Peter Harder on faith and public life

By Dennis Gruending

Peter Harder Peter Harder was at the centre of government decision-making in Canada for more than 30 years prior to leaving the civil service in March 2007 to become the senior policy advisor in an Ottawa-based law firm. He served as a deputy minister in various government departments and worked for five prime ministers. Mr. Harder spoke to participants in our Faith and Public Life course at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology on January 19th. It was an address rich in its knowledge and conviction but in its subtlety as well. Rather than analyzing or parsing remarks (the kind of thing that I do often in this space) I will, after brief introductory remarks, let Mr. Harder speak for himself by lifting (with his permission) extensive quotes from his address.

Harder began by saying that issues of faith and public life are all around us. “Virtually every newscast, whether we acknowledge it or not, is in some form, a variation of ‘faith and public life’. Elections around the globe, revolutionary movements, decisions by governments, actions of civil society, even the marketplace — all speak to this interaction.”

He spoke briefly about being born into a Mennonite community – he now attends a United Church. “I owe much to my Mennonite roots.  They are the community that formed me, the home which nurtured my thinking — the values of community, caring, honesty and integrity, family and work, that has been essential to my career, as they are to an authentic life. As we shift between the spiritual and secular worlds, between community and formal organizations, between professional and religious values, we come to understand more fully how each nurtures the other. I have learned that I must walk both ways across the bridge.”

As a student at the University of Waterloo, he said, he encountered the writing of Bonhoeffer, Gish, Bruegeman and Reinhold Niebuhr, who would stir in him an appetite for public life informed by faith.

“The strongest intellectual influence on me was Niebuhr, the great American theologian who identified, more clearly than any other writer of the last hundred years, the lessons to be learned from the appalling slaughters of the 20th century.  His central thesis can be stated succinctly: human beings cannot find their ultimate fulfillment in the political realm, and yet there can be no real salvation apart from a life of political commitment. As a student, I wrote out the following quotation from Niebuhr, ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ These words came to me when I signed the memorial book at the great holocaust memorial in Jerusalem as deputy foreign minister, and thirty-three years after first reading them that quote still sits on my desk.

My time on the Hill only made me appreciate more the work our parliamentarians do on our behalf.  I learned some lessons then, that have stayed with me ever since. First, politics is a rough game, but it is played by surprisingly decent people.  I say ‘surprisingly’ because it is so easy to superimpose our own cynicism about politics onto the people who actually work at politics full-time. Our Members of Parliament — be they ministers or backbenchers — are, by and large, not cynical.  They believe in what they are doing, and they believe it is worth doing well.  Part of doing it well is making the daily compromises and deals that are the stuff of political life; cynics call this ‘selling out’ but it is actually the heart and soul of democracy.

Second, our MPs are surprisingly representative of Canada.  Despite all the stereotyping, the reality is far more reassuring. Our MPs are like us, and getting more like us every day as more women enter politics and Canadian pluralism increasingly reflects itself in public life. Third, our MPs work hard — long hours punctuated by lengthy trips home for the weekend where they run from mall openings to baptisms to bar mitzvahs, meeting the folks and, perhaps once again surprisingly for the cynics, listening to the folks as well, and then bringing those voices back to the national debate.

Beyond the political theatrics, beyond the hard work of democracy, there are other attributes — call them second-order attributes that are woven into the fabric of our democracy. Attributes like restraint, or more accurately, self-restraint. There is the democratic spirit of inquiry and curiosity, of taking positions and standing your ground. Add to the list patience, persistence and passion, not to mention tolerance and tenacity. We are talking about what the philosophers would call civic virtue. It is an important idea, the understanding that democratic governance is far more than a matter of technique; a vibrant and healthy political community needs the active participation of its citizens, and that participation must be grounded in civic virtues that contribute to the maintenance of an active public sphere. It may not be faith-based, but it does build political community. By that I mean more than simply an assembly of people living within a common geographic space.

A community, must hold certain things in common. As a general proposition, the more tightly-knit a community, the easier it will be for that community to agree on issues that affect all its members. This is quite distinct from personal faith. How far can we dilute that sense of commonly-held things before the very idea of community begins to fall apart?  What about a group of people where very little is held in common.  Is that a real community, or just some kind of loose association? This has become one of the most critical issues in the world.

