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Wanna be in my gang?

A new style of pentecostalism is emerging in New Zealand.

Despite the howls of politicians, the pertinent issue about the Destiny Church march last month is not whether it mimicked a Nazi rally, but whether it symbolises the rise of fundamentalism in New Zealand. Destiny looks to be a new kind of player on the New Zealand political and religious scene.

The conservative Christian community has fretted about this country's political direction for some time. But its public outspokenness has faded since the 1986 peak over homosexual law reform. Although conservative churches ranging from Catholic to Salvation Army have expressed concern about the Civil Union Bill, their approach is cautious. Only Destiny was willing to take to the streets. There is a new style of pentecostalism emerging.

What is Destiny? For all its political aspirations, it is first and foremost a church that follows much of the standard pentecostal formula. The newly formed Destiny political party's leader Richard Lewis is still a church employee.

Destiny began in Rotorua as a congregation of the Apostolic Church and then the ambitious pastor, Brian Tamaki, went it alone. There are now 20 Destiny churches, including one in Brisbane, and its membership has grown rapidly. Like other enterprises started by the Tamaki brothers, and like a great deal of the pentecostal world today, there is a blatant commercial calculation in this. It is a designer church - modern packaging reinforcing a message styled as very traditional.

Pentecostals now represent a significant proportion of the Christian community in New Zealand - about 10 percent of nominal Christians, 30 percent of churchgoers and 3.5 percent of the total population. Fifteen to 20 percent of New Zealanders place themselves somewhere on the evangelical-pentecostal spectrum.

At the heart of the pentecostal formula these days - direct from the US - is the pastor, or to be precise, the happy and devoted pastoral couple, the handsome husband and the glamorous wife. In the Tamaki version, motorbikes and Maori genealogy are added, but the opulence of the pastor's lifestyle remains. The pattern has moral dangers and a high level of dropouts. Remember Jim and Tammy Bakker?

Destiny's pentecostalism also dances with hypocrisy by judging others harshly, but forgiving its own.

Ian Bilby, who now runs the Destiny Training Institute, was once senior pastor at another Auckland pentecostal church, until his affair with the wife of a church member was exposed. And Tamaki acknowledges that he lived with his wife before they were married.

An important requirement for pentecostal success these days is a warehouse - the bigger the better - converted into a church. This cultivated simplicity gives flexibility, focus and relatively cheap space. Destiny's enormous Auckland warehouse, with its huge PowerPoint screens, loud music and 1400 seats, is typical. Going to the church is quite an experience; the car park attendants and ushers in their suits and earpieces can be somewhat intimidating, the programme slick and upbeat, the music in contemporary hip-hop style. Traditional pentecostal exuberance is replaced with purposeful control, for the sake of the cameras. Destiny has its own television show, giving it an elite and envied status among pentecostals.

None of this comes cheaply, and the strong emphasis on commitment (rather different from the casual approach to church involvement in many other denominations) makes big demands on its members. Tithing is a typical teaching in many pentecostal churches, but Destiny goes further in demanding 10 percent of the income of individual members, regardless of their circumstances. In return, members are promised success in their lives and the "generational transfer of wealth" to their children.

Destiny, then, is on the extreme end of the pentecostal world. Yet its message is fairly typical of fundamentalist churches. There is no subtlety; the Bible is lightly deployed to emphasise God's promises to believers - and God's curse on the wicked world. A legalistic morality is fundamental, and God's grace is strictly confined to those who obey that law. Destiny places a strong emphasis on the nuclear family. It calls for the restoration of a marriage culture, and the party wants tax breaks for married couples proportionate to the number of years they have been married. It believes that sex education and birth control should be confined to marriage values and abstinence; that abortions should be stopped and the Prostitution Bill repealed.

Although other conservative churches have grudgingly recognised the right of gay people to exist, Destiny makes no attempt to moderate its hostility to "sodomy". Tamaki's disdain for same-sex relationships is so intense that he has proposed the recriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults. He periodically casts out the "spirit of homosexuality".

