Over the past weeks my thoughts have been on the forthcoming General Election and the many issues that impinge on the lives of the people of this country. How I wondered did the church newspaper the Outlook deal with the political issues of the day. Whatever the era the issues they focussed on vary little but the changing context of what is understood as a just and fair society from a Christian perspective saw their issues become more politically focussed.
The Editor of the Outlook stressed on numerous occasions in the first decades of the 20th century that it was not within the paper’s province ‘to dabble in the oft times muddy waters of politics in so far as dealing with moral questions’.
What were these moral questions? Issues around the availability of alcohol, lack of Bible teaching in the public schools (New Zealand’s Education Act (1877) stressed a secular education system), invasion of the sanctity of the Sabbath, abolition to the Totalisator Board and gambling. These issues create the downfall of society and the ‘progress of the Colony’ the various writers to the Outlook noted. They argued that it is a right and duty of the State to provide an education in moral principles but within a secular education system meant sure failure. ‘The laws on which the State rests are practically Biblical laws… If the State executes these laws … [it] should teach its own ethics to its future citizens’. Hence their focus and struggle to have Bible teaching in schools introduced.
Enter Richard John Seddon in 1893, a Liberal leader whom the Outlook had a love hate relationship with. The writers were unsure whether Seddon could live up to what they believed were the rights and responsibilities of Government. By 1899 Election the Outlook articles expressed considerable concern at the lack of progress on the moral front. To the surprise of the more conservative Presbyterian clergy, the people returned ‘King Dick’ Seddon to Government with a large majority.
Seddon’s ‘liberalism’ did not inspire these writers, they note his autocratic approach and yet raise questions around the emerging ideal that human nature is inherently good which, they wrote, would lead to anarchism. Why Seddon proved to be so popular left them bewildered. What happened to the maxim, they queried, ‘that the righteous exalteth the nation’ when the forces of unrighteousness were allowed to shelter beneath Government’s protection.
Focus on sectarianism crept into their arguments when they suggest the Catholic vote was a contribution to Seddon’s huge majority. But the most criticism went to the media who waged ‘a relentless and unscrupulous’ war portraying Seddon and his Government as evil. It picked up on issues familiar to us today, such as ‘the exorbitant travelling expenses’ of Members of Parliament, cronyism, and a pragmatism that appealed to special groups. This onslaught, which the Church father’s believed was uncalled for, caused the ‘ordinary’ voter to support the underdog resulting in the voter not considering the ‘real’ issues at stake.
Leading up to the 1902 Election the Churches in New Zealandwent all out to convince their voting public that they must continue to support the reform of the Education Act to allow religious instruction in schools by calling for a referendum. Seddon’s denial to support the referendum process infuriated a number of Presbyterians who accused him of dismissing the democratic process. ‘It comes as a rude shock,’ wrote the Editor of Outlook, ‘to find that Seddon is afraid to trust the people…measures dealing with moral questions invariable meet with scant consideration at the hands of the present Government.’
The ‘no license’ issue received far greater support in 1902 probably due to the two religious Revivals that took place that year. By 1905 this support waned and the Presbyterian fathers felt aggrieved that the ‘no license’ debate had taken a political turn due to the financial support of the ‘trade’ in opposing the Churches view.
Compromise had become the enemy of the people with ‘good and evil so marvellously mingled’, that it seemed impossible to distinguish significant political differences. They concluded that from the strictly Christian standpoint there was ‘very little to choose between Government and Opposition’.
Seddon died in June 1906 while visiting Australia. He believed his liberal reforms had made New Zealandthe Social Laboratory of the world. Presbyterians could not agree on moral grounds and they continued to argued well into the mid 20th century that the moral well-being of the Nation lay with a non-secular Education Act and State controlled prohibition.