A modern Easter message: open, not closed, belief

Christian religion does not intrude much on most people’s daily lives these days — except to furnish holidays.

Of course, by inheritance and long custom this society is at some deep level judaeo-christian. The latter five of the 10 commandments underlie, however weakly, our social code and the golden rule frames it.

So observing Easter and Christmas as holidays — even if no longer as holy days, except by a few — still has logic.

There is another legacy. The 1935-49 Labour government saw itself — at least some of its leading figures saw it — as “christian socialist”. Social security was a political expression of the Christian ideal.

Treat others as you would have them treat you — or, in political language, expect them to do their best to look after themselves but pitch in when they can’t — is not too far from the Michael Joseph Savage version of Labour’s message.

At the core of social security was the guaranteed job. Savage’s system rested on a job for everyone who wanted one at a wage which provided a modest but sufficient living for that person and his (yes, his) household. That was achieved by regulating the economy and the wage system and it worked well for three decades.

Then 35-40 years ago social security graduated to the welfare state and the underlying assumption shifted to enabling all to participate fully in the society around them. We thereby shifted responsibility for participation from the individual and/or family (except in disabling circumstances) on to the state.

This was a fundamental shift of mentality and is at the core of modern argument across the Labour-National divide on the welfare state and the role of the state.

But does this hard divide represent the electorate’s position, taken as a whole? And how does it fit the modern Easter?

Closed belief has long been a feature of religion. Instance on one side in Iraq closed-belief Shias and Sunnis killing each other and on the other the Bush Administration’s narrow take on the Christian values it says it is defending and propagating.

Flick from religion to politics (a way-of-thinking journey shorter than we are accustomed to think). In last year’s election the Exclusive Brethren spent much money and many hours telephone canvassing trying to get rid of Labour and the Greens. That was closed belief in action.

Last week Jim Anderton and David Benson-Pope exhibited closed belief announcing the next round of talking about what to do about water. (Action is still at least a year off, after three years of talking. The government has yet to demonstrate the sort of convincing momentum it needs if it is to make a real mark in its third term.)

They emphatically rejected all but a very pale version of tradable rights as a way of managing short supplies of fresh water and serious pollution of lakes and rivers from farming. The reason: not that tradable rights are unfeasible or a suboptimal option but that water must not be “privatised”.

Many would agree, though tradable use rights are no more private ownership of water than large numbers of farmers and others now have under water use resource consents granted for up 30 years by regional councils. Many would counter-argue that a market in rights would allocate scarce water more efficiently than management by bureaucrats.

Closed beliefs are not the preserve of one side or segment of politics. The Greens have plenty, as does the Maori party and Rodney Hide’s Epsom party. John Key believes that it is wrong to tax very well-off people more than very lightly on their foreign investments.

And they each represent some voters who share their closed beliefs, which is partly why they persist.

But as a whole the electorate prefers the middle to the ends.

Take the elections here and in Germany last September and in Italy last week. All were finely balanced.

Our pre-MMP voting system could and often did magnify slight imbalances into an impression of a decisive choice of one side over the other. Though at times the impression reflected a real leaning — 1935 for sure and maybe 1984 and 1990 — in most elections the electorate, taken as a whole, was not deciding among competing closed beliefs.

MMP has not made the electorate less decisive. It has simply made its overall middling preference apparent in the results. It doesn’t want one closed belief prevailing over another.

Some politicians are in tune with that preference for open belief. But most politics is conducted by confrontation and conflict, as if to squeeze closed belief out of open facts.

How does this relate to the modern, de-ritualised Easter? Simple: the man it cursorily commemorates preached against closed belief and for open hearts. He also rejected ritual.

He would have been well hallowed this past Easter holiday if our political combatants had pondered for a moment the value the electorate as a whole places on open belief and questioned one or two of their own closed beliefs.

The country might work better for that.