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In Their Own Words: Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall on Christian Politics in Oceania

Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall are the editors of Christian Politics in Oceaniapublished in November 2012 by Berghahn Books.


As anthropologists who have worked in the Pacific Islands since the 1990s, we both felt that most political analyses of the region have been flawed for one simple reason: they overlook the enormous but complex political influence of Christian churches. This influence does not always take the form that observers of American politics might expect, where particular churches take explicit stances on political issues or support particular candidates or parties. The political influence of churches in Oceania is both more subtle and more pervasive than that. Time and again during our fieldwork in Fiji and Solomon Islands, we saw how the words of preachers and pastors, activities of Christian organisations, and interpretations of the Bible shaped how people understood their place in political communities. In Oceania, like everywhere else, there is no single Christianity, making it frustratingly difficult to generalize about ‘Christian politics’. Although anthropologists have increasingly turned attention to Christianity, little attention has yet been given to the ways that rival churches position themselves against each other. Our ethnographic research  led us to see denominationalism as key source of social friction and creative energy, essential to any understanding of politics in the region.


            For these reasons, we began talking with our colleagues about working on a project to understand Christian politics in the Pacific. The result is this book, from which we would like to quote the following edited passage from the introduction:


Thirty years ago, the missiologist Charles Forman stated that Oceania was “in all probability, the most solidly Christian part of the world” (The Island Churches of the South Pacific, 1982, p. 227). By this, he meant that the overwhelming majority of islanders were members of Christian churches, and “were more devoted in Christian belief and gave to the churches a larger place in their life than did the people of any other region.” The first claim is easy to prove: of the fifteen countries in the world with the highest percentage of Christian affiliation, six are Pacific nations or territories, more than any other region (the Americas have five, Europe has four). Every independent Oceanic state except for Fiji and Nauru has a Christian population of more than 80 percent, and most are above 90 percent. Forman’s second claim, regarding devotion, raises a more complex set of issues. What does it mean, after all, to be “solidly Christian”? As anthropologists, we take this question’s utility to be the way it prompts us to consider what makes a society “solidly” anything, especially when that “anything” is as labile and shape-shifting a force as Christianity. Yet questions about the solidity of Christian identification, the quality of Christian belief, and the centrality of churches in social life are not only analytical questions—they are also, perhaps more importantly, the sorts of questions that Pacific Christians increasingly ask themselves.


We suggest that Oceanic societies may be characterized as “solidly Christian” because the political implications of Christianity are often taken for granted: Christianity is the ground and starting point for political action. This is not the same thing as saying that religions always have a political aspect—a banal, if true, point. Rather, it is to call attention to the fact that Christianity’s pervasiveness in Oceania can make it seem deceptively apolitical. Across the region, Christianity and politics have redefined each other in ways that make the two categories inseparable at any level of analysis. One can only understand what is Christian in Oceania through understanding what is political, and one can only understand what is political by understanding what is Christian. We do not mean to collapse these categories, but to show how each is irreducibly constitutive of the other. In Oceania, the difference that Christianity makes is always and inevitably political.


To be clear, we are not arguing that the domain of Christianity and the domain of politics are always merged, for this is demonstrably not the case. Yet even in situations where Christianity and politics are bounded as distinct and ideally non-intersecting domains, we can see that Christianity delimits the potential of political action.


We focus on Oceania, and specifically on Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji, four troubled nation states in the western Pacific whose engagements with Christianity are historically entwined. As we have already suggested, Christianity is the dominant cultural force throughout the region. We would not expect Christianity and politics to be so thoroughly entwined in other places, although we trust that our analysis of these dynamics in the Pacific will offer insights to those working elsewhere. The second impulse in this volume is more subtle. In many of our chapters, we engage in comparative discussions of Christianity precisely because this is something our interlocutors do themselves, both at metropolitan theological colleges and village kava circles. Most of the people whose lives are discussed in these chapters are engaged in exercises in comparative religion, trying to make sense of the different visions of self and nation that they encounter. They critically evaluate new and old forms of Christianity against each another and make sense of troubling political situations in light of different denominations’ insights. Even the most rural villages—the ones slipping off the map at the self-described “ends of the earth,” the ones that seem thoroughly excluded from economic globalization—are centrally implicated in the swift religious shifts taking place at local and global levels.


Matt Tomlinson is currently an ARC Future Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

Debra McDougall is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia.