Bill van Rij

Bill van Rij

Bill van Rij was a significant figure in Christian politics in New Zealand. He was the principal founder of the Christian Heritage Party.

Born in the Netherlands, van Rij moved to New Zealand in 1951. Settling in Christchurch, he became a businessman, working for an ice cream company. He was strongly religious, being a follower first of the Reformed churches and then (beginning in the early 1960s) of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In 1985, he participated in the founding of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a union of conservative (mainly Christian) lobby groups.

After the 1987 elections, in which the socially liberal Labour Party won re-election, van Rij decided that pressure groups were inadequate for promoting Christian values in the political sphere. Instead, he came to believe that only direct participation in politics through a Christian political party would be effective. As inspiration, van Rij looked to the Christian Heritage Party of Canada — the party's founder, Ed Vanwoudenberg, was also a Dutch immigrant, and had connections to the Reformed churches. Vanwoudenberg and van Rij discussed Christian politics at length, and in 1987, van Rij was invited to attend the Canadian party's first national conference.

In 1988, van Rij began the process of establishing a Christian Heritage Party of New Zealand, modeled on the Canadian party. A preliminary meeting was held at the Marlborough Sounds home of Rod Eatwell, a friend of van Rij. John Allen, a former National Party candidate, became the group's interim political leader, while van Rij remained concerned mainly with organisational matters. The Christian Heritage Party was officially launched on 20 July 1989. Later, Graham Capill was appointed leader of the party, probably without van Rij's backing.

Later, when National MP Graeme Lee founded his own Christian-based party, van Rij was a strong supporter of co-operation. Fearing that the Christian vote would be split, van Rij and others strongly urged the Christian Heritage Party to pursue negotiations with the new group. Graham Capill was less enthusiastic, but talks eventually took place.

The most important difference between Christian Heritage and Lee's new group (eventually named the Christian Democrats) was "confessionalism" — the issue of whether non-Christians should be allowed to support the party. Confessionalists argued that Christian belief was essential for maintaining a party's policy purity, while non-confessionalists said that just so long as someone shared the same moral outlook, their actual religious beliefs were not important. Capill and the confessionalists resisted merger with the non-confessionalist Christian Democrats, while van Rij (although supportive of confessionalism at the party's founding) believed that unity was crucial. The eventual establishment of the Christian Coalition, an electoral alliance of the two Christian parties, owed much to van Rij's lobbying.

In its first election, however, the Christian Coalition failed to enter Parliament, and fighting broke out between the two components as to whose fault it was. The Coalition collapsed, much to van Rij's dismay. Along with a group of moderates within Christian Heritage, including deputy leader Geoff Hounsell, van Rij threatened to defect to the Christian Democrats unless reunification was pursued. As a result, van Rij was asked to step down. Shortly afterwards, he switched parties.

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