Garth George: Keep church and state separate


As one who was taught from an early age that religion and politics don't mix, and that church and state should remain separated, I shake my head in bemusement every year when gaggles of politicians of several stripes make their annual pilgrimage to Ratana Pa to rub noses with leaders of the Ratana Church.

The occasion is the celebration of the birthday of the church's founder, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, which raises the question of why politicians don't flock in droves to churches at Christmas to celebrate the birthday of the founder of the Christian Church.

And one has to wonder how often politicians leave their duties in Wellington to consult with the Catholic Bishops' Conference or the General Synod of the Anglican Church or the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church or the Methodist Conference or the Assemblies of God, or any other church's annual meeting you care to name, including the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

It seems, as with so many things these days, that an accommodation is made for Maori which doesn't apply to any of the rest of us, not even the Anglican Church, which has a triumvirate of archbishops - one for Maori, one for Pacific Islanders and one for Pakeha and the rest.

What bothers me more is that tyro Labour leader David Shearer this week invited Ratana elders to Parliament to discuss the future of their union.

"What I want to be able to do is establish a much more regular and stronger relationship with the Ratana people," said he, and pointed to MPs Rino Tirikatene and Louisa Wall as both being Ratana followers.

How often, I wonder, are the leaders of other churches invited to Wellington to discuss their concerns and develop relationships, even if it is only with the main opposition party?

Considering the state of the nation - which involves a hell of a lot more than minority Maoridom - I suspect that, were such an invitation offered, every church in the country would be only too happy to express its concerns face-to-face in the Beehive.

Heaven knows, the Christian and Islamic leaders in this country have enough concerns to keep politicians occupied for the rest of this term. But there's a fat chance of that happening since some of the churches' main concerns are about things that politicians just don't want to know about.

The link between Ratana and politics goes back to 1936 when the venerated Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, and TW Ratana forged an alliance. It paid off because, for decades, afterwards a huge majority of Maori always voted Labour.

But, in recent decades, with the advent of MMP and more political parties - particularly the Maori Party and now Mana - the Maori vote has dispersed, and those who once saw themselves bound by the Ratana movement to vote Labour are casting their votes elsewhere.

The other thing that has happened is that for some years now Labour and National and other (think New Zealand First) politicians have gatecrashed the birthday celebrations at Ratana Pa once a year. National had no fewer than 17 MPs at the pa this week.

The one piece of good news to come out of the occasion came from Ratana's Waaka Palmer, who delivered a message from the church's president, Haare Meihana, telling Mr Shearer it was time to review the alliance and the church now had to take account of the greater political diversity of its people.

And the church's secretary, William Meremere, told the gathering that although the church had a formal view, its followers were free to vote as they wished.

Perhaps that signals the beginning of the end of this unhealthy relationship.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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