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.