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Marriage Equality: Liberation Geography?

Wed 24 Oct 2012 In: Comment View at NDHA

If Auckland has lower than normal levels of marriage equality support for a metropolitan centre, then what do other patterns of support and opposition tell us about the lay of the land over this issue? According to the Colmar/Brunton poll on marriage equality, Hamilton, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin all have substantial majorities of support for marriage equality, and even the traditionally rural countryside is onside. What are the implications of these support patterns and what do they tell us about how New Zealand has changed? I must admit, Hamilton surprised me. It has tended to be the case in the past that the Waikato urban centre in question has wavered between religious social conservatism and metropolitan diversity, affected by the presence of the University of Waikato as an institution of higher education and a substantial rural hinterland. It was the birthplace of Rocky Horror creator Richard O'Brien, but also used to be a major centre of support for the Christian Heritage Party and voluntary student unionism. Still, there is Chinese Pentecostal minister Stephen Lee and his anti-equality petition work to consider there. I am also pleasantly surprised about Christchurch, and proud of my old home town for rising to the challenge. After all, Tim Barnett was Christchurch Central MP for twelve years or so, and since the fall of Graham Capill and closure of the Christchurch offices of the Maxim Institute after Logangate, Right to Life has been the only major Christian Right pressure group still resident in the city. I'm not saying that the city lacks problems with other forms of diversity, particularly in its civic tolerance for the vile white supremacist and neofascist sects that exist there, attacking tourists, overseas students, refugee new settlers, Jewish and Muslim cemeteries and store shopfronts. It's time that Christchurch local authorities and law enforcement faced up to that repulsive racist subculture's presence and cracked down on it. Dunedin has Otago University to leaven it, and probably add a civilising influence, and Wellington is the nation's capital, has a highly educated local workforce and houses many New Zealand corporate headquarters. Since the death of Patricia Bartlett in 2000, the feeble, dying Society for Promotion of Community Standards has active only in Upper Hutt and on the Kapiti Coast. Even rural and provincial districts are onside, probably due to their understandable preoccupation with social service closure and demographic loss to Auckland and overseas migration- which may mean that they're more preoccupied with those concerns rather than "post-materialist" concerns like opposition to marriage equality. Smallness and homogeneity used to mean greater propensities for religious social conservatism, but not now. Unfortunately, the Colmar/Brunton poll didn't mention ethnicity in terms of its breakdown of polling support and opposition to marriage equality. At a guess, I think we'd probably see complexities in support and opposition. First-generation migrants tend to be more conservative than successive generations, due to their desire to preserve the values of their cultures of origin, particularly when it comes to areas of high religious observance. Ah, but which religion? It's probably the case that there are hardline opponents of marriage equality amongst some older Pacific Islanders. On the other hand, their younger generational cohorts have adapted to life in Aotearoa/New Zealand by taking elements from overseas African-American and other youth subcultures and may be less inclined to listen to the churches. While the same may apply to Korean communities in time, marriage equality opposition has a slight problem there- it's a dysfunctional "fit" between the racist past of many pakeha/palagi Christian Right elder activists, their active opposition to multiculturalism and their support for New Zealand First, which has traditionally attacked East Asian immigration. No wonder there were so few Pentecostal Korean opponents of marriage equality present at the picket outside Parliament for the Marriage Equality Bill's first reading. Still, unlike most of the other East Asian migrant communities, Christianity has a stronger presence within South Korea. However, the same is not true when it comes to China- and Buddhism doesn't tend to exclude lesbian and gay participants, although one wonders about the antigay Taoist Falun Gong cult. Hamilton Chinese Christian Church's Pastor Stephen Lee may find some resistance to his message, given the religious composition of Chinese migrant communities. Whether New Zealand First's opposition to marriage equality damages the perceptions of Christian Right opponents generally within Korean, Chinese and other east Asian immigrant communities remains to be seen. As for South Asian communities, the "Winston Factor" may be at work there as well. Although the Federation of Islamic Authorities of New Zealand has said that New Zealand imams won't allow Muslim same-sex marriages, and nor will Sikh