As is the case of other countries which share western European cultural traditions, New Zealand possesses a plethora of minor Christian, neo-Christian, and non-Christian religious sects. In general, these are New Zealand branches of overseas sects rather than indigenous movements. There was a time in some European countries' history when theological deviations were an embarrassment to the established governments and their exorcism or suppression required direct State action. At no time in New Zealand's history has the State shown any inclination to bind the conscience of the electorate. This does not mean, however, that individual politicians have not been guilty of advancing religious arguments in order to justify their policies or advocate new courses of State action. Nor does it mean that sects are unable to find instances where secular laws appear to conflict with their theology. There are also at least two relatively small sects which do not recognise any authority beyond their group. Fortunately, cases of such conflict are rare and always arouse widespread public interest when they occur. Practically all of the major non-Christian systems of religion have small followings in New Zealand, but in most cases their adherents form a negligible proportion of the total population.
In New Zealand the leaders of the State do accept the principle that they have moral obligations in the framing and enforcement of the laws. Consequently, many religious systems are often protected by general “conscience” clauses which are inserted in some particularly contentious legislation. It is felt that this is no more than people are entitled to expect, and the success of this policy of toleration – if it can properly be called a policy – is borne out by the complete absence of schism within the community as a whole.
While it can be said that the New Zealand State does not base its authority upon theological doctrine, it reveals a religious preference to the extent that where, on official occasions, prayer is considered appropriate, Christian forms are invariably preferred to non-Christian. Beyond this the State offers no advice and the form of prayer used is left to the discretion of the officiating clergyman.
To a limited extent the various churches function as pressure groups on educational questions and where moral issues are involved. In such cases they are accorded no more privileged treatment than that given to individuals or secular pressure groups. Their evidence is taken by Royal Commissions and is weighed, together with the submissions of other groups, and incorporated or not, as the case warrants, in the final report and recommendations.
The following is the most recent (1961) census report on the small denominations. The category “Object to state” represents those persons availing themselves of the special statutory right of objecting to answer a question on this subject. It is probable that the “not specified” group includes a number of persons objecting to the question.
|Religious Profession||Number of Adherents|
|1956 Census||1961 Census|
|Latter Day Saints (Mormons)||13,133||17,978|
|Church of Christ||10,852||10,485|
|Seventh Day Adventist||7,219||8,220|
|Eastern Orthodox Catholic||2,728||3,328|
|Assemblies of God||747||1,060|
|No religion (so returned)||12,651||17,486|
|All other religious professions||12,987||15,342|
|Object to state||173,569||204,056|