By Dennis Gruending The federal New Democratic Party has created a Faith and Justice Commission as aÂ forum for progressive people who come to politics from a faith based perspective [www.ndp-faith-justice-foi-npd.ca/].Â Its chair is Joe Comartin, one of several Catholic MPs who were denied communion by the church because of their support for same sex marriage legislation. Comartin and fellow MPs Bill Blaikie, Tony Martin and Bill Siksay were among a group of 20 people who attended an initial Ottawa-area meeting in mid-December.
Pierre Ducasse, a former federal leadership candidate from Quebec and now a special advisor to NDP leader Jack Layton, has done much of the organizing work. Ducasse said it is a paradox that the NDP is seen as being a secularist party, “even though many of our members come from a faith perspective and for our founders, including Tommy Douglas, faith was elemental.”
There is frustration, even alarm, in NDP circles, not to mention Canada’s Liberals and among Democrats in the U.S., because neo-conservative parties appear to own religious support. The religious right in the U.S. has become the most important constituency in the Repubican Party. Research in Canada indicates a strong correlation between being an evangelical Protestant and supporting the Reform-Alliance and Conservative parties.
Following the 2006 federal election, an exit poll indicated that among regular church attenders an overwhelming majority of evangelicals voted for the Conservatives. The same poll revealed that more Catholics who attend church regularly voted for the Conservatives than for the Liberals. This broke a long-standing tradition of Catholic support for that party.
A group of Canadian academics who reviewed four recent electionsÂ were struck by the polarization between Reform-Alliance and NDP voters. The NDP did best among secular voters who take liberal positions on issues relating to sexual mores and lifestyles, while the Conservatives fared best with moral traditionalists.
“We have to combat the impression that religion is a right wing thing,” MP Bill Blaikie told the Ottawa gathering. Blaikie is a United Church minister and a willing heir to the social gospel tradition of Woodsworth, Douglas, Stanley Knowles and others. “It used to be okay to link faith and politics but now we have people in our own party asking us why we would bother belonging to a church.”
Joe Comartin admitted that when Catholic bishops and clergy cracked down on him and other Catholic MPs, they did not receive enough understanding and support from members of their own party caucus. “They just didn’t understand why this was so painful for us,” Comartin said. “Their attitude was more along the lines of ‘Why belong to that church?'”
Tony Martin, an MP from Sault Ste. Marie, was active in the Catholic Church for decades prior to entering politics. Martin told the Ottawa gathering, “In the church, I always had to hang up my political coat at the door. After I became an elected member, I had to hang up my faith coat at the political door.”
Indeed, the commission has created some controversey. In April 2006, the Toronto Star quoted Tarek Fatah, a Muslim and an NDP activist, as saying,Â “We fear this is going to be a gateway to right-wing fundamentalists finding a toehold within the NDP. It’s a slippery slope which can have dire consequences.” The Star article also reported on a spirited debate that occurred on the rabble.ca website in the fall of 2006 regarding the faith and justice commission, “with most of the contributors … condemning the proposal.”
But Tony Martin said that the commission “is about reaching out” and it is decidely progressive. “Our party has an agenda on poverty, the environment, and on war. We want to see faith communities involved in those issues.” The commission, in a December 13 news release, said that it will “work with civil society groups, such as anti-poverty and human rights organizations, who share the desire for greater social, political and economic justice.”
Martin said that there is a bigÂ faith-based social justice initiative building in the U.S. “They recognize that all of their big movements, including the civil rights movement,Â have been rooted in religious traditions. We have to try and do what they are doing.”
One participant at the Ottawa meeting in mid-December, whose wife is Muslim, said that the religious value of equality is a key to social justice. “Equality is a religious value. We are equal before God. We can use this value to build social solidarity and to offer hope. If this commission does that, I think we might find an echo.”
The social gospel tradition and that of social Catholicism lives on but its flame burns less brightly in contemporary Canada than it once did. For their part, progressive Christians, in Protestant, Catholic, and even some evangelical congregations, have been marginalized and are struggling to have their voices heard. There are many examples around the world where religion is used as the basis for hatred, coercion and violence. But there is also an opportunity in Canada for people of faith to participate in public life for the benefit of the common good. They do not have a monopoly on wisdom or truth but there is a rich well of wisdom and practice in their traditions that is worth sharing.