Hard News by Russell Brown

Incipient Moonbats

David Cohen wrote an interesting column on the coverage of religious news and issues in last week's NBR. He's right: matters of the spirit generally get an even worse deal than matters of science in the papers, which is saying something.

He notes that The Press seems to handle this round more intelligently than other papers ("… on behalf of those readers who find the world of religion at least as interesting as the details of the latest sporting fixture or the thoughts of an autocue reader on the great questions of our time, one couldn't help but be impressed").

On the other hand, he takes issue with the reporting of the recent Destiny Church march in Auckland:

Are committed Christians in New Zealand as great a menace to civilisation as Islamic fundamentalism? It would seem more than a few reporters think they could be.

On my computer screen as I type are the results of a Google search of news items on this month's street march in Auckland by perhaps as many as 15,000 members of the Destiny Church. Almost without exception the reports portray the participants as incipient moonbats, intolerant to a man, itching for a theocratic cleansing of the secular status quo.

Add to this the spectre of a "dangerously" charismatic frontman - with a taste for business suits, yet - and it all starts to look less like a summer day on Queen St than a bad day in Gaza.

In other words, the local "religious right" really is no different from the Mideastern variety: its adherents talk the same, they look the same. If it wiggles it's gotta be fat, right?

But of course this isn't the Middle East and the Destiny folk cannot be seriously likened to Islamofascists (as indeed countless millions of Muslims shouldn't be either). They're ordinary working-class New Zealanders, albeit ones who until recently might have felt left out of the political scene and now want to make their point the old-fashioned way through organisation and persuasion.

Perhaps there are a few extremists among their ranks, but this has yet to be backed up with any serious evidence. In the case of the recent march, what does remain in evidence is the spectacle of a fairly normal democratic day in the antipodes.

He's right to the extent that, just like the Hikoi organisers, Destiny has every right to emphasise its point and force itself into the headlines by marshalling supporters onto the streets. But it's a bit of a straw man argument to focus on apparent (but unquoted) characterisations of Destiny Church as just-like-Islamic fundamentalists.

Tamaki has been known in sermons to directly compare homosexuals to murderers and rapists. GayNZ.com collected a few more of The Words of Brian on that topic. He famously declared women leaders to be "the work of the devil" and promised his flock they would "rule" New Zealand within four years. I had not personally heard him say these things, however, so I thought it reasonable to spend some time listening to at least one sermon.

I chose Vipers of Religion, the first of several sermons in MP3 form linked to from the home page of the Destiny Church site. Clearly, this is one Brian wants us to hear.

Be warned that it is long and tedious, and that the Lord did not bless Pastor Brian with a lyrical tongue. In fact, feel free to skip through to just about halfway, where the really nasty stuff starts. He describes Islam as "that devilish thing" and the construction of a Buddhist temple in Botany Downs as "opening a door from Hell", and then goes on to link both with "immigrants ... who won't change their demon religions" and are "pouring in" to New Zealand as a result of a "demon" looking around the world for openings where God has been pushed out. They are, he claims, bringing with them the economic and social degradation that their wicked faiths have wrought on their countries of origin.

That sounds quite "extreme" to me. Indeed, you probably couldn't get away with this sort of ethnic vilification anywhere outside a church. Thereafter, Tamaki goes on to emphasise that he was appointed by God, declare that "democracy is a lower order of government that theocracy," and declare, after serially trashing the various mainstream churches, that if he had half a million followers, he would "rule" New Zealand. Presumably, there is further idiocy but I felt it wasn't really worth my time sticking around to listen to it.

I raised the issue with Cohen, who was good enough to reply (and send me a copy of the column, so I didn't have to retype it). He informed me that my qualms about Destiny's practice of tithing 10% of the income of its working-class followers, whether they can afford it or not, showed my "lack of biblical knowledge … Tithing is as old as ancient Judaism, and as historically widespread; indeed it has been said that the origins of progressive taxation lie with the practice. Incidentally, it is tautological to speak of a '10% tithe,' because the word tithe (ma'asrah, in the original Hebrew) literally means 'one tenth.' I imagine all or most religious groups expect their followers to tithe or something approaching it, in order to make ends meet, spread their word, do good works, etc. Destiny is hardly unique in this regard!"

