Adapted from an article originally published on GayNZ.com in 2005.
It’s late November 2005, and only a week out from the Parliamentary vote on the anti-gay Marriage (Gender Clarification) Bill. The bill is modelled after the Defence of Marriage Act in the United States, and the Marriage Amendment Act in Australia, which would codify that marriage in New Zealand could only ever be between one man and one woman.
The bill was introduced by MP Larry Baldock, a member of Peter Dunne’s United Future party, at the time heavily influenced by the fundamentalist Christian voter base.
Members of religious sect the Exclusive Brethren are busying themselves in Wellington, lobbying MPs to vote in favour of the bill. Earlier that year, they had spent $500,000 on a leaflet campaign to houses up and down the nation threatening, amongst other things, that the Green Party were planning to create “rainbow communities”.
Meanwhile, on Auckland’s North Shore, National’s only openly gay MP Chris Finlayson has been invited to make a speech. The subject he has chosen for his speech is unfair persecution of minorities by way of harmful rhetoric. He settles mainly on one minority that he feels is being picked on.
“These comments need to be examined in the context of liberal-conservative principles. They identify a minority group in a very unfair manner,” he says, going on to label certain criticisms of this group as “an unfair portrayal” and “victimisation”. “I believe that such statements breach the Human Rights Act 1993,” he says. This group “should lay a complaint with the Human Rights Commission against those who have been making these kinds of statements in the media”, he says.
In fact, such is the level of discrimination against this group that it requires comparisons with anti-Semitism: “There is a danger in any society to label unpopular minority groups in ways that amount to victimisation,” he says. “I think they are now effectively conducting a pogrom against this small minority, rather like the pogroms launched by the Tsarist government against the Jews in Russia in the late nineteenth century. These attacks should stop.”
After the crap that had been flung at the GLBT community over the preceding two years in New Zealand, you could be forgiven for thinking that Finlayson – one of us – was actually talking about us. But he wasn’t. He was talking about the Exclusive Brethren. Why on earth did he decide to go there?
“While I had no contact with the Brethren, I decided that the whole issue of religious tolerance was something that was worth looking at,” he told me. “And while we are all exalted – and rightly so – as a predominantly Christian country to be tolerant of the Muslim point of view, I think the same principles apply when you’re dealing with what may be perceived to be extremist religions within the Christian traditions. I thought it was a good subject to talk about generally.”
Finlayson’s speech, published on the National Party website at the time, did more than generalise. It all but included the phrase “the defence rests”. It tells us that the Exclusive Brethren political platform is nothing to be afraid of, and that they “appear to have very strong family units”. According to Finlayson, the Exclusive Brethren’s election-time lobbying saw them only interested in issues like defence, decentralisation, immigration, superannuation, and tax.
There’s no mention of their fear of “rainbow communities”. There’s no mention of anti-gay push polling, in which voters were reportedly telephoned by people on behalf of the National Party and harangued about the “moral decline of New Zealand under the Labour government” and “the gay marriage bill”.
Although the Exclusive Brethren denied any formal involvement in these activities, National’s campaign director Stephen Joyce confirmed to the media in September that church members were helping the party with polling.
The Exclusive Brethren have been far more overt in their anti-gay campaigning overseas, particularly in Canada. Under the pseudonym of Concerned Canadian Parents, the Exclusive Brethren threw their weight behind an aggressive assault against gay marriage, waged via newspaper advertisements and direct mail pamphlets. This campaign urged Canadians to contact their local MPs and protest, claiming that marriage was “about to be dumped into the garbage can of history” and denouncing gay unions as incapable of rising to the standards of an “honourable relationship”.
Finlayson says he doesn’t know enough about the Exclusive Brethren activity overseas to be able to comment on it. Their anti-gay tactics during the election in New Zealand he describes as “allegations”. However: “I think many of their views would be perceived as anti-gay,” he says. “But there are plenty of organisations that I have respect for that could be regarded as anti-gay.”
Would he stick up for them though? “Oh yes. I’d stick up for anyone who wants to state their point of view because I think that one of the things that makes New Zealand a richer society is when you have a disputatious society. Let’s have a good debate about all the issues, and may the best view prevail.”
But who exactly is he sticking up for? Finlayson’s speech also attacked New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission.
