. The Bible was read in public schools, and even those who were not Christians had some understanding of the Gospel and Old Testament Bible stories.
That said, I don’t have any Christian friends who express a desire to return to life in the 1960’s. However, we would be blind not to acknowledge that life in New Zealand has become more violent with both welfare and poverty more entrenched. We must surely lament the suffering caused by the break down and abandonment of the natural family, the atomisation of the individual, and for many the worship of self instead of our creator.
What the followers of atheistic humanism are discovering is that you cannot have the fruit of a Christian society if you have removed the roots from our cultural soil. However, the unbeliever cannot be blamed for this outcome, the apostasy began with the church, and people rightly decided that if Christians don’t believe the Bible and example the teaching of Christ, why should they?
Most Christians I know do not seek political solutions to what are essentially spiritual problems. Part of the reason we are in our current mess is that we have come to believe that all of our problems have a political solution. They don’t.
Consequently Chris, I’m very willing to look Truth in they eye, knowing that Jesus claimed to be the Truth. (John 14:6) May we all look to him and know the Truth that sets us free. (John 8:32) Only then will we see the restoration of virtue and hope we so desperately need in our country.
Ah Tiger – I remember when petrol was 1/6 gallon, and when I filled up my Morris Minor with something like three quarters of a gallon which was all I could afford, the petrol station attendant said "Whaddya you doing – weaning it?" I might have been insulted but I had to laugh.
Of course, you make a good point but much of our racism problem was hidden because most Maori lived in the country – out of sight out of mind.
I don't know if that comment is directed at me CXH, but while parental beatings still exist, they are a damn sight less common now than they used to be. Possibly because they are a precursor to jail time for the person administering them. And they have completely disappeared from schools thank God.
Yep - and much of the bleating about 'political correctness', 'free speech' and 'wokeism' is a lament that that lost world no longer exercises such ideological or social dominance.
Much - but not all. There is a rather narrow left criticism of so-called 'wokeism' which asserts that its obsession with racial and sexual identities obscures broader, deeper and more influential currents of economic class. But this is much less common and almost never encountered in a pure form.
I think what baffles conservatives even more is not only how quickly those beliefs which seemed to be shared widely were overturned, but even more so have been declared objectionable. But I agree that quite a few conservatives, as many others that are convinced about their view of the world, do not countenance the truth that what they obviously regard as truth is not widely shared. The same can be said of progressives at times, who think that what they regard as true is shared far more widely than they think.
It seems in your recent writings you tend to equate Christian with conservative. While that may be true in some respects at the present time, that is not necessarily a valid equation throughout history.
Among Christians in America in recent years there has been a tendency for "strategic retreat" to build strong communities, rather than trying the political route of seeking power. That's the tone of the New York Times Bestseller "The Benedict Option" by Rod Dreher. However, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization may change perception somewhat. For example, Rod Dreher confesses to being surprised by the Supreme Court decision. Possibly such a decision will make Christians more political again.
Chris, you have written a lot of posts about religion and Christians recently, but it seems you are a bewildered outsider who fails to understand the current Church and imputes all sorts of motives and confused world views to it. Possibly you haven't had much to do with the Church since 1967, so that your view is still coloured by what you experienced then, and which you have since reinterpreted through new eyes. I'd offer to get you more acquainted with the Church of today. Maybe one day you would even want to go to the American Bible Belt and experience some of what's happening there yourself.
"Among Christians in America in recent years there has been a tendency for "strategic retreat" to build strong communities, rather than trying the political route of seeking power."
If this is true, I've seen little evidence of it. Aside from the book. I think more relevant is "Project Blitz" – a Christian nationalist primer on how to take over the US. I once went to a fundagelical website and asked them how they could vote for someone as immoral and corrupt as Donald Trump. The overwhelming theme of the answers was that he would give them conservative judges who would then overturn Roe V Wade. There were a few minor asides about Obama being a transsexual drug addict, and Clinton being a witch – but that was the thrust of it. And they seem to have succeeded. Fanatical Christian judges, and radical conservative gerrymandering should see them right it seems to me – unless the Dobbs decision galvanises progressives ... especially women. So if you have actual evidence of this I'd really like to see it.
On another topic, I have become a little sceptical of business promises on Roe after talking to a few Internet acquaintances. Those that promised to pay for out-of-state trips for their female workers to get abortions. Those that might consider withdrawing from red states. I think I'll believe it when I see it.