No, but Destiny may be unique here in the energy with which it looks to extract money from its followers. This mystery worshipper was repelled by the emphasis on the money collection at a Destiny service, and Tamaki's regard for family values does not stop him taking his cut of solo mothers' DPB payments. There have been a number of reports of former members claiming to have been harassed for money. I don't think most churches do that, or see why I shouldn't regard it as exploitation of the vulnerable.

And the stuff about immigrants? Cohen:

So that's his opinion. Some people compare the Tamakians to fascistic pollyannas, which is tantamount to the same kind of cheap invective.

It bloody well is not. In that sermon, Tamaki is not simply mocking other faiths. He is describing (to followers who presumably believe what he says) immigrants with minority religious beliefs as an actual social evil, who will "flood in" and ruin their country. I would have thought, given his own background, that Cohen might be a little more sensitive to that. Onwards:

Not being a practising Christian, I'm not terribly interested in Tamaki's views per se, which from a cursory glance appear more akin to the bromides of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, but ... I still don't believe you're fairly representing the appeal his movement. Have you ever bothered to interview one of these revivalists? Has anyone in the downtown media? The answers could turn out to be more complex than you what you suggest.

But was Cohen seriously suggesting that the content of that sermon - and presumably many others like it - was not extreme?

Depends on what you mean by extreme. Extreme opinions? Sure, on the face of it. But extremism also suggests a kind of antisocial behavior that the Destiny followers, to the best of my knowledge, don't engage in. Underneath the bubbling rhetoric, what we're really talking about here is a movement of poorer, largely working-class social conservatives looking for a way into the polity. They deserve to be treated seriously by the media. Again I'm reminded of the Farrakhanites in the U.S., whom I don't much care for, but who have been extensively analysed in the American media--as for instance when they staged a Million Man March on the Mall in Washington back when I lived there. Where's the serious local analysis of Destiny?

So far as I can see, "a serious analysis of Destiny" might look at the followers as "working-class social conservatives", but it would also look at whether they actually brought their political beliefs with them into the church, or whether they're just parroting the Pastor. Rank-and-file followers have occasionally been interviewed, and they sometimes post to discussion forums, but I've yet to see one utter anything much like a coherent political philosophy.

But the main point, in my view, is that you can't have it both ways. If you're going to take Destiny "seriously", then surely you're obliged to take seriously what its followers are taught in church. Dismissing it as mere "opinion" is equivalent to not taking it seriously, to, in fact, dismissing the Pastor as a moonbat, incipient or otherwise.

Speaking of religious zealotry, President Bush, the self-styled defender of the sanctity of life in the Schiavo case, in 1999 signed a Texas law giving spouses top priority in making decisions such as those in the Schiavo case. As the Los Angeles Times story makes clear, he didn't just initial something that passed across his desk, he made a special trip back from a campaign roadshow to do it. The law that Bush signed was used to withdraw life support from a six month old boy, against the wishes of his mother, who could not afford to arrange other care for him. John Stewart nailed this issue, again: here in QuickTime.

On the same issue, Craig Ranapia of NZ Pundit asked me to ask you whether any of you have recorded specific wishes as to what you would wish to happen if you were in the same position as Terri Schiavo. Has anyone in the readership done anything like this?

Nick Turner was in touch:

Can I drag you back to foreign policy? Isn't it a pity Helen vetoed the purchase of those F-16s that the US decided it couldn't sell to Pakistan and wanted to find another home for? Now Condoleezza is apparently relenting and they may be sold to Pakistan after all! Which is making the Indians demand several times as many to protect themselves. So did Helen spark a subcontinental arms race that Max Bradford was trying to prevent?


Anyway, I have lunch beckoning. Have a nice Easter break wherever you are or whatever you believe. (I always enjoyed Easter most when I lived in London, when it really did seem to signal the arrival of Spring.) Me, I'll be working a good part of the time on a new business venture that I will tell you about after April 1 …