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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Strange Case of the Exclusive Brethren

One of the oddest and most interesting recent aspects of politics in Australia and New Zeland I learned about in my trip Down Under was an incident in the last New Zealand election of 2005, wherein a small and secretive religious sect called the Exclusive Brethren was implicated in push-polling, negative leafletting and phone calls, and other controversial activities on behalf of the conservative National Party.The Exclusive Brethren are not connected with the better-known German pietist family of denominations using the name “Brethren;” their antecedents were the British Plymouth Brethren, who left the Church of England in the early nineteenth century in reaction to the Anglican abandonment of scriptural literalism. There are about 40,000 of them world-wide, but they are especially active in Australia (where their current leader resides) and New Zealand. And in the latter country, where it doesn’t take much money or manpower to have a big political impact, they got caught in an implicit, and allegedly even explicit, arrangement with National Party Leader Don Brash to go crazy negative on the governing Labour Party along with the Greens. The political motivations of the EBs are much like those of American Christian Right movements, with opposition to gay marriage being an especially big issue. But whereas the sect spent about as much money here trying to help George W. Bush in 2004 as it spent in New Zealand, it was pretty much a drop in the bucket in the U.S. (They have also been exposed as playing a hand in support of John Howard’s conservative coalition in Australia as well). Conversely, their exposure in New Zealand created a sensation, contributing heavily to a narrow Labour win, and to the subsequent disgrace and resignation of National Leader Brash, whereas Christian Right negative campaigning here has been going on for eons. You don’t have to spend much time Down Under to recognize a general fear that divisive conservative cultural tactics are gradually migrating from the U.S. southward and westward. Thus, one of the main tokens of cheer I was able to offer my hosts during this trip was the growing evidence that the Christian Right in my own country seems to be going through a general crisis of confidence and faith.

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