NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar, “faith is political”


Paul Dewar, the Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, has entered the race to become leader of the New Democratic Party. Dewar was raised in a political home in Ottawa and his parents were staunch Roman Catholics. Two years ago, I invited him to talk to a class that I was teaching about faith and public life and he was candid with those attending. I posted the following piece on my blog in early 2009. Now, with his intention to run for party leader, Dewar’s remarks about the relationship between religious faith and public life take on an even greater relevance. I am reposting that piece here. 


Paul Dewar and spouse Julia Sneyd

Faith is political

You cannot be a person of faith without being political, says Paul Dewar, the New Democratic Party MP for Ottawa Centre. In early 2009, Dewar spoke to my Faith and Public Life class at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality. “Faith and politics are congruent and we have no option but to be political if we are going to live the gospel,” Dewar said. “We have to constantly question what the Christian message is, and we can never stop trying to change the way things are in society.” Dewar added that for him the word “political” includes electoral politics but also transcends it. “Our response to faith must be lived out in community,” he insisted. “Faith is something that we must do and not only think about.”


Growing up Catholic

Dewar talked about how he grew up in a Catholic household in Ottawa in the post–Vatican II era in the 1960s. “My parents were both deeply involved in their church, and they extended that into the community. Faith, their community, and their attempt to live the gospel were all of one woven cloth.” Dewar said that their parish priest, a member of the Basilian Order, was also a valuable member of the community. “He was quiet and intelligent and able to work with others.” Through him, Dewar became involved in Alleluia House, a project inspired by Jean Vanier, a place and community for people who were developmentally delayed. “These people were not unusual to me, they were my neighbours,” added Dewar.

Dewar said that his parents’ participation in the Catholic Family Movement in the 1960s “levered their social action.” Initially it was Dewar’s father Ken who was the more political member of the family, but it was his mother Marion, a public health nurse, who eventually ran for public office. “She was involved in the church and extended that into the community, and she got into public life in that way.” Marion Dewar became the mayor of Ottawa in 1978 and later served as an NDP Member of Parliament. “I was raised in the Catholic Church but in the social democratic faith, as well,” Dewar related. “But I would say that it was a 75–25 per cent quotient of faith over politics that influenced who I am.”

Social democrats

He commented that it was not easy for Catholics of his parents’ generation to be social democrats (members of the CCF and later the New Democratic Party) because of opposition from many Catholic bishops. Dewar referred to a book called Catholics and Canadian Socialism, written by former priest and academic Gregory Baum. In it Baum documents how bishops in Quebec and Saskatchewan in the 1930s and 40s forbade Catholics to support the CCF. In their criticism, the bishops failed to draw a distinction between Communism and the democratic socialism of people like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas, who were also Protestant ministers. 

The bishops’ campaign was not entirely successful, Dewar said. “There were Catholic agrarian radicals like Joe Burton in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, who challenged the Church by running for the CCF. We also had Catholic labour people and activists in places such as Antigonish, Nova Scotia, doing the same thing. The bishops neither welcomed nor expected debate on these matters, but some people began to challenge the Church and the Vatican.” 

As he grew older and attended university, Dewar took a break from the Church. “But it never left me. I kept reading and thinking and questioning.” At one point his mother introduced him to the mayor of Managua, and following completion of his first university degree, Dewar spent six months working in Nicaragua. “I was influenced by what I saw happening in the Christian community there. I saw how poor people who had been in a paternalistic relationship with the Church used liberation theology to understand what the gospel was all about. They discovered that social justice and the sharing of resources was what Christ was talking about. I had never seen this manifested to such a degree. It was when I came back from Nicaragua that I came back to the Church.” 

Discreet faith and politics

Dewar became a teacher and later became involved in his union. He was vice-president of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary School Teachers’ Federation and helped establish the Humanity Fund, providing donations to projects in developing countries. He was elected to the House of Commons in 2006, 2008, and for a third term in 2011. Following his presentation to my class, a student asked him if he talks publicly about his religion in political settings. “Not often,” he replied. “I am prepared to talk openly about faith in settings such as this class, but when speaking in a political capacity I am reluctant to do so because I fear I could be misunderstood, and I do not want to use religion to score political points.”
Dewar commented that his mother was an example to him in this way, as well. “Many people who attended my mother’s funeral and an associated event at Ottawa City Hall were surprised to hear about the depth of her faith. She was profoundly spiritual, but she was also aware of where faith belonged. She did not place her Catholic faith in the forefront in her public life, and she was also very open to all faiths and religions.”

In their discreet approach dealing with the relationship between faith and politics, Dewar and his mother followed the example of Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who became a premier. Douglas told interviewer Chris Higginbotham in Regina in 1958 that while he believed in applying religious principles to politics and to government, he was always opposed to using religion as a “gimmick” to gain political support.

