Churchgoers vote Conservative

By Dennis Gruending

harper_160.jpgStephen Harper and the Conservatives won election in Canada with a minority government just over two years ago. The vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in that election. The question now is whether that was a blip or an emerging reality in Canadian political life.

Andrew Grenville, then a senior vice president with IPSOS-Reid, conducted a web-based poll of 36,000 voters on Election Day — January 23, 2006. He found that 64 per cent of weekly Protestant church attenders voted for Conservative candidates. By definition, the majority of those Protestant voters were evangelicals because they are much more likely to attend church weekly than are mainline Protestants. In contrast, Grenville reported that Protestants who attend once a month or less showed no real change in their voting habits. “As usual about 45 percent voted Conservative — that shows no great affinity for the new right.”

Grenville also found that for the first time in recent memory, more Catholics who are weekly church attenders voted for the Conservatives (42 per cent) than for the Liberals (40 per cent). Traditionally, there is something about being a Catholic that has predisposed voters to support Liberals. If that golden chain is broken, as it was in 2006, the results could have a profound influence on future Canadian elections.

There was once serious scholarship about the relationship between religious affiliation and voting preference. But most academics and journalists came to believe that secularism reigns and that organized religion, not to mention private religious conviction, has become largely irrelevant in influencing voting or any other behaviour. But interest is reviving. A group of Canadian academics has collaborated in a project called the Canadian Election Study (CES) to explain how people have voted and why in the past four federal elections. The investigators, among others, include André Blais of the University of Montreal and Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University.

Speaking in 2005, Blais said that religious cleavage remains important in Canadian elections and it has not significantly weakened over time. He said, as well, that the core strength of Liberals outside of Quebec consistently “hinges on the support of Catholics and Canadians of non-European origin.” Blais added that no one knows why Catholics have traditionally provided their support to the Liberals.  Jokingly, he suggested “the creation of a special prize for the individual or team that solves the mystery.”

Blais and his CES colleagues found that 54 per cent of Catholics supported the Liberals in the Canadian election of 2000. But the CES researchers noted a slippage in the Catholic vote for Liberals in the 2004 election, which reduced the party to minority government status.

There is also something about being an evangelical Protestant that predisposes support for the Conservatives or for other right wing parties such as Social Credit. With the arrival of Preston Manning and the Reform Party in the late 1980s, evangelicals had a new option. Religious historian John Stackhouse wrote that, “Not one but two political parties (Reform and Christian Heritage) were formed with evangelical support in the late 1980s and fielded dozens of candidates in the federal election of 1988.” Manning is an avowed and proud evangelical Christian. Reform and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, have struck a continuing chord with evangelicals.

After the 2004 election, the Canadian Election Study researchers reviewed the elections of 1993, 1997 and 2000. They were struck by the extent to which the Reform-Alliance and NDP votes were polarized along fundamental ideological lines. “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,” the CES researchers reported. “Given the importance of Christian fundamentalism in Conservative voting, the 2004 election could mark, not the return of brokerage politics, but a foreshadowing of the cultural divisions that are appearing in U.S. elections.”

In the U.S., white evangelical Protestants comprise the single most loyal constituency for the Republicans. Their vote held even in the mid-term elections of 2006, when the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Republican candidates received support from 54 per cent of voters who identified themselves as weekly churchgoers and from 70 per cent of white evangelicals, just slightly less than the 74 per cent who supported Republican candidates in 2004.

The CES researchers also focused on the “gender gap” in the 2006 election. They found that women were less likely to vote for the Conservatives than are men. But the 2006 gender gap would have been even wider had it not been for the vote of religious women. “Clearly,” the CES researchers wrote, “any understanding of the gender gap in Conservative voting has to take account of the powerful effect of being a Protestant who believes that the Bible is the word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” The research team also concluded that “being a Protestant fundamentalist is the single most important predictor of a Conservative vote in our models. Like the party’s western base, this is an important element of continuity between the Alliance and the new Conservative party.”

The support of Canadian evangelicals for right wing parties comes as no surprise to political scientist David Laycock. “With their evangelical Christian leaders,” Laycock wrote, “Reform and the Alliance have also appealed to social and moral conservatives uncomfortable with what they have seen as an over-secularized society. Such voters have worried about the threats both to the traditional family and to citizens’ sense of personal responsibility that they attribute to the modern Canadian welfare state.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are courting evangelicals, Catholics, and Jewish voters to join their political coalition and it has begun to alarm other parties. The New Democrats, for example, have created a Faith and Justice Commission in an attempt to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf. The social gospel tradition lives on in people such as MP Bill Blaikie, a United Church minister, and social Catholicism continues to be represented by MPs such as Charlie Angus, Joe Comartin and Tony Martin. But that flame is burning only weakly in contemporary Canada.

MP Martin told the Faith and Justice Commission in December 2007 that there is a faith-based social justice initiative building in the U.S. “They recognize that all of their big movements, including the civil rights movement, have been rooted in religious traditions, he said. “We have to try and do what they are doing.”

