Religion and State Ritual: Political Theatre and Public Lament in Secular Aotearoa New Zealand
This thesis examines how the ostensibly ‘secular’ Aotearoa New Zealand state engages with, and relies on, religious motifs at times of public lament. This was exemplified in two state rituals I observed in 2021: the Anzac Day Dawn Service in Pōneke Wellington, and Ko Tātou, Tātou We are One, a service dedicated to commemorating the 2019 terrorist attack against the Muslim community in Ōtautahi Christchurch. These rituals are illuminating for exploring the place of sacred language in public ritual, as well as the ways in which the New Zealand state seeks to create an imagined community. I analyse these state rituals as forms of political theatre using an approach I call Theatrical Religion. This approach allows me to show how these rituals were carefully orchestrated to enable religious motifs to be positively received within an increasingly secular cultural milieu. I argue that Christianity was hidden in plain sight through strategies of ‘softening’ that rendered it palatable. I point to four primary techniques: (1) Christianity was downplayed and rendered more generic, (2) it was expressed within te reo Māori, (3) it was pluralised by being communicated alongside other religious traditions, or (4) it was concealed within apparently non-religious or generically ‘sacred’ motifs. Through these theatrical negotiations, sacred concepts facilitated a contemporary, post-Christian, multicultural, imagined national community, lending itself to a civil religion that relied on de-confessionalised forms of Christianity; alongside an imagined identity of Aotearoa New Zealand as idyllic, peaceful, and inclusive. The ongoing resonance of Christian liturgy is a crucial finding of this thesis, such that Christian language, staging, and moral imaginations remain pertinent in post-Christian Aotearoa New Zealand.