In some countries, fractures occur along racial or ethnic or religious or economic lines; in other cases, it is a fatal collision between the forces of modernity and tradition.  In all cases, there are not enough things held in common to overcome the divisions that separate, and the result is chaos and catastrophe.

More than any other country, Canada has gone down the multicultural path with eyes wide open.  We have overcome a number of difficulties, and will undoubtedly face many more in the future.  We have made mistakes, and there have been false starts and wrong steps. But I also think we have probably done better than any other country to continually remake ourselves, to expand our notions of what it means to be a good Canadian, to meet demands for inclusion and resist calls for exclusion.

More than any other country, we have taken up the challenge of shaping our political community to the emerging realities of the future. The single biggest political challenge of the 21st Century will be the effort to knit together political communities out of diverse populations that draw on very different traditions and hold very different beliefs. Look around the world, and reflect on how unusual it is that Jews vote for Sikhs to represent their interests, that Muslims vote for Jews, that Christians vote for Buddhists. And yet there are still parts of the developed world where it is almost unthinkable for a Protestant to vote for a Catholic.

This brings me to my final point, the need for greater public integrity.  And here, frankly, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from His Highness, the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, and someone I’ve had the privilege of knowing for over eighteen years. In his convocation address at Columbia University last year, His Highness spoke to this issue with his customary eloquence.  He observed that expanding the number of people who share social power is only half the battle. The critical question is how such power is used.  How can we inspire people to reach beyond rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism?

The Aga Khan goes on to suggest that one answer is to focus on personal prerogatives and individual rights. This could include a passion for justice, the quest for equality and civic culture of which I spoke earlier.  But he points out that the right of individuals to look for a better quality of life within their own life-spans — and to build toward a better life for their children  — these are personal aspirations which must become public values.  This sense of public integrity, His Highness argues, will be difficult to nurture over time without a strong religious underpinning. In the Islamic tradition, the conduct of one’s worldly life in inseparably intertwined with the concerns of one’s spiritual life — you cannot talk about integrity without also talking about faith.

From that perspective, I would put high among our priorities, both within and outside the Islamic world, the need to renew our spiritual traditions. To be sure, religious freedom is a critical value in a pluralistic society. But if freedom of religion deteriorates into freedom from religion — then I fear we will soon be lost on a bleak and barren landscape — with no compass or roadmap, no sense of ultimate direction. I fully understand the West’s historic commitment to separating the secular from the religious. But for many non-Westerners, including most Muslims, the realms of faith and of worldly affairs cannot be antithetical.  If ‘modernism’ lacks a spiritual dimension, it will look like materialism. And if the modernizing influence of the West is insistently and exclusively a secularising influence, then much of the Islamic world will be somewhat distanced from it.

A central element in any religious outlook (says the Aga Khan) is a sense of human limitation, recognition of our own creaturehood — a posture of profound humility before the Divine.  In that sensibility lies our best protection against divisive dogmatism and our best hope for creative pluralism. For me, the Imam of the Ismaili community has pretty well summed up my Mennonite/United Church faith and public life.

Over the past 29 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working for leaders of the opposition and one deputy prime minister. And as deputy minister, I’ve served five prime ministers and twelve ministers in five departments.  More importantly, I’ve worked beside thousands of public servants seeking to build a better Canada, a more just world and, if not the Kingdom of God, at least a bit of the new Jerusalem.”

Note: If you have any comments to make about Mr. Harder’s presentation, please write them into the Comments section below.

One thought on “Peter Harder on faith and public life

  1. Given Mr. Harder’s long experience in the upper echelons of federal government bureaucracy, I’d hoped to read about some of the way(s) in which his faith impacted on policies and/or decisions made or recommented by him. Still, I appreciate his general comments.

    Dennis reply: Thanks for your comment. Mr. Harder did give some examples which, in the interests of brevity, I did not include in my quoting of him. Here is one: 

    “As secretary of the Treasury Board for five years, I was involved in the implementation of programme review. These were tough times for the public service, but also the best of times.  I believed then, and believe now, that unless governments live within their means, we risk the collapse of public support for needed government programmes and interventions. There followed a whole series of cutbacks, pay freezes, pension reform and privatizations – all measures which many a social action committee of the United Church were decrying. As a deputy minister, I was, of course, professionally bound to carry out the will of the elected government of the day. But I will confess to you, I also believed it was the right thing to do.”


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