By Dennis Gruending
I mentioned in my last posting to Pulpit and Politics that I am leading an evening class this winter for the Ottawa Lay School of Theology.Â Itâ€™s called Faith and Public Life: Making the Connection. We met for our first class on Monday January 12 and it was perhaps not surprising, given the city involved, that a good number of the 30 participants are civil servants or are retired from government. Many said they want to know what links their religious faith to the work they do or have done.
I believe that such a connection exists and if it didnâ€™t, as the saying goes, we would have to invent it. The Christian gospel calls on people to â€œlove the Lord your God with all your heartâ€, but it also says, â€œlove your neighbour as yourself.â€ That love is expressed through right relationships. We are, indeed, our sisterâ€™s and our brotherâ€™s keeper, as Barrack Obama had the courage to say in his speech in August 2008 accepting the Democratic Partyâ€™s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Our health, social and international development programs are an institutional way of putting these religious concepts into practice.
I think, for example, of Medicare in Canada. When I was growing up in a poor farm family in Saskatchewan, my mother developed multiple sclerosis and we were almost ruined financially by the doctorsâ€™ bills that we had to pay. It was a provincial government led by Tommy Douglas, a former Baptist minister, that conceived of a publicly financed health care system. Medicare was all-important to our family and many others, but it is more than just a program. Janet Sommerville, a former head of the Canadian Council of Churches, says: â€œThe principles guiding our health care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by Godâ€™s word in Scripture.â€
I am in good company in believing that there is a connection between faith and public life. Pope John Paul II wrote in a 1988 encyclical that, â€œThe world then is the vineyard; this is the field in which the faithful are called to fulfill their mission.â€
The Anabaptist writer Donald Kraybill has a popular book called The Upside Down Kingdom. He begins it with the Gospel writer Luke telling us what John the Baptist said, and John was, in turn, paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah: â€œPrepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.â€
Kraybill then moves to the Magnificat, the song of Mary when she learned that she was to be the mother of the Messiah: â€œThe Mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thought of their hearts. He has put down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.â€
Kraybill calls his book The Upside Down Kingdom because he believes the gospel message is just this: the valleys will be filled, the mountains will be leveled, and the crooked will be made straight. The powerful shall be put down and the lowly lifted up.
The Bible cannot (and should not) be expected to tell people how to vote but it certainly tells us that there is a connection between faith and the social, economic and political decisions that we make. This will be especially interesting to consider as Canada struggles to deal with an economic recession, and as unemployment, insecurity and suffering are bound to become more widespread. It was the Great Depression of the 1930s that spawned both the CCF and the Social Credit political movements and religious ministers were prominent in the leadership of both parties.
Ernest Manning, the longtime premier of Alberta and a lay minister, said this: â€œIn my opinion, it is completely contrary to the Scriptures that Christians, who are intended to be the salt of the earth, should avoid the field of public life where the influence of their Christian experience is so desperately needed.â€
There are many questions that we can ask: What examples can we think of where faith informed public life â€” for the better, or perhaps for the worse?
How do we deal with questions of faith and partisanship â€“ for example, was the social faith of Tommy Douglas better than that of Mr. Manning; better than that of John Diefenbaker, or better than that of Pierre Trudeau?
Should religious faith and organized religion have a prominent role to play inÂ politics â€” or are these decisions best left to what in Canada is a mature and secular democracy?
Are religions a force for public good as many of us have assumed, or are they to quote American writer Sam Harris, â€œleading us, inexorably, to kill one another?â€
One reader of this blog is Alvin Hergott, a former Catholic priest who now lives in Brazil. He sent this question for us to consider: â€œI wonder whether your class will explore the reason(s) that individuals who appear to share the same religious faith differ so markedly in their social and political living of it.â€ We will consider this question and I also invite you as a reader of Pulpit and Politics to send in questions as well.
Next week our guest will be Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and other Canadian government departments. He will talk about the connections between faith and public life, especially for those who work in the bureaucracy. If you have any questions for Mr. Harder, please post them in the Comments section below.