Brian Tamaki convinced 700 men to "pledge allegiance" to him at a Destiny Church conference. Makes the tithing and chastity rings look pretty harmless, doncha think?

It's not often that I read one of Garth George's columns from start to finish, but I was riveted by his account of Brian Tamaki's latest step towards evangelical superstardom.

The man with his own television show, line of t-shirts and hats, and the requisite blonde and glamorous helpmate, has convinced 700 members of his Destiny mega-church—all of them men, naturally—to pledge an oath of loyalty to him. Apparently Tamaki is not just a hair gel-abuser and motorcycle fancier, he is the "tangible expression of God" and therefore his "sons" must never "get in his face".

"Even though he is very sociable and open—remember who he is!" says a document called Protocols and Requirements Between Spiritual Father & His Spiritual Sons, which the wily George obtained after Destiny's Labour Weekend conference in Auckland.

"Above all, we stand here today in the presence of God to enter into this sacred covenant with our man of God, Bishop Brian Tamaki," says Protocols and Requirements. The "sons" must "feel Bishop's flow and be attentive to his thoughts and directions", which "gives unity and power to what God is saying and doing through him".

Sons are to wear covenant rings on their right hands to remind them of the commitment they've made to Tamaki, which is reminiscent of the chastity rings Tamaki convinced young members of his flock to wear a few years ago, and just as creepy.

At first glance this all seems like nonsense. Tamaki has always had a theatrical flair and healthy ego. He is very much reminiscent of shamed American televangical preacher Jim Bakker who, with his chipmunk-cheeked wife Tammy Faye, preached prosperity gospel in the 80s and set up his own now defunct theme park, Heritage USA, in Ohio, a sort of far-right Disneyland with a water park, conference centre and luxury hotel. Bakker got into difficulty when he over-promised theme-park privileges to church members who paid exorbitant fees for the use of hotel suites. Before that there was widespread concern with his practice of asking viewers of his Praise the Lord television show to send him money, a glitzy form of panhandling. Oh, and then there was the business with Jessica Hahn, a church secretary with whom he dallied.

Bakker wrote a book, I Was Wrong, in 1996, now available on Ebay for $1. Tamaki has also written a book, More Than Meets the Eye, sold on the Destiny website for $30. It is advertised with this breathless pronouncement: "Never before have the forces of religious, political and social activism converged more powerfully than in the life of Brian Tamaki."

I interviewed Brian Tamaki and his wife Hannah for the Herald five years ago, when their churches were spreading round the North Island like an unholy rash and Tamaki was trying to extend his influence to the political sphere with the establishment of a Destiny political party. I went to their Mt Wellington headquarters with the memory of various offensive Destiny Party pronouncements on male-female relationships and homosexuality fresh in my mind.

And I found to my surprise that I rather liked the fragrant Brian and Hannah, despite their problematic beliefs and their blindingly white teeth, big hair, and love of leather clothing. They struck me as charming, confident and in love. They also struck me as folks with their eye on the main opportunity. They were undoubtedly flourishing as their church flourished. I have never known another minister (and it so happens I know a number of ministers fairly well) to enjoy as much personal wealth and self-satisfaction. There was something off about Destiny and I left their complex feeling unsettled. I kept abreast of their comings and goings as they hit the headlines for one absurd reason after another but my unease dissipated as the clownishness intensified.

And then Brian Tamaki faded from public view. His political party achieved nothing except to entertain a pack of gallery reporters who didn't treat Destiny with any more gravitas than they would apply to the McGillicuddy Serious Party or those yogic flyers. I had forgotten all about the charismatic preacher until I saw a story in the Herald on Sunday about the sale of his luxurious Maraetai Beach home. And the mention of last year's Destiny Labour Weekend conference, at which there was, reportedly, talk of establishing a Destiny walled city in South Auckland, a claim the church has denied. Back in 2006 Tamaki was quoted in Rotorua's Daily Post as saying the church wanted to create a "city within a city".

And now this. My unease is back and a quick tour of the Destiny website has just made me more uncomfortable. Reading one of the self-proclaimed Bishop's messages costs $4.99. You may buy a notebook to record your sermon notes for $15, one emblazoned with a picture of Hannah and a heart pattern for the ladies and one with a picture of Brian next to the word "Gladiators" for the guys. There is a special page for donations with this message: "If you will be faithful with what you have right now there is no limit to what God can do with your life". Sounds like the faithful are being promised good things if they donate to the church, which sounds like a bad idea to me.

I don't know if I agree with Garth George's charge that Destiny is transforming itself into a cult but certainly when a church is all about glorifying its human leader and not its God there is something afoot. And if it costs money to share a church's message, well that's fishy too. I have a feeling we are about to see a whole lot more of Brian and Hannah.



Comments (16)

by Andrew Geddis on October 29, 2009
Andrew Geddis

I'm conflicted.

On the one hand, clearly Brian Tamaki is (in the words of one Tim Watkin) "bad".

On the other, his "badness" is revealed in its full autocratic glory by Garth George. And given GG's recent problems with using other people's writings in his columns, I'm not sure I should be reading his work.

