Christian Converser

Free Speech And The NZ Church [1]

Free speech is a topic that receives a lot of attention in society. The issue is perhaps best known worldwide because of the prominence it attracts in the United States of America. This has, throughout the history of New Zealand, led to a great deal of US influence upon our society and culture, including in the church. An example of the type of faith-based content that Christians can access that is US-sourced is from Trinity Broadcasting Network’s satellite TV stations. TBN have a particular stream of channels called TBN Pacific which is carried on the Australian Optus D2 geostationary satellite with sufficient beam width to be easily receivable in NZ as well as our big western neighbour. Several Australian based channels have been carried on TBNp in its history including the now defunct Hillsong Channel which was run out of California from June 2016. In January 2022, TBN in the US dropped the Hillsong Channel but it continued to be broadcast in Australasia until the end of April the same year. In both cases the loss of programming was due to widespread concerns over moral failures in Hillsong Church firstly in New York and then in Sydney. TBN Pacific continues carrying its multiple service offerings in the South Pacific and appears to be well funded and supported, considering it is carried free to air and does not have any subscription system or hardcoded encryption to guarantee revenue. TBN programming and that of its sister networks such as CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) has obtained a level of prominence in NZ’s local Christian channel Shine TV.

There’s no question at all that US style “free speech” as exemplified to some extent by the TBN example in faith based programming has been influential on NZ churches, particularly those of a conservative pentecostal or charismatic inclination. In more recent times the ability to transmit significant content over the internet via live streams has enabled a significantly greater distribution of US megachurch messages other than the relative few who are buying mainstream broadcasting time on satellite channels. The larger Australian and some UK churches are also represented on Youtube and the like, as well as Facebook, with extensive livestream offerings, and major NZ based churches picked up on the opportunity with several offering specific “online campus” focused content rather than just a service stream from their “head office” location. This reached a zenith during the Covid-19 lockdowns and meeting restrictions in NZ when many local churches broadcast directly to their members at home as only smaller churches were able to meet the assembly size restrictions in a reasonably practical way. With a handful of exceptions, the majority of churches that streamed regularly during the pandemic have returned to offline podcast or video excerpts, preferring to emphasise physical presence at service locations as their primary means of communication. There is no doubt that the remaining livestream offerings in NZ continue to have significant influence from US megachurch theory and practice. But this has naturally led to concerns that NZ churches which are following in the footsteps of those in the US are also taking on too much of the predominant theologies that are taught in Northern America without much critical analysis of the basis of these beliefs. As has been expounded to a considerable extent in previous blog posts on CCNZ, dispensationalism has a heavy influence in US conservative evangelicalism yet it is very much a specific cultural phenomenon in the US and tied closely into their political system in ways that are impossible here. This naturally leads to ongoing attempts by churches and ministry leaders taking a major influence from American Christianity to champion the same causes in similar ways which fail to get the same level of support or influence locally.

Hence it can be readily appreciated that the wider cause of “free speech” in NZ is much more difficult to establish in the way that it has become prevalent in the US, a large part of that being NZ’s British heritage, which is as different from America as chalk and cheese. It is very easy to understand why there is a major lack of enthusiasm worldwide for US style “freedoms” amongst governments of “First World” sovereign nations, although plenty of political support and admiration exists within conservative political parties and aligned and associated movements. This is naturally because governments prefer to support the concerns of the local populace rather than importing their beliefs “lock stock and barrel” from overseas and also reasonable concerns about the type of extreme views that are often found to originate from North America particularly in the modern era of widespread low cost dissemination of content via the internet in general and social media in particular. Simply put, the degree of libertarianism generally encouraged by conservative political interests in the USA is properly seen as a particular type of ideology outside the US with the necessity of cautioning against its widespread uncritical adoption in other countries. This is, or should be, as much relevant to the NZ church community as it is to society in general.

In recent times in NZ there has been much debate about the merits of free speech in a faith based context especially since the 15 March 2019 massacres at a pair of Christchurch mosques. The government response to this included a review and proposed legislation to address the free speech issues raised, this being ostensibly on religious grounds due to the ideological basis to the massacres which were directed at people of the Muslim faith. There was an unsurprising response to the free speech issue raised by various conservative political organisations and it also received support from similarly aligned Christian lobbyists in NZ. However outside of these groups the relevance of free speech and concerns about its more extreme aspects continues within the wider church networks. Perhaps a good test of the degree of practical adherence and support for the free speech cause within Christian contexts was seen in a recent visit of an anti-transgender activist from the UK to New Zealand. Most of the local support was found in a prominent Maori-based evangelical church which many other Christian organisations in NZ have generally distanced themselves from, and in generic expressions from secular groups such as the Free Speech Union, but on the ground, counter-protestors held considerable sway against a much smaller supporting presence, and the NZ police force took a largely neutral peace-keeping stance that resulted in public events being cancelled due to the strength of opposition against them.

In effect, whilst there is somewhat strong support for free speech from several Christian churches, ministries and movements in New Zealand, the actual level of practical support on the ground translates into a small presence within the wider church community; this reluctance is partly explained by the general legislative expectation that charitable organisations are not expected to participate in political activity, by the reticence of the conservative evangelical ministries more particularly tied to US based theology and political themes to engage with wider society, and the concern by ministers up and down the country that engaging with controversial public causes would jeopardise existing evangelistic outreaches. So the local response in NZ to free-speech causes within church contexts has tended to be less ideological and more practical, and this is respective of the very different position that free speech causes enjoy within NZ society and politics. Although the present Labour Government has effectively shelved proposed legislative changes for the time being, the issue is far from dead, but those championing it within Aotearoa should be seen as very much of a minority cause and not enjoying widespread support overall. This has to be considered within the wider issue of high-profile campaigners particularly in the recent anti-Covid-response campaigning and follow-on causes. It then is perhaps relevant to consider whether the cause of free speech really does have such widespread support at home in the US as is often portrayed, or whether American society and politics in general are as divided in actuality as in the far flung corners of the Antipodes. Much in NZ as in the US, it is a prominent group of outliers who have obtained widespread support for their cause disproportionately greater than their physical presence, albeit with greater legislative backing in North America than in the southern Pacific.

The best way therefore to summarise whether free speech in church contexts has much relevance is to suggest that the cause is largely confined to a minority group of believers who have become prominent through their outspoken advocacy particularly in importing widespread conspiracy theories from around the world, particularly those rooted in US theological beliefs and practices that are widely ignored elsewhere. The NZ Bill of Rights does not give free speech the legislative eminence it has in the US, and this is a metaphor for the lesser degree of prominence the issue has in wider Aotearoa society including churches. Those churches and ministries which have most strongly campaigned their free speech rights tend to be outliers within the Christian community in NZ as a whole and thus are readily dismissed or minimised. There are ground for ongoing concern about the extent of conspiracy theories and extreme politically conservative viewpoints that are being expressed by some ministers in the wake of the Covid pandemic but in general the influence of Christian free speech activists is declining back to a more typical level despite their leading proponents’ efforts to piggyback upon globally based campaigns largely of US origin. American influence upon NZ society as a whole and upon the church in particular will continue to be discussed at all levels as an ongoing phenomenon, but will continue to have very mixed responses and support in local Christian circles as it always has.