temples, it has not actively campaigned against same-sex marriage, unlike British and Canadian Muslim social conservatives. In the Canadian instance, which displays greater multiculturalism, there were counter-mobilisations from liberal and progressive Muslim, Sikh, Bahai and Buddhist groups against religious social conservatives within Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian immigrant communities. Within Western Europe, opposition to marriage equality from anti-immigrant populist parties equivalent to New Zealand First here has fostered neutrality amongst migrant communities, given that they have been reassured that religious institutions will not be forced to comply with secular and civil institutional marriage equality. One of the most surprising aspects of the marriage equality debate here has been the emergence of forthright marriage equality supporters such as Christians for Marriage Equality Aotearoa New Zealand, fighting against Family First and the Conservative Party within environments such as the Anglican and Methodist church, from whence they derive much of their support. By contrast, many opponents of marriage equality seem to originate from the dying Presbyterian and Baptist churches and fundamentalist sects. Given that liberal theology predominates within New Zealand Anglicanism and that Methodism has a strong social justice heritage within this country as well, it isn't surprising that these denominations are onside here. I was pleasantly surprised to see some Presbyterian supporters of marriage equality as well, but one wonders about the ultimate survival of this denomination amidst such circumstances, given its steep decline in membership after its fundamentalist takeover, as noted in successive censuses. Younger generational cohorts are strongly supportive, which counter the opposition of the oldest generational cohorts. Not all older New Zealanders are unsupportive though, especially not those with LGBT offspring and LGBT-led families that contain grandchildren, or those who count older LGBT community members amidst their circle of friends, or older social justice activists. As for the pro-equality sentiments of the younger cohorts, Family First and the Conservative Party, or whatever follows them, may find themselves in difficulty several years from now. One thinks of the anger that many working-class voters felt against Catholicism for encouraging the schism within the Australian Labor Party over anti-communism and the resultant secularisation of upwardly mobile ex-Catholic former working class children of such families during the sixties and seventies. It meant that Australia experienced far stronger support for abortion rights and abortion law liberalisation during those decades and thereafter. What if something similar happens over opposition to marriage equality now, and (say) euthanasia law reform as a consequence during the 2020s or 2030s? Still, the New Zealand Christian Right has never been noted for its strategic foresight... That may explain something that I've noticed about the Christian Right's profile during the current phases of the marriage equality debate. Family First seems to have a strong enough online presence, but there seems to be no widespread signage, petition distribution or pamphleteering apart from its websites- Family First itself, "Protect Marriage" and Is it because US Christian Right- sourced propaganda, tactical and strategic advice are not matched by actual levels of public or overseas funding which would allow such a strenghened offline presence? And certainly, Investigate's bimonthly frequency and the Conservative Party's limitation to Auckland precincts thus far leads one to suspect that the latter is the case. Unlike the United States, which has abnormally high levels of Christian religious observance for a western society, New Zealand's experience of growing secularisation renders it more similar to Western Europe, as is also the case in Canada. And there are even stresses and strains within the New Zealand Christian Right itself. While Right to Life New Zealand has stated its opposition to marriage equality, many anti-euthanasia elements of the conservative Catholic community regard Maryan Street's "End of Life Choices Bill" as a far greater threat to their religious beliefs. On tactical and strategic grounds too, they are not overly enamoured of continued fundamentalist Protestant marriage equality opponents advocacy of binding citizens referenda, given that these tactics have been used to introduce euthanasia law reform within Oregon and Washington State, and preserve euthanasia access in Switzerland. If the End of Life Choices Bill ends up within Parliament, these interdenominational fissures may become chasms. Many anti-euthanasia conservative Catholics may oppose marriage equality, but others prioritise their opposition to abortion and euthanasia over what they perceive as "futile" opposition to marriage equality. Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 24th October 2012    

Credit: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 24th October 2012 - 10:19am

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