Canadian trends often lag behind those in the U.S. The American religious right has been an important political player for the past 30 years. Religious conservatives in Canada are  on their way to doing the same thing. But progressive Christians, in Protestant, Catholic, and even some evangelical congregations, are struggling to have their voices heard as well.

Charles McVety in Harper’s halls of power

By Dennis Gruending

charles_mcvety.jpgReverend Charles McVety says that he has many friends among the Harper Conservatives who govern in Ottawa. This week he will testify before the Senate banking committee in support of legislation that he says occurred partly as a result of his lobbying. It would deny tax credits to films that the government deems offensive. It’s a move that critics say is an affront to freedom of speech and a threat to the Canadian film industry.

McVety is a busy man. He is president of the Canada Christian College in Toronto. He leads the Canada Family Action Coalition (CFAC), a group that he says has 40,000 members. The CFAC describes itself as a Bible-centred organization “with a vision to see Judeo-Christian moral principles restored in Canada.” This is code for Christian reconstructionism, a belief that “God governs” and that government and all of society must submit to the Bible’s moral principles, as interpreted by the reconstructionists. Others call this theocracy.

McVety also leads the Defend Marriage Coalition, which is comprised of several religiously conservative groups: McVety’s Canada Family Action Coalition belongs, as do Campaign Life, the Catholic Civil Rights League, and REAL Women of Canada. Campaign Life is an ardent anti-choice organization with a traditional base among Catholics but increasingly it is attracting evangelical support. The Catholic Civil Rights League is a self-appointed watchdog protecting Catholicism against what it considers unwarranted attacks, particularly in films, books and popular culture. REAL Women is an anti-feminist organization with Christian reconstructionist overtones. The group has joined McVety’s campaign regarding films and lobbied in 2006 to have the federal government abolish Status of Women Canada, and to eliminate support for the Court Challenges Program. (The Harper government quickly granted many of REAL Women’s wishes).

In the 2006 federal election, the Defend Marriage Coalition produced a pamphlet titled Returning Stability to Canada and had it distributed in various churches across the country. The pamphlet served as a skewed report card on the political parties, a tactic that is commonly used by the American religious right. This pamphlet attacked Liberal and NDP candidates for supporting same-sex marriage, and then accused them of being in favour of physician-assisted suicide and child pornography.  McVety and his coalitions also helped a number of religious conservatives in attempts to win contests for Conservative nominations in 2006, including an unsuccessful run by Rondo Thomas, vice-president of McVety’s Christian College.

McVety is active on other fronts as well. When hostilities broke out between Israel and groups in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, he emerged as the Canadian chair of a group called Christians United for Israel, an offshoot of the Christians United for Israel – America. That organization included prominent evangelicals such as the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as well as Reverend John Hagee. He is a prominent Texas televangelist and author of Jerusalem Countdown, a book predicting that the world will soon end in Armageddon. Hagee was guest speaker at an Israel support rally that McVety organized at his college in Toronto. At about the same time McVety also appeared on television news to say that that the fighting in Lebanon created conditions that resembled end times as predicted in the Bible. (The belief in end times is common among Christian reconstructionists).

McVety made common cause with several Canadian Jewish organizations lobbying the Harper government to take a pro-Israel position in the conflict. The prime minister did not disappoint, when he described an Israeli campaign that took 1,000 Lebanese lives as a “measured response” to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.

Not along ago McVety’s organization and other groups participating in his Defend Marriage Coalition would have been seen as occupying the fringe right. Today the Conservatives appear to be courting them in an attempt to build an enduring political coalition that includes religiously conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Jews and others. When federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented his first budget in May 2006, McVety was his guest in the House of Commons VIP gallery. He had been drafted to help sell the government’s child care policy – one that scuttled the Liberals’ plan to provide a national child care program and replaced it with a tax break for families with children.

McVety is a religious entrepreneur of the American variety. The creation of overlapping coalitions and organizations (such as the Canadian Family Action Coalition) is another tactic long used by the religious right in the U.S. It aims at garnering publicity and creating the impression of numbers and momentum. Such groups are now becoming increasingly common in Canada. All of this must be frustrating for mainstream organizations such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), which was created in the mid-1960s to represent evangelicals in the halls of power. The CFAC does not belong to the Evangelical Fellowship and nor does McVety’s Christian College. Don Hutchinson, an EFC director, has been quoted as saying: “There’s a broad spectrum on the evangelical meter. Charles may be the representative of one end, probably the extreme end, of that spectrum.”

McVety’s apparent cultivation by the Harper government raises questions about how much influence social and religious conservatives have with the prime minister. Harper attends a Missionary Alliance Church but he is arguably more of a social than a religious conservative. He is determined, however, to embed the religious right in a political coalition that will remake Canada into a leaner and meaner state. The strategy is to put a Conservative majority government into power, but beyond that to move Canadian public opinion away from its liberal and social democratic tendencies toward a rock-ribbed conservatism. McVety and his supporters have played along but he, at least, is beginning to sound disappointed with Harper’s failure to deliver on issues such as rescinding the legislation enshrining same sex marriage. Religious conservatives remain largely allied to Stephen Harper but the relationship is becoming wary.

