Sometime ago I watched a video by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in which Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School related a story of a conversation that he had with a Marxist economist from China.
The scholar from China had come to the end of his Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard and Professor Christensen asked him if he had learnt anything that was surprising or unexpected while he was in America.
Without hesitation, the scholar said ‘Yes.’
“I had no idea how critical religion was to the functioning of democracy. The reason why democracy works is not because the government was designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather democracy works because most people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law. And in your past, most Americans attended a Church or Synagogue every week. And they were taught there by people whom they respected,” he said.
The scholar went on to say, “Americans followed these rules because they had come to believe they were not just accountable to society; they were accountable to God.”
Professor Christensen said that it invoked in him a concern that he had harboured for some time. “As religion loses its influence over the lives of Americans, what will happen to our democracy? Where are the institutions that are going to teach the next generation of Americans that they too need to voluntarily choose to obey the law?”
The NZ scene
If we replaced America in that story with New Zealand, I would put it to you that religion has played a significant role in New Zealand’s history in the promotion of the values of democracy such as freedom, basic human rights; our love and honour of our families, Queen, God and Country.
Over the years, New Zealand’s set of values have evolved, often invoked through sad experiences, to include the pursuit of an egalitarian society; a fair go for all; the importance of work, union representation and a fair wage; respecting the Treaty of Waitangi; free healthcare for all; the need to have a protective welfare system for every citizen, especially to protect the elderly, the widowed, the solo parent, the young, sick, the disabled, the poor and the destitute.
These values and principles were taught and promoted to the New Zealand population from the pulpit of many religious groups, by people whom we respected in the society. In fact, in New Zealand’s political history we find a great number of Members of Parliament, trade unions, or in local government were either Clergy members of the various churches, or held senior posts in those religious organisations.
Like Professor Christensen, I too harbour concerns that as religion loses its influence on our society, and the market ideology takes hold of the next generation, is there any structure today that can replace the role that religion has played prominently in the past?
Statistics point out that in the past decade, the number of Pakeha New Zealanders that do not believe in God, or do not attend church have been rising to about 40%.
When I visit church organisations throughout New Zealand, many have small congregations and are more elderly.
The exception is with Pacific Churches, Muslim Mosques and Jewish Synagogues and Hindu Temples where attendance is high and there are many young people attending.
Who will continue to consistently and unwaveringly promote a strong moral compass that our societies will follow, as religion has attempted to do in the past?
How do we ensure that people will freely choose to obey the rule of law, as promoted from the pulpits?
Who will challenge market forces to ensure that the elderly, the widow, the young, the poor, the destitute, the sick and disabled are protected, and argue for a more equitable society?
How do we ensure that the strong foundations of peace, tolerance, law and order, and the values of an egalitarian society, and the values of democracy, of freedom and respect for human rights are passed onto the next generation?
Families are the fundamental units of our democracy. And now more than ever, we need strong families, with strong faiths to continue to promote these traditional values of freedom, human rights, work for all, respect for law and order, protecting our planet, protecting workers, protecting the most vulnerable and striving for a more equitable society for all.
Now more than ever, we need strong families to flourish, thrive and nurture the next generation to realise their fullest potential and continue the legacy of New Zealanders who are law-abiding, peaceful, caring, tolerant citizens, who are not afraid to speak out against bigotry, racism, misogyny, or hate wherever and whenever we see it.
Su’a William Sio is elected Member of Parliament from Mangere Constituency in South Auckland and Labour Party’s Spokesperson for Pacific Island Affairs, Interfaith Dialogue and many other portfolios.