“I think the Human Rights Commission should be very interested in this most recent form of religious discrimination against a small minority which is not very well understood,” Finlayson said in his speech. “I doubt, however, that the Human Rights Commission would be particularly interested in examining this matter. It is the ultimate politically correct organisation. Protecting the interests of a small and badly understood religious minority would not come into that category.”
The Human Rights Act might beg to differ, seeing as it not only prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, but affords special protections to religious orders – unavailable to the rest of us – which allows them to legally discriminate against others. A secular employer cannot refrain from hiring a person simply because they are gay. A church employer can.
“That’s confusing two issues,” says Finlayson. “The Human Rights Commission has a brief to make sure that the international covenant, as reflected in the New Zealand Bill Of Rights, is honoured by everyone at every time. I’d like to the think that the Human Rights Commission would stand up for the rights of everyone, not just the types of groups that one might expect to go them. Also, standing up for unpopular causes and groups is, I would have thought, in the mandate of the HRC.”
How about Holocaust denial? There’s an unpopular cause. Poor old David Irving couldn’t even get into the country.
“The best way to deal with the David Irvings of this life is to give them a pulpit and let them speak,” Finlayson says. “The best way of exposing the fallacy of people’s arguments is in a very open, and some would say even pleasant way – let them say their piece.”
But the Exclusive Brethren are anything but open, especially in how they choose to “say their piece”.
“That doesn’t matter,” says Finlayson. “I’d say I’m called to a higher standard.”
This higher standard means raising the level of debate beyond what Finlayson calls “ad hominem attacks”. The comments about the Exclusive Brethren which Finlayson particularly objected to were from Attorney-General David Parker, which referred to the Brethren as “the Taliban of New Zealand’s religious sects”.
Yet Finlayson’s own speech referred to attacks against the Exclusive Brethren as a “pogrom” – a word meaning “an organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews.”
“That was perhaps a bit hyperbolic,” he acknowledges. Nevertheless: “I think some of the language against them [the Exclusive Brethren] has been pretty extravagant in recent times. I think there are a lot of instances where you have extreme criticism of gay people, and I’ve already said that ought to be defended. Or opposed. But it’s the way in which you do it.”
This new wave of tolerance means he now regrets comments he made about the Christian Heritage Party last year, whom he called the “Graham Capill Party” at the time. Even though Christian Heritage had made a public personal attack on Finlayson by questioning the morals of the National Party fielding an openly gay candidate, Finlayson thinks now it was unfair to tar all the CHNZ members with the Capill brush. “But I think the comments they made about me were utterly derisory. The comments they made about me were rather pathetic, because rather than look at me as a person, they sort of put me in one particular class, and that was the end of me.”
Should we all take a leaf out the book of the most famous bearded character in history, Jesus, who said we should treat others as we would like to be treated? “That’s a good way to act, whether or not you’re a Christian. People should debate the issues without getting into this Taliban silliness. I’d do it for the Muslims as well. I’ve done it for the Jews, when the Jewish headstones were desecrated.”
Would he do it for the gay and lesbian community? “We’ve all got to be as tolerant as we can. If we simply say – well they do it to us, so let’s do it to them it is an inadequate way of dealing with the issue.”
So if the Destiny Church again marched through the streets of Wellington in black shirts and filled Parliament grounds holding up anti-gay placards (as they did in 2004), we could expect a speech from him on our behalf? “If they wanted to go for a march, provided they do so within the bounds of the law, fair enough. It wouldn’t worry me. I think their marches highlight their inadequacies quite well.”
While Finlayson may be encouraging us to shed a metaphorical tear for the embattled EB’s, others don’t quite see his point. Peter Lineham is Associate Professor of History at Massey University, was scholar-in-residence last year at Auckland’s Bible College, and is often seen in the media as a commentator on religious issues. He says he read Finlayson’s speech with interest. “What puzzles me is exactly what attack has been made on the Exclusive Brethren’s human rights?” he told me. “It seems to me they spoke in public and had to live with the consequences.”
However: “On the other hand it is certainly a welcome development that the government is beginning to respect religious freedom and tolerance. Fear of Islamic terrorism has generated an amazing amount of awareness of religion by a government that in my view has become just too secular, almost anti-religious.”
NOTE: The Marriage (Gender Clarification) Bill was soundly defeated in Parliament, with Finlayson voting against it.