And the results of our progressivism?
Who is honestly measuring the consequences?
The suicides, the dug abuse, the murdered babies?
The Rotary clubs and Sunday schools are but a memory while we try and fool ourselves, the self absorbed denizens, we are still living in a community.
"But what happens when levelling is the only instinct left? When the culture is so empty, so purposeless, so uprooted, that it has forgotten how to do anything but deconstruct itself? More to the point: what happens when levelling is the instinct not of the poor, but of power? What happens when the destruction of borders, limits and boundaries benefits big tech, big money and those who drink from their spigot, rather than the small voices left thirsting in the fields? And what happens when big money uses the language of the small voices — the language of levelling — to tie up its work in pretty bows?"
Paul Kingsnorth: https://unherd.com/2022/07/how-the-left-fell-for-capitalism/
Well David, when you can provide us with some evidence that the more religious a place is the better off we will be, we might start listening to you. But unfortunately the least religious countries in the world tend to be the most crime free. They also tend to be the most progressive.
What are the results of our conservatism?
The diminishing of belief in science, mass incarceration, high crime rates,child abuse often by religious of various stripes.
Rotary clubs and suddenly schools are but a memory and thank God for that. Unfortunately we are taught by conservatives that there is no such thing as community, that we are simply atoms swirling around bumping into each other. Self absorbed and selfish. We live by the almighty dollar, and if we are not progressive by God lots of people will die by it.
Thank you GS, a less enticing invitation to discussion is difficult to imagine.
It's great to see the development of new academia prepared to honour a commitment to genuine enquiry. While this is in America, where the weasels of woke are at their worst, we're not far behind.
Two new universities, Ralston College ( https://www.ralston.ac/ ) and The University of Austin ( https://www.uaustin.org/ ) have recently started up and include some highly respected academics in their faculty and advisors. Among the better known: Peter Boghossian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Kathleen Stock, Richard Dawkins, Jonathon Haidt, Glen Lourey, Joshus Katz, Andrew Sullivan, Larry Summers, Stephen Blackwood, Jordan Peterson (Chancellor at Ralston) Heather MacDonald, Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, Harvard's Harry Lewis and Fire co-founder Alan Charles Kors.
"Common sense would tell you: If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. Common sense would insist: If the leopard is currently eating the face of the person in the the cubicle next to me, what will stop it from eating mine?
But when the leopard comes for your colleague, what I have witnessed is that something like 99% of people find a way to wiggle out of this obvious next step. They tell themselves the person getting their face eaten deserved it. Or that the leopard was just particularly hungry that day.
That’s what makes today’s essay, by UCLA Anthropology Professor Joseph Manson, so important.
Most people who leave their jobs as professors these days do not do so because they have a choice. They leave because they are pushed out by ideological bullies. But Professor Manson is leaving of his own volition. Why? In large part because he understands the nature of leopards. Here’s his piece." — BW
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what your first sentence is referring to but whatever – Yeah right David, I'm sure that all these people who are "pushed out by bullies" are on the dole as soon as they leave. The problem is a course that in the US 90% of people can be fired for any reason or no reason. Your hero Bari Weiss is constantly telling stories about people being pushed out, and obviously you never really investigate them because you usually find that they as usual are being a little parsimonious with the truth.
And as usual you have ignored the major thrust of my post that nonreligious societies are safer, and often happier than religious ones.
Thank you GS, looks like I will have to be a little more direct. I don't think you're a person I can have a reasonable discussion with.
Aside from that, and surprisingly from someone that claims to be a student of the social sciences, you can't draw a conclusion from a single variable or correlation. To then go and make sweeping claims on that basis is probably another indication of a general unreasonableness. Or perhaps it's just ideologically motivated.
There's well established research on causal factors for, and correlations with, general criminality: deep inequality and no clear path towards legitimate social status for young men, lack of education, drug and alcohol abuse, fatherlessness, school truancy, social cohesion, size - smaller communities have less crime and so on.
I haven't checked on any correlation with religion and crime but I can imagine some considerable difficulty around interpretation of that data. Many of our societies, while no longer overtly religious, still hold to the values and moral injunctions inherited from their religion. We are, in both a material and moral sense, living from the bodies of our dead fathers - as the saying goes.
“you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you”
― Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
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