The religious cleavage in New Zealand society has historically played a relatively small part in the politics of the country. [Read more below]
The significance of the religious cleavage in New Zealand was demonstrated in 2002 when the Christian-oriented United Future party was elected to Parliament with 6.7% of the party vote. Six years earlier, the Christian Coalition won 4.3% of the party vote (falling just short of entering the first MMP Parliament). These performances suggest the existence of a reasonable-sized Christian voter base in New Zealand.
Yet the religious cleavage has historically played a relatively small part in New Zealand politics. Its main expression has been in the tendency for Catholics to vote Labour and for Anglicans and other Protestant denominations to support National:
Historically, the two main political parties in New Zealand have drawn from two religious streams. The Catholic, Salvation Army and Baptist churches – reflecting their base in the Welsh and Irish migrant working class – were aligned first with the Liberals, then with the Labour Party. The conservative right, as political scientist Barry Gustafson says, drew spiritual solace from elsewhere. ‘Presbyterians and Anglicans by and large supported the more conservative parties. The Reform Party that evolved into the National Party was violently anti-Catholic’ (Campbell, 1998c).
Writing in the 1960s, Mitchell (1969a: p.30) maintained that ‘religious differences are unimportant’ (see also: Vowles, 1998d: p.40, and Gold, 1992). And Levine has suggested, however, that the tendency of Catholics to vote Labour ‘may have been attributable to their working-class position’ and is therefore actually a consequence of the class cleavage (Levine, 1979: p.89).
Mulgan maintains that in the modern New Zealand party system, ‘Support for one religion or religious denomination rather than another is not reflected in political allegiance, with the minor exception of a slight tendency for Roman Catholics to prefer Labour’ (Mulgan, 1997a: p.275). More recently, there has also been a tendency for church-goers in general to vote National or New Zealand First, and those with no religious affiliation to vote Labour or the Alliance (ibid).
As explored in the post on United Future’s third party links, the alignments between the mainstream parties and the churches are also generally very weak. Neither National nor Labour are heavily influenced by the formal involvement of religious party members, and only United Future, Christian Heritage and Destiny New Zealand have any significant links with religious organisations. One of the major party components of United Future, the Future New Zealand party was established with the target of securing the votes of conservative Catholics and Pacific Islanders (Boston et al., 1996b: p.51). Party founder, Graeme Lee established the organisation in 1995 after moving ‘around the country building up the network of Christian leaders and businessmen that was to form the core of the new party’ (Heeringa, 1995: p.83).
The more morally conservative Christian Heritage Party was somewhat identified with the ‘reformed churches’ – an ‘alignment’ that led to the establishment of the rival Christian Democrats in May 1995 (Boston et al., 1996b: p.51). The Christian parties – Christian Heritage and Future New Zealand (originally named the Christian Democrats) – targeted the Christian and socially conservative vote. According to Heeringa, ‘That target group represents 250,000 regular churchgoers, moral conservatives scattered throughout pro-life organisations and charity groups and a largely conservative Pacific Island population’ (Heeringa, 1995: p.80).
Between the 1991 and 1996 censuses, religious denominations fell significantly – with declines for Anglicans of 100,284; Presbyterians, 82,761; Catholics, 25,500; Methodists, 17,844; Baptists, 16,542; and Ratana, 11,142 (Department of Statistics, 2000). In general the decline of mainstream established religions migh have had an impact on the right of the political spectrum – helping drain parties like National of its ideological substance.
[To be updated: please make any suggestions of other United Future third party linkages in the comments section below]