In the wake of the March 15 shootings by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emerged on the international stage as a figure of tolerance and healing. Wearing a head covering in solidarity with the fifty Muslims killed in the terrorist attack, she became a symbol of compassion and reconciliation. She told the traumatized survivors and victims’ families, “You are us. We feel grief, we feel injustice, we feel anger and we share that with you.”
More than words, Ardern also offered financial assistance for burial expenses. And, in contrast to the “thoughts and prayers” typically offered by US elected officials in the face of near-constant gun violence, Ardern led her government to ban the sale of military-style semi-automatic guns and high-capacity magazines in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.
After a meteoric rise to the New Zealand parliament—dubbed “Jacindamania” by the media—Ardern became the fortieth leader of New Zealand in October 2017. Since then, she has captured the world’s attention. Only thirty-seven when she became prime minister, she is the world’s youngest female head of government, the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office (Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the first), and the third female prime minister of New Zealand.
Unlike many other world leaders, Ardern is open about the fact that she is not religious. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald in January of 2017, she explained,
I can’t see myself being a member of an organized religion again. I have a real respect for people who have religion as a foundation in their lives. And I respect people who don’t. I’m agnostic. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I just think people should be free to have their personal beliefs and not be persecuted for it, whether they be atheist or staunch church members.
In the same interview, Ardern further explained that she was brought up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but that she left her faith behind as a result of the Mormon Church’s views on LGBTQ rights.
Even before the Civil Union Bill came up, I lived in a flat with three gay friends and I was still going to church every so often and I just remember thinking “this is really inconsistent—I’m either doing a disservice to the church or my friends.” Because how could I subscribe to a religion that just didn’t account for them? It was one of the issues that became a real flashpoint. You drift along a bit, there are always going to be things you can’t reconcile, but I could never reconcile what I saw as discrimination in a religion that was otherwise very focused on tolerance and kindness.
Introduced to campaigning by an aunt who was active in local Labour Party politics, Ardern later worked for Helen Clark, New Zealand’s second female prime minister, and then moved to London to work in a policy position for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In early 2008 she became president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Upon her election to the New Zealand parliament later that year, she became New Zealand’s youngest sitting member of parliament (MP). Throughout, Ardern has advocated for the rights of LGBTQ people, alleviating poverty, addressing climate change, decriminalization of abortion, equality for indigenous Maori people (including teaching the language in schools), and for immigration and refugee reforms.
Ardern has previously described her election style as “relentless positivity,” and what’s been on display in the last few weeks as she led her country through a difficult and traumatic time is her formidable character and genuine compassion. As she said in response to an interviewer, “I don’t think I’m displaying leadership. I just think that I’m displaying humanity.” Asked for the key to getting through such a difficult experience, Ardern replied, “I think if you still have an absolute faith in humanity, and I still have that.”
Is Jacinda Ardern a humanist? It sure sounds like it.