What should a poor boy do?

by Graeme Edgeler on October 29, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

His political party achieved nothing except to entertain a pack of gallery reporters who didn't treat Destiny with any more gravitas than they would apply to the McGillicuddy Serious Party or those yogic flyers.

In the 2005 election, Destiny NZ did get enough votes for a single seat, but for the 5% threshold.

by Claire Browning on October 29, 2009
Claire Browning

So did the Bill and Ben Party, in 2008.

by George Darroch on October 29, 2009
George Darroch

I'm not sure how Tamaki's claims and position are substantially different to the Pope, who has around a billion followers.

by stuart munro on October 29, 2009
stuart munro

Or indeed to Rodney Hide, who has practically none. Professing irrational beliefs and one's own infallibility is standard fare these days - if it's good enough for treasury economists, why criticise Brian? Just because he has superior tastes in leather goods?

by Eleanor Black on October 29, 2009
Eleanor Black

Who said Brian's tastes in leather goods were superior, Stuart?

But seriously, the difference with this guy as opposed to Hide is that he is setting himself up as a sort of demi-god, as God's mouthpiece here on Earth. Also, he has cultivated a following from a group of people who are already disadvantaged--his congregation is overwhelmingly Maori and, according to Brian, have often battled substance abuse problems. They are vulnerable people and to tell them that you are in effect standing shoulder to shoulder with God is dodgy, don't you think?

George, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the Pope either, especially not the new one. The contraception issues, the obsession with sex, the whole forgiving Gallileo thing, ugh.

And Andrew, I understand what you're saying about GG, but the old boy's pulled a scoop out of his pocket today.

by stuart munro on October 29, 2009
stuart munro

You are drawing a distinction between claiming religious and professional infallibility.

Religious hypocrisy is not essentially different or worse to any other kind - unless you're Dawkins. Brian's adventure may indeed be very bad, raw god is heady stuff, but if he loses it, it will consume him.

We have something of a default suspicion of religion that we have inherited from the time that the churches were a powerful normative influence on society. Beating up on religion is consequently an easy target, but do we treat current hypocritical arbiters of social norms with comparable suspicion?

Tamaki is most likely a despicable fraud. But then, so are most of our MPs. And we need to be a little careful of attacking sincere religious beliefs - people experience religion differently - so that the fraudulent status of a leader does not automatically invalidate the experience of their adherents - much as the presumed forgery of the book of mormon does automatically reduce all Mormons to fools, liars, or hypocrites.

by stuart munro on October 29, 2009
stuart munro

damn that was supposed to be does not reduce all Mormons...

by Mamari on October 30, 2009

It is possible to see Destiny and Brian Tamaki as being part of a very long tradition in New Zealand of the nominally Christian but often Old Testament focused church built around the charismatic Maori leader, where the leader becomes synonymous with the entity and holds out the promise of the delivery of the destitute, the landless, the lost.  Ratana (with Ratana decreed to be the "mangai" or mouthpiece of God), Rua Kenana, Te Kooti, the Kingitanga (which has religious roots to it), plus many many more leaders of smaller movements, all of which were seen by the mainstream as threatening and dangerous to some degree.  Obviously Destiny is an updated manifestation with a good helping of prosperity Christianity thrown in for good measure, but hardly new in the context of New Zealand religious history and perhaps, when viewed in that light, not really that threatening either.

by Quartzopolis on October 30, 2009

Great article and interesting comments. I agree with Mamari that there is a traditional homegrown fusion between biblical Christianity and Maori beliefs.

Also, this is clearly a form of global prosperity Christianity, the same kind that is making in-roads into Latin America's slums and the Pacific islands.

Some of these edicts are taking the Destiny Church very close to cultdom. Various people have tried to define a religious cult. One of them had a list that included "having to get permission to go to the toilet". With this level of micromanagement that point may be close at hand.

Ironically Destiny thrive on negative comment from the secular liberal media, something they are sure to get by the bucket load.


by Eleanor Black on October 30, 2009
Eleanor Black

Nice point, Mamari. I hadn't made that connection in my mind at all.

But I do think, like Quartzopolis, that when you set out a list of edicts for your followers to obey, which get right down to minutiae that include the proper etiquette for giving Brian Tamaki a present and when you are allowed to eat in his presence, that you are verging to the cult-ish side of the ledger. No doubt he is a charismatic guy and his church does some positive work with gang members etc, but I am uncomfortable with people worshipping him as opposed to the God he believes in.


by william blake on October 30, 2009
william blake

...he's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy.

by Bonnie Robinson on November 08, 2009
Bonnie Robinson

It is not surprising that Elanor found the Tamaki's appealing in person. You don't get to be an evangelical guru without some charm.  All I can say is that Mr Tamaki has obviously missed the several hundred references in the Bible to poverty and injustice. He might like to start with the story of the Rich Young Ruler - whom Jesus told to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor if he wanted to follow him. The cars and motorbikes alone would keep a couple of foodbanks going for quite a while.... 

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