Whether it is from politeness or a lack of curiosity, it is rare for journalists or commentators to dwell on Jacinda Ardern’s religious history and how it might have shaped her politics.
When the Prime Minister is occasionally asked, she bats the question away with a stock answer: she rejected religion in her mid-twenties and never looked back. As far as the public knows, the Prime Minister was brought up as a Mormon but renounced her faith in 2005 — and that was that.
This view was encapsulated in her response to a question about whether she had smoked marijuana: “I was once a Mormon and then I wasn’t — that’s how I’ll put that.”
Ardern has famously described her divorce from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a result of the impossibility of reconciling its anti-homosexual stance with her loyalty to her own gay friends and flatmates.
“There are always going to be things you can’t reconcile, but I could never reconcile what I saw as discrimination in a religion that was otherwise very focused on tolerance and kindness,” she said.
Now, she says she is “agnostic” and doubts she will ever belong to an “organised religion” again. Nevertheless, she didn’t leave the Church until she was in her mid-twenties, which means that more than half of her 41 years on Earth was spent in its embrace.
Anyone familiar with the Jesuits’ adage “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man” will be deeply sceptical about her eagerness to downplay the role of religion in her approach to politics given she spent more than 20 years immersed in it.
Put on the spot during a leaders’ debate before the general election last October, she looked uncomfortable when the MC asked both her and Judith Collins: “Will your faith play a role in governance?”
Answering first, Collins bizarrely referred twice to her “sense of humour” but she willingly admitted her faith played a role in her job: “It already does… I’ve always been a liberal Anglican.”
Ardern gave a garbled answer: “I don’t subscribe to any particular religion but I was raised in one. And I hope what people can see is that I respect people no matter their belief, no matter their upbringing because I had a similar start in my life so that has shaped the way I treat people of faith… One of the reasons I am agnostic now is because… I wanted to make sure that my religious beliefs didn’t get in the way of anyone else practising what they choose to believe themselves.”
The idea that her having personal religious beliefs might get in the way of anyone else’s faith is nonsensical. However, she succeeded in dismissing the influence of religion on her politics, passing it off as little more than an early formative experience — a “start in my life” — which presumably was the point of her answer.
And stating that this experience gave her the ability to empathise with religious believers was presumably intended as a reference to her role in consoling the Muslim community after the mosque attacks in 2019 that catapulted her to international fame — with the most celebrated images showing her wearing a hijab.
There are very obvious reasons, of course, why she might have wanted to be cagey about her religious background.
There are very obvious reasons, of course, why she might have wanted to be cagey about her religious background. After all, Mormons are associated in the popular imagination with magic glasses used to translate divine golden plates into the Book of Mormon, special underwear, and — for older generations — pairs of clean-cut, bicycle-riding missionaries who would arrive at your door to spread the Word from Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based.
Yet, despite Ardern minimising her religious upbringing, the evidence that she is a pseudo-religious leader for a secular age is everywhere.
Her assertion last year that when she and Dr Ashley Bloomfield speak to media they are the “single source of truth” recalls an ex-cathedra pronouncement by the Pope.
Ardern may have rejected the formal observances of organised religion but she certainly hasn’t shucked off the religious impulse to guide the faithful from the prime ministerial pulpit on matters of moral and ethical behaviour.
Her oft-repeated mantra of “Be kind!” — recently updated to “Be kind, be courteous!” with regard to panic buying — is an exhortation that would be roundly jeered at if it were uttered by nearly any other New Zealand politician.
That role comes so naturally to her that she was obviously happy for the Ministry of Health to reflect her exhortatory stance. During lockdown last year, there were flashing signs above motorways and along suburban streets encouraging drivers to “Be kind!”.
You don’t have to look very far to find evidence of where the Prime Minister’s inspiration comes from. If you Google “kindness” and “Mormon” you’ll have eight million links at your fingertips.
The importance of kindness ranks highly among Mormon precepts. Even the message of the irreverent musical The Book of Mormon was summed up by one reviewer as “a belief in kindness reigns above being a part of any religion”.
In fact, Mormon theology is so intrinsically kind it offers the chance of redemption to even the likes of Adolf Hitler and Vlad the Impaler if they are willing to accept Mormonism in the afterlife. And anyone who is baptised by Mormons even after death — as Hitler and Vlad have been retrospectively — can be released from Spirit Prison, which is the equivalent of Catholicism’s Purgatory. If they accept Mormonism, they are eligible to enter God’s blessed realm.
In such a theological framework, very few people are deemed to be inherently evil. The vast majority only need to be shown a better way.
We see shadows of this extremely magnanimous view of humanity repeatedly in Ardern’s attempts to appeal to the better natures of groups as diverse as property investors and gang members.
In February, as the housing market was spiralling out of control, Ardern had a recommendation for property investors: “What we want them to think about is: ‘How can you contribute to the productive economy in New Zealand?’ By going into an overheated housing market, it makes it so much worse for others and you won’t necessarily get the long-term benefits that we’d like you to get.”
Only a politician detached from worldly reality would imagine this advice might help deter an investor from buying another dwelling in a sizzling market.
The same month, she was quizzed in Parliament by Act leader David Seymour about why the police programme to combat gangs was labelled “Operation Tauwhiro”. He pointed out “tauwhiro” means “to tend or care for” and asked the Prime Minister if she actually believed “that violent criminals who sell P need to be tended and cared for”.
Ardern replied: “If we want to make a difference to the young people who join gangs in New Zealand we have to demonstrate that there are alternatives for them… that they can find a place to grow their potential without joining criminal organisations.”
Ardern sees the potential for good in everyone — which is no doubt a large part of her appeal — but the flipside is a reluctance to acknowledge the worst in people.
