There was abroad in the church during the 70s and 80s a discursive theology that explained the class differences between us as at the periphery and those at the centre – and that was Conservative White Christianity. Wealth in this religious paradigm was not the byproduct of a social hierarchy where the exploitation of labour, legal violations as an instrument of colonization, greed or even hard work was discussed. Rather wealth was intertwined with the rhetoric of righteousness. ‘America is prosperous because it was promised and we American Mormons are prosperous because we are God’s faithful’.
Even from the pulpit the occasional visitor would point out that our so-called socialist state prevented us from fully enjoying the fruits of Zion. When (and on the rare occasion) this rhetoric was met with protestations the push back was usually in the form of an accusation of jealousy – because of course the assumption was that we colonials were all North Americans in waiting, that we were to hold our own nation in disdain for its backwardness and lack of financial sophistication and at any stage we would border cross and get ourselves to the promised land!
There was a certain pride in the advanced capitalist state that was and continues to be the United States which was difficult to disaggregate from the arrogance of a religion which believes it has all of the answers and is vested with all truth.
Upon this theatre of ‘The Church’ was played the conservative ‘Christianity’ of the late Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of state in the Dwight Eisenhower administration, along with other prominent members who espoused the views of the John Birch society. The John Birch Society was an old-right, deeply conservative political advocacy group who wedged their Christianity into arguments which called for a re-centering of the US constitution into public life. Notwithstanding that that also meant an eschewal of the civil rights movement and any other united display of resistance to the prevailing social or economic order. By the 1970’s enough was said (with great veracity) from the tabernacle in Salt Lake City for it to filter through to the periphery. Unfortunately our lack of proximity from the metropol meant that we weren’t privy to the subtleties, nuances and religious politicking that took place around such arch conservatives as Ezra Benson in order to counter his biases. At the periphery we weren’t necessarily aware of the climate of internal debate that took place around the church’s inner circle. The most forceful voices were taken the most seriously as a statement of the church’s position notwithstanding that many of these arguments flew in the face of our own political landscape. As a nation we were avowedly socially democratic and our membership during the 1970’s was comprised of a large population (if not a majority) of Māori followers, many of whom had a sympathy for the ongoing Civil Rights struggles of their black brothers and sisters in the United States.
Thus Mormonism at the periphery was a place of negotiation and contestation. On the one hand the LDS church was a place of refuge and joy for New Zealanders who, tired of the class conservatism of the religious old guard, embraced this glittering American religion, with all of its answers, its shiny clean cut youthfulness, its clarity on points of theology, and its never-ending hopeful aphorisms about how to be now, and how it will be in the hereafter. Yet some of this more flagrant use of the tabernacle podium in Temple Square to espouse a ‘Dale Carnegie does Glenn Beck’ theology seemed out of place in a New Zealand where the matter of religion appeared in a different conversation than who to vote for or how good ones business portfolios were. While for the Americans this was deeply intertwined and continues to be central to the way they understand themselves, New Zealanders have never presumed that they were the promised land or moral arbiters for the rest of the world, much less qualified to make politico-theological statements on the state of society with the certainty of folks of the same ilk as Ezra Benson. New Zealanders characteristically do things with a kind of sardonic playfulness suggesting that no one should put on airs, there is no certainty, all we have is each other, and governments are largely self-serving trumped up bureaucrats, and whoever thinks they know better than that has a carrot stuck up their arse.
So New Zealand Mormons are caught in the cross fire of seemingly competing ways of being in the world. A seditious religion with roots in the culturally subversive frontier of the new world colonies (which is where the story of New Zealand and Mormonism converge), a compelling theology which works to undermine the English class system with its own open access heavenly hierarchy (which is aberrant enough to be convincing) but with over tones of a doctrinaire conservatism which positions material wealth, moral conservatism and political preferences as somehow intertwined with ones religious adherence. Streams of discourse and ideology converge and depart at the periphery. Which is not to say that streams of discourse don’t appear at the metropol, that there isn’t complexity and diversity in thinking in the Great Basin Kingdom. At the periphery however, there is more to contend with particularly in terms of the way we are in the world, with how to negotiate the contested territory of religion and national identity.