Unapologetically hierarchical, the leader, or rangatira, is infallible. Woe betide anyone who gets offside with the pastor.

Those drawn to churches like Destiny tend to be people who have been broken by the circumstances of life. Tamaki's passionate hostility to prostitution and homosexuality and his advocacy of a Christian society may be simplistic - but "enough is enough" has an appeal to those who have been stung by modern society. In South Auckland, Porirua, Gisborne and Rotorua, the levels of violence, broken homes and drug and alcohol abuse add relevance to the message. There have been some remarkable conversions at Destiny, as well as some remarkable failures.

This sharper moral and political edge is typical of a steep rise in hard-core fundamentalism throughout the world - Islamic, Hindu and Christian. The older, more laid-back conservative churches - Brethrens, the Salvation Army, the New Life Centre - are not booming.

The dangers of this new, more aggressive style can be seen worldwide. The weakness is the church's disunity and competitiveness. Such churches battle with each other as if they were business ventures. Tamaki has referred to himself as a manager, rejecting the humbly paid model practised by clergy in the mainstream church. This explains both the churches' coercive, simplistic style and the fact that few other pentecostal leaders joined in the Wellington march. They are weary of Destiny grabbing their members and of its belligerent approach.

Had it received broad pentecostal and conservative support, the march could easily have drawn 20,000. Destiny is also more isolated because it is a predominantly Maori church.

Destiny has huge potential because it is unique in its appeal to Maori and Pacific Islanders. It is "black power", shaped in the American black pentecostal mould. The church recruits many young people from South Auckland through youth programmes, blending hip-hop culture with fundamental truths, and offering a substitute family. Some of the black-shirted marchers looked like former gang members, and probably were, for the church is a new gang.

The Maori factor is an important part of the party's political programme. The karanga and haka were not incidental to the Wellington march: the church trains Maori in kapa haka, and the party demands that the Treaty of Waitangi be ratified. Like other Maori Christians, Destiny sees the Treaty as a religious covenant. It defends the Maori right to the foreshore, and opposes the abolition of appeal to the Privy Council. Members believe that by 2050, Maori will be dominant in this country. So this march had something in common with the land march that had arrived in Parliament a few weeks before.

This breed of religion makes sense in Maori terms. Sectarian Maori religion has almost always encompassed a political dimension. From the days of Te Ua Haumene, Te Kooti, Te Whiti and Rua, Maori have expected that the God of the Old Testament would move in vengeance against the apostate Europeans who represent Egypt, the false people. And Tamaki is very Old Testament.

Worryingly for Labour and the Maori Party, Ratana is another obvious comparison. T W Ratana preached from the Bible and the Treaty, and gathered the morehu, the neglected people, into a new family who recognised his special status. Ratana called Maori back from the brink of degradation. Also consider the Mormons, who made a huge impact among Maori embittered at the theft of their lands in the 1880s. In these cases, the hostility of Europeans to the religious force cemented the political and religious messages together into a potent brew.

Destiny looks more and more like what academics call a millennial movement, denouncing moral decay in the evil world and expecting radical transformation by means of some sort of apocalypse.

Which is why its politics are so extreme. It has no need to learn the gentle art of finding consensus. Parties with genuine political aspirations, such as United Future or the Maori Party, recognise the need to make friends, to compromise. Destiny, on the other hand, operates in absolute terms. Moral purity or bust.

Will it get anywhere? Religiously, the answer is clearly yes. The combination of pentecostalism, fundamentalist values and "black power" is a potent one. There are plenty of needy people in this country who will respond, and not worry about the gay people who are damaged by their propaganda. The wider danger is that other pentecostals are being tempted to copy the formula.

Politically, its chances are low. They have had great publicity, with their black shirts and shrillness. But Destiny is too moralistic to win a Maori seat, and too marginal to break the five percent threshold. It has organised a powerful protest, but that doesn't mean it will win votes.

But I could be wrong. Politics worldwide reflects a rising tide of division; between left and right, politically correct and incorrect. If this government continues its campaign for liberal causes - as fundamentally convinced of its rightness as Tamaki is of his - that may give Destiny the break it needs.