These responses reflect a belief in redemption that often appears hopelessly naive in a politician. Ardern sees the potential for good in everyone — which is no doubt a large part of her appeal — but the flipside is a reluctance to acknowledge the worst in people.
Consequently, she seemed surprised by public outrage at her personally approving $2.75 million for a drugs programme run by Mongrel Mob members.
Her unrealpolitik caught the eye of the Spectator, which mocked Ardern for offering one of the “Nine Worst Responses to Afghanistan’s Fall” from around the world after the Taliban’s victory:
“New Zealand’s Prime Minister has ‘implored’ Taliban leaders to uphold human rights, telling a press conference: ‘What we want to see is women and girls being able to access work and education’ — which she insightfully noted ‘are things that have traditionally not been available to them where there has been governance by the Taliban.’”
The writer added: “The Taliban’s response is as yet unknown.”
As another wag put it: “Ardern asks water to stop being wet.”
Another unmistakable sign of her otherworldliness can be detected in her dismissing opponents’ criticisms as “politicking” or “playing politics” over issues such as Maori co-governance or the management of Covid. This is an extraordinary stance for a politician to take towards other politicians debating policy but Ardern positions herself as floating above the cut-and-thrust of politics.
Consequently, she is very keen not to be seen to be beset by common human frailties such as dishonesty, arrogance or vanity.
When asked during one of the leaders’ debates in 2017, “Is it possible to survive in politics without lying?”, she not only said it was but claimed she’d “never told a lie in politics”.
Only someone determined to convince people she is preternaturally saintly would have so outrageously denied political reality…
Only someone determined to convince people she is preternaturally saintly would have so outrageously denied political reality — and human nature. Bill English, a devout Catholic who wasn’t nearly as ready to bend the truth out of shape as she was, couldn’t in all honesty agree.
Humility is also essential to “brand Jacinda”. In May last year, a memo from her office suggested ministers need not agree to be interviewed given how popular the government’s Covid measures had been. John Campbell, who interviewed the Prime Minister, said he at first thought it could be a sign of “arrogance” but decided it was more likely that she simply didn’t have confidence in her ministers.
Ardern’s reaction showed she was more sensitive to a suggestion she might be arrogant than a question about her ministers’ competence. She made a point of addressing that issue even though Campbell had dismissed it.
“Arrogance is just, I hope, something people would see as not in my nature,” she said plaintively.
She mostly keeps her vanity under wraps — not least because she casts herself as a humble servant of the people — but slip-ups are perhaps inevitable for a woman from Morrinsville who has been internationally canonised for her crisis management and lauded as “the world’s most effective leader”.
Addressing the UN in September 2019, she made the extraordinary admission that she saw herself carrying the nation’s burdens on her shoulders single-handedly. In her speech she mentioned a young Muslim boy who asked her to keep him safe after the mosque massacres. “My fear is, that as a leader of a proudly independent nation, this is one thing I cannot achieve alone. Not anymore.”
The fact she very capably handles the quotidian tasks of a prime minister — such as explaining vaccination rollout figures — while also wearing the mantle of a secular saint makes her an extremely difficult target for her political opponents to get a fix on.
If she is caught out, she often switches to what she probably imagines is “going high”, as Michelle Obama put it, however absurd that might be.
When David Seymour asked Ardern in late June in Parliament if she ever thought she would be reduced to saying “Hey, we’re doing better than Africa” in terms of vaccinations, she replied: “When it comes to global health and wellbeing in a global pandemic, how countries like those in Africa are performing is relevant to us. And, as a country who has a stake in the wellbeing of all nations, including developing ones, I imagine that’s a consideration most New Zealanders would be proud to take.”
In fact, the vast majority of New Zealanders would think her overwhelming responsibility is to advance the interests of those who pay her salary.
Despite her butter-wouldn’t-melt image of kindness and care and concern for others, Ardern is a ruthless politician who is cunning as a fox and quick to change tack in response to public criticism.
She is also shameless at stage-managing her public appearances for maximum effect — whether it is showcasing her government’s actions at her 1pm press conferences or being covered by a Polynesian ceremonial mat during an official apology for the Dawn Raids in a highly choreographed piece of political theatre.
The fact she is willing to exploit her status as a pseudo-religious leader was vividly apparent in the Labour manifesto published before last year’s election. The cover photo, which was taken at the party’s campaign launch at the Auckland Town Hall, shows Ardern in profile gazing towards the heavens while behind her in the choir stalls sits a sea of clapping supporters. A white light illuminates her face. The deliberate religious undertones are unmistakable.
How long the melding of a religious persona with that of a secular prime minister will preserve her position as the nation’s most dominant politician is anyone’s guess.
However, reaching the Promised Land can’t be delayed forever. The poor will always be with us, as Jesus said, but no one would have imagined in 2017 — when Ardern promised her “transformational” policies would wash away tears — that by 2021 so many more would have joined their ranks.
Eventually her adherents — no matter how fervently they believe in their leader’s righteousness — will come to see that the fabled destination will always remain out of reach. They are steadily drifting away as it becomes more and more apparent her government is seriously incompetent in battling the scourges that afflict New Zealand — including overburdened infrastructure, crippling house prices and children living in poverty.
While the most recent polls showed support moving to National and Act, the outbreak of Delta may have tipped polling figures more in her favour again, if only temporarily. Certainly, she will be hoping that the revival of her 1pm briefings on Covid from the “podium of truth” — where she can reprise her role as New Zealand’s saviour — will reverse the decline.
However, it looks like it will be a much harder sell than last year. As Judith Collins said, echoing a widespread sentiment: “It is not enough for the Prime Minister to lock us in our homes and speak from the podium once a day. New Zealanders don’t need sermons — we need vaccines in arms right now.”
Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom