On Sunday, August 27th, my son, Zachary, and I began our Around the World in 80 Daysjourney.*  Starting in Birmingham, Alabama, we headed west to Los Angeles, our launching-point to Asia and Australia/Oceania.  Overnighting near the airport, we then had a 15-hour flight to Sydney, Australia.  Our stop there was just long enough to grab a coffee before boarding a connecting flight (4 hours) to Auckland, New Zealand.  Crossing the International Date Line meant that we arrived on

Wednesday, August 30th, putting us 17 hours ahead of US Central time.

Given our purpose for this trip, New Zealand was an essential stop.  It has been touted as a land unspoiled by man—a “utopia” in the words of mega-investor and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel—with room to grow.  Whether is it, in fact, a utopia, is up for debate, but it is a genuine competitor for the title of World’s Greatest Country and it certainly has room to grow.  Roughly the size of Britain and Japan, which have, respectively, populations of 65 million and 125 million, New Zealand is a country of only 4.5 million people.  Room, indeed.

Those entering New Zealand via Auckland International Airport are greeted by a giant statue of Gimli, the dwarf of Lord of the Rings fame.  This makes sense when one considers that Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy has pumped more than $27 million into New Zealand’s economy each year—and counting.  Hobbit tours and Hobbit souvenirs are everywhere.  Look at the top tours on Trip Advisor.  Yup, Lord of the Rings related.  It’s even on some of their currency.  It reminded me of Scotland in the years immediately following Braveheart.  The image of a long-haired Mel Gibson greeted you at every turn.  Did William Wallace look like Mel Gibson?  Hmm.  Probably not.

New Zealand’s landscape merely adds to the illusion.  A beautiful late winter day—we are now in the southern hemisphere, remember—one immediately understands why so many Americans are moving to New Zealand.  The country is, simply put, breathtaking.  We drove a Land Rover north along both the west and east coasts and directly onto the beaches.  We hiked the cliffs overlooking the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific.  And we topped it off with a drive up one of New Zealand’s many extinct volcanoes.  All are a feast for the eyes.  Surely, this really was Hobbiton and we really were in the Shire.

But, alas, no.

A few days in the country and I began to feel something entirely different—de ja vu.  I was reminded of a line from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s classic road trip song Roll on Down the Highway:

“Look at the map, I think we’ve been here before.”

I think it was about the time that I saw the rainbow, a biblical symbol hijacked for a sordid sexual agenda, displayed prominently in Auckland’s city center outside of a grand stone church built in the Gothic style.  Then again, the feeling might have been prompted by the visual of the Space Needle-like tower that dominates the city’s skyline.  Or was it the ever-present multicultural emphasis that proclaimed an openness to all things except those that do not conform to approved orthodoxies?  I wasn’t sure, but I had been here before.  Had the plane simply been doing laps in the Pacific only to touch-down in Seattle?

On my second night in Auckland, I finally made good on a long-planned invitation to speak to one of the city’s Christian groups.  The general impression of these people was like that of Christians throughout the Western world—a people who, feeling besieged on all sides, have adopted a fortress mentality.  The result, as one said, is that their influence is minimal and diminishing by the moment.

The decision, just days ago, to ban a pro-life student club from the campus of Auckland University has ominous implications for religious freedom and free speech for Christians in New Zealand.  When the emcee for the evening’s event announced this bit of news to the crowd of 200 or so, the audience received it like those who are used to news of defeat.  “[Christians] have been bullied from public life, threatened with lawsuits, and generally silenced,” one man told me.  Sound familiar?  Too much so.

Studies suggest that somewhere between 10-15 percent of New Zealanders attend church, but this hardly seems credible given the degree to which the church has been marginalized.  Indeed, it is missing from the culture.  And it is for this reason that New Zealand may well be a utopia for Lefties seeking to flee the apocalypse they fear the presidency of Donald Trump will trigger.  Conservative news outlets of size don’t exist in New Zealand.  There is no Fox News, just as there is no longer a Fox News in Britain.  Moreover, while America’s influence is all-pervasive in this country, it is the wrong America wielding it.  It is the America of the Clintons and Obama; of the leftwing social policies of Apple and Starbucks, Google and Facebook, and the Silicon Valley types who are buying land in this country.  It was as if they had built the Sky Tower (the aforementioned Space Needle-like structure) to remind them of the land from which they have been self-exiled.

A former British colony, New Zealand is heir to strong Christian traditions.  The national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, is essentially a hymn celebrating that heritage.  But like so much else in Western civilization—and New Zealand is certainly a part of that culturally if not geographically—it is being spoiled by missionaries of a very different sort than those who were instrumental in the founding of this great nation.  And, to be clear, New Zealand is great insofar as it is populated by a generous, friendly, and productive people whose geographic isolation has protected them in time of war and left them largely untouched by the kind of immigration crises that are currently convulsing Western Europe.

But New Zealand’s isolation is rapidly coming to an end, and that, I think, is unfortunate.  The country’s spiritual decline has been decades in the making, and having now naively absorbed the global narrative that Christianity is a religion of bigotry and hate, they are rushing to overthrow it.  Given global trends, it is not difficult to imagine what will fill that spiritual vacuum.  No, New Zealand is no utopia.  That it is a land full of volcanoes is, perhaps, symbolic.  Because this feels like a cultural Krakatoa in the making.

Now I must go and find Zachary.  I have good reason to believe he is preparing to bungee-jump from the Sky Tower…

New Zealand Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Larry Alex Taunton is an author, cultural commentator, and freelance columnist contributing to USA TODAYFox NewsFirst ThingsThe AtlanticCNN, and The American Spectator.  In addition to being a frequent radio and television guest, he is also the author of The Grace Effect and The Gospel Coalition Arts and Culture Book of the Year, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.