11 thoughts on “NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar, “faith is political”

  1. Thanks, Dennis. I grew up with this. It is familiar and what I believe. It is time to move away from the tiresome and worse politics of people and parties devoted to getting and keeping power, and move to the openness and principled discussions as outlined above. Rememeber Stephen Covey? He had a lot of good things to say about principled living. Too bad we live in a culture where what is good needs renewing over and over to keep people focused. We can’t let unprincipled politicians and their associates run our lives and our country. I hope these principled politicians can survive.


  2. I saw in print in an Alberta news paper that Paul Dewar is the person Stephen Harper would like to face least in the House of Commons. The life of Christ is about tolerance and service to others. It is people before profits and humanity first to quote our 1950’s CCF pamphlets. Harper is a professed Christian and Dewar is a practising Christian. So we can have a judgmental harsh leader or a tolerant compassionate leader.
    I can see why Harper would not like this contest.


  3. Thank you for this Dennis. Bob Ogle’s name comes immediately to mind when I think of how a blend of faith and politics in action can provide a solid aternative to the self serving leadership that so often divides and conquers, leaving many on the sideline, if not on the scrap heap.


  4. I am beginning to see signs that intelligence, compassion, and character are beginning to make a comback as important qualities in someone running for political office. The tributes to Jack Layton were one indication of that. Paul Dewar sounds like someone who will contribute a passion for social justice, integrity, and an inclusive manner of working with people and building true community.


  5. It is refreshing to see Paul Dewar’s comments on his faith journey, so very true to the gospel trajectory of Vatican ll. That dynamic faith, honouring the common good and commitment to the voiceless has been sadly traduced by the John Paul ll bishops and their lack of courage in following through on the visionary Council. Thankfully Catholics like the Dewar family have internalized the “Crux” of the gospel message.

    Vatican ll taught us that “we too must should that cross which the world and flesh inflict on those who search after peace and justice.”(#38,Gaudium et Spes).This means getting “political” when the government ignores the poor,makes war on Mother Earth and defends largely the wealthy and the already privileged.

    Real religion has been as “political” as when Moses talked back to Pharaoh.Bad religion results when religion gets comfortable in Pharaoh’s court.


  6. As an active supporter of NDP and a Catholic, I am very heartened by Paul Dewar’s stand – it is not a contradiction as some would want us to believe.


  7. “When I feed the hungry people, they call me a saint.
    When I ask ‘Why are the people hungry?’ they call me a communist.”
    Former Brazilian Bishop, Dom Helder

    Faith is indeed very political. That’s why so many people and politicos in Canada today don the disguise of ‘pseudo-Christianity’ in the political arena. What such people and their leaders do not want to admit is that capitalism is every bit as far removed from Christianity as is communism.

    Contrary to populat thinking, being wealthy is not a sign of God’s approval. Nor do Christian nations (or any peace-loving people) devote their armed forces to ‘war making’ rather than ‘peace keeping.’

    One hopes Dewar does well in his effort to make the NDP a party distinguishable from the rest. Such a change would be most welcome in Canadian poltics. But, I’m not holding my breath. Most Canadians smile and nod approvingly when Christianity is mentioned, but they fight gospel values tooth and nail at the ballot box.


  8. I think faith of any kind is always political/moral in that it informs and directs actions that affect others for good or ill. Although I resisted the idea for many years, I believe faith underlies everyone’s existence, whether it’s a belief in God or a belief in rational secularism. I was a post-Vatican II seminarian and although I would now describe myself as a non-theist, my late-life academic studies have been transformative and humbling. Although I still have deep and substantive moral issues with the institutional church, I have a renewed respect for religious believers that has resulted in healed relationships and much more constructive conversations with family and friends.

    All that said, it mystifies me to see Catholics coalescing around libertarian political parties. Radical individualism seems to fly in the face of the communitarian ideals that underly Christianity.

    To the extent that society is understood as community, we need more politicians whose foundational beliefs reflect the interconnectedness and interdependence of people. If Mr. Dewar is among the communitarian-leaning Catholics, I am optimistic, but I know many Catholics who enthusiastically endorse Harper-style libertariansm, counterintuitively, in my view. Frankly, as I believe Naomi Klein once said, socialism is a religion for many who are born into it, just as it is for those raised in homes that lean to the right. To the extent that all NDP leadership candidates reflect communitarian beliefs, I think they, too, are living their faith in ways that can benefit society.


  9. I think strong faith is a detriment in the political governing sphere as the individual with such faith has the psychological ability to believe in, and follow a supernatural creature for which there is no evidence of existence. That personal psychological flaw can be an issue when attempting to make rational evidence based decisions on a wide variety of subjects. As such I could never support a political leader who has those flaws.


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