OPINION: Back in 2004, I was travelling up and down the United States talking to Americans about the upcoming election.
It was an election defined by two things - the war in Iraq, and the success of George Bush's camp in mobilising the "evangelical" vote over issues like gay marriage.
After travelling around the States for several weeks, it was easy to see why the Christian vote was such a powerful force in US politics.
In Texas, on our way to Bush's Crawford ranch, we were met by the delightfully elegant Rosalind, an original Texas Rose. She was waiting on the side of the road when our bus pulled up, with a gift of a Bible, a US flag and a tape recording of the local preacher in her hand.
Later on our tour, a cashier pressed change into my hand and asked why I was in the US. When I told her it was to observe the election, she assured me that God would answer her prayers to keep "that man' out of the White House. Since I'm pretty sure she meant George Bush I'm assuming evangelical mobilisation works both ways in US politics, even if only one side's prayers can be answered.
But what stood out later was that after several weeks in the US, I didn't blink an eye. It seemed quite normal to be discussing God's will over the till. Yet if it had happened back home, it would have made for an awkward encounter.
So when I returned to New Zealand in early December 2004, I felt like Alice after stepping through the looking glass. The Civil Union Bill was about to pass in the face of staunch opposition from some churches and Christian groups.
I emailed a US journalist and fellow traveller on the campaign trail and described my disorientation at coming back from a US election fought along Christian battle lines, to the sight of civil union opponents praying on the steps of Parliament. It seemed like a very American sight.
His response was something like "Hah". I think his point was that an issue like gay marriage (which is how its opponents viewed civil unions) would always be divisive, no matter where it was debated.
Now Parliament is set again to debate an issue that could divide New Zealand along those same battle lines - the Louisa Wall bill legalising same-sex marriage.
MPs report that the emails have already started rolling in - they are up to about a dozen a day, even before the first vote. They can expect that number to rise to as much as 200 a day once the bill is up for debate. Most will be opposed to the bill, and some will be passionately opposed.
During the smacking debate, National MP Katherine Rich and Green MP Sue Bradford were united both by their support for the so-called anti-smacking legislation and by death threats.
In contrast with civil unions, the gay marriage bill is looking increasingly likely to pass, especially after heavyweights Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader David Shearer lined up on the side of the bill's supporters.
There are two ways of looking at that. Either, after eight years of civil unions the sky hasn't fallen in and there are now bigger things for us all to worry about; or it is a sign that the religious Right is a spent force politically.
It is probably a bit of both. Earthquakes, global recession, finance company collapses - these things dwarf most other issues we've had to deal with over the last decade.
And here in Godzone, even with issues like homosexual law reform, civil union and smacking to act as flashpoints, no Christian party has ever emerged as a serious political force under MMP.
In part this is probably because Parliament has generally treated "moral" issues as conscience votes - with the recent exception of the smacking vote, votes are not usually conducted along party lines.
Many MPs are Christian of course, and Parliament still starts with a prayer each day. But there is no great tradition of MPs campaigning on "morality" issues and no particular electoral gain to be had out of being a staunch Christian (unlike the US, where it is unthinkable that politicians would not be).
The fact that most of our political leaders in the last decade or so have been decidedly vague about whether or not they believe in God, and the fact that none of them are churchgoers, suggest most view it as a liability rather than an asset. That spills over into other areas: MPs' affairs, or marriage break-ups, rarely make the front page.
One of the few exceptions was former National leader Don Brash. But the twice-married Dr Brash made the classic mistake of a politician with something to hide - he put his own marriage up for scrutiny by slurring his opponent, Helen Clark, over her attitude to marriage.
Surprisingly, for a declared atheist, Dr Brash also came the closest of any leader in recent times to attempting to harness the evangelical vote, though his flirtation with the Exclusive Brethren backfired spectacularly, as he and the church's leaders bumbled their way through a series of revelations about anonymous leaflets and prayer sessions all aimed at speeding National's path back to power.
The political punishment meted out to Dr Brash wasn't just because he hooked up with the Exclusive Brethren, however; it was his sudden co-opting of Christian family values as a political tool that struck even the most casual observer as cynical.
To the chagrin of many of his colleagues, Dr Brash inexplicably changed his vote on civil unions after earlier unashamedly supporting it. Unsurprisingly, this newfound moral conservatism never rang true in a man known to be a liberal on moral issues. Even Dr Brash later admitted it had been a big mistake.
MAYBE Mr Key's decision to show his hand early on gay marriage can be seen in that light. His initial support for the bill was to as far as the select committee. Opposing it once the bill was returned to the House would have invited Brash-like comparisons.
But just as likely is that he has sniffed the wind and seen that the public mood has moved on since 2004. Supporting the bill may even help him with women voters, among whom National is losing ground. And it probably won't hurt either to put some distance between National and the potentially polarising Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, who has already stumbled into the quagmire. So far, Mr Craig has equated gay marriage with polygamy (since both are about love), and insisted that of course he could be gay if he wanted to be, after labelling homosexuality a matter of personal choice.
Of course, Mr Key's move could be a cynical attempt to create some room for the Conservatives to mobilise the evangelical vote and hope to cross the 5 per cent threshold. But given the Exclusive Brethren experience, it is just as likely to be a case of once bitten, twice shy.
- © Fairfax NZ News