By Dennis Gruending
I first posted to my Pulpit and Politics blog in November 2007 and am pleased that some of you have begun to make comments. A few of those were posted in the Comments section of the blog itself; others have arrived as messages sent to my email address email@example.com); and there have also been a few phone calls. I want here to acknowledge the comments and respond briefly to a few of them.
First a general comment from James, a retired United Church minister in Ottawa. He called to say that he likes my idea of exploring the relationship between religion and politics but he does not like my use of the word “pulpit” in describing the blog. He says it sounds “preachy” and it’s “off-putting”.
My choice of title likely owes something to my years in daily journalism. Journalists are fond of using short, pithy and attention grabbing titles, and they are fond of using alliteration, such as Pulpit and Politics. But there is a question of stance as well — in this case how one chooses to describe the influence of faith and religious adherence on the public sphere. I was raised as a Catholic in a traditional rural community in the Canadian prairies and I remain involved in an urban church community, but like most everyone else I have several identities. I am also a writer and have been a journalist and a member of Parliament.
How does one who attends at a church describe the efforts made by people of religious faith to influence public life?Â Perhaps a good analogy would be that of a Canadian journalist covering a federal election. The individual is almost certainly a democrat and most likely votes for one of the parties contesting that election. Yet the journalist has to write about or comment on the various parties, personalities and issues with a sense of detachment and at least some skepticism. That is what I see myself doing in Pulpit and Politics. So the choice of the word “pulpit” was meant to convey some sense of distance. Certainly, I do not intend to “preach” or to advocate on behalf of churches or religious groups.
My posting about the New Democratic Party’s creating a faith and justice commission also elicited a number of responses. Owen responded to the Comments section of the blog to say: “A major reason for the rift between “progressive” politics and Christians is the left’s lock-step support for abortion. When political parties allegedly for the weak irrevocably deny any rights to the weakest of the weak – a baby in her mother’s womb – they are closing the door on Christians as well. Somehow you overlooked that one.”
I don’t intend to enter into an on line debate about abortion but I would observe that when Stephen Harper became leader of the Conservative Party he quickly dampened any speculation that he would attempt to introduce legislation to ban or restrict a woman’s right to choose. Members of the former Reform and Canadian Alliance parties talked, and do some members of the Conservative Party caucus still do, about restricting the right to abortion but their leader does not appear interested in opening that debate.
I am reminded of Thomas Frank’s excellent book What’s The Matter With Kansas?Â He writes about Republicans, who fight every election on family values but who, when elected, deliver only neo-conservative economic policies. “Cultural anger, writes Frank, ” is marshaled to achieve economic ends.” In other words, the political right campaigns on hot button issues such as abortion but its core agenda is lowering taxes, reducing the role of the government, and protecting privilege.
In another comment about the faith and justice commission posting, Ryan writes, “I’ve heard some complaints regarding the [NDP] faith & social justice commission, accusing it of attempting to merge religion and politics, and push religion back into political discourse. What would you say in reply to this?”
I have heard and read such complaints as well, particularly on babble.ca, a political talk forum. There are a number of interesting points here. I would say that there is little danger that religion and politics will “merge” in the NDP. The faith and justice commission appears to be an attempt by people who are feeling marginalized in what may well be Canada’s most secular political party. Tony Martin, an MP from Sault Ste. Marie who was active in the Catholic Church for decades prior to entering politics, says, “After I became an elected member, I had to hang up my faith coat at the political door.”
There is an irony here because the Protestant social gospel movement provided much of the impetus for creating the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which was the precursor of the NDP. J.S. Woodsworth, the first CCF leader, was a Methodist minister. Tommy Douglas, who became the first leader of the NDP in 1961, had been a Baptist minister prior to becoming the premier of Saskatchewan in 1944. One can argue, of course, society has changed and that even if religious faith had a place in public life at one time it should not have one now.
Most people in Canada would agree it is a good thing that our political parties are secular in nature. Theocracy is a bad idea. Trying to govern a civil society by a rigid adherence to the Koran or the Bible is a recipe for intolerance, upheaval and violence. In Canada, all major political parties and movements (environmental, labour or professional groups) are coalitions of well-meaning people drawn from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. People of religious faith should, like anyone else, be welcome to participate in political debates and movements for the benefit of the common good. But they should do so with some humility. We are long past the day when churches or clerics can claim a monopoly on wisdom or truth.
I have also received a number of comments to my email address regarding my posting Churchgoers go Conservative – blip or trend?Â I hope to deal with those in a future piece.