Faith, public life and Sam Harris

By Dennis Gruending

I spent several hours on a recent Saturday morning with 20 people at the Galilee Centre, set amid the woods along the Ottawa River at Arnprior, Ontario. We talked about the links between religious faith and public life. Much of the discussion was about how, unfortunately, the call to public involvement remains marginal within many church-based communities. Yet there was also pride in what has been accomplished, particularly when people of faith work in cooperation with others.

galilee_centre_mar08_400.jpgIt can be argued that our country’s rights and freedoms, our sense of tolerance and justice, owe at least something to ideas embedded in all of the great world religions. We are, indeed, our sister’s and our brother’s keeper. Our health, social and international development programs are an institutional way of putting those faith concepts into action. I think, for example, of medicare. When I was growing up in a poor farm family in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, my mother developed multiple sclerosis. We were almost ruined financially by the medical bills that we had to pay. Our government led by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, initiated publically financed health care and it was extremely important to my family and many others. Medicare did not just happen. It had to be conceived, planned, debated and promoted in a struggle that took years to realize. Thankfully, and to their credit, many churches and people of faith were deeply involved in that effort.

This is how we see ourselves, working diligently to pursue the common good — but how do others see us? Writer Pierre Berton published his book, The Comfortable Pew, in 1965. His portrait of Canada’s mainline Protestant churches was not a flattering one, yet despite his criticisms, Berton could say, “Christianity has shaped Western man for the better.” That benign view is being challenge today by many people. American writer Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith, a runaway best seller in the United States. “There seems to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world,” Harris writes. “They are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another.” Harris provides a five-page list of quotations from the Koran, which he says instruct observant Muslims to despise non-believers and encourages violence against them. The Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, he says, encourages a similar contempt and violence against heretics.

It is indisputable that both the Bible and the Koran are being used today to justify claims to land and power; to launch invasions and suicide attacks; to support the clash of civilizations and the prospect of war without end. Historically, there are churches that supported or condoned slavery, segregation, apartheid, anti-Semitism, and even genocide in countries like Rwanda. Canada is not immune to these violent excesses. The terrorist attack on an Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people – the largest terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living and working in Canada as well as India.

On the other hand, I read recently in a weekly church bulletin about Hong Kong Christians urging the Chinese government to stop its suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Tibet, and of the United Methodist Church’s criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The same bulletin reported on an international church-linked group that pioneered micro-finance to help people out of poverty.

Sam Harris wrote recently on his blog that, “It is, of course, good to know that [people of faith] occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. But wouldn’t it be better to do these things for reasons that are not manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts? Yes we can.”

If religious faith is a delusion, as Harris suggests, it is one that is not receding and it probably won’t any time soon. The Economist magazine reports that, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” (See my blog posting of November 19, 2007 regarding The Economist’s special report on religion).

Those who gathered at the Galilee Centre recently do not believe they have a monopoly on wisdom or truth, but do believe that they have something to offer. People of good will, including those of all religious beliefs, or of no religious belief, have the opportunity in our country to participate in public life. Most movements (environmental, labour or professional groups) and all political parties are coalitions of of individuals drawn from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. It should be possible for all of them to work together in a spirit of tolerance and respect on behalf of the public good.

Mahatma Gandhi revered but ignored in India

By Dennis Gruending
d_gruending_gandhi_museum.jpgI traveled in India for a month this winter and one of the best days that I spent was at the National Gandhi Museum located just off of the traffic-choked ring road in New Delhi. In the outdoor courtyard there is a sculpture of the diminutive Mahatma, bare-legged, clad in a simple shawl and carrying a walking stick as he leans into his 1930 march protesting against the salt tax imposed upon India by the British.

Indoors, the Gandhi museum is quite rundown and also dated in its approach – nothing interactive here, but rather walls lined with black and white photos accompanied by printed panels to explain them.I bought a book of Gandhi quotes in the museum’s foyer and noticed as I paged through it that the pages smelled musty, but the message contained on those pages and wall panels is profound. Gandhi insisted that no single religion holds all the answers and that in India the majority Hindus must treat minorities with respect and tolerance. “Is the God of the Mohamedan different from the God of the Hindu,” Gandhi asked? He also showed a great respect for Christianity and Christ, who, he said “belongs to all races and people.”Gandhi insisted that women must be equal. Even the casual traveler in India today can see that goal remains a long way off. “I will work for an India in which women will enjoy the same rights as men,” he said. Gandhi also opposed an entrenched caste system in India, which condemned people to endure poverty and exploitation in the belief that it was divinely ordained. “There can be no room in India,” he said, “for the curse of untouchability.”

Gandhi developed his approach toward non-violent resistance or “satyagraha” when he fought discrimination against Indians in South Africa, where as a young man he worked as a lawyer. When he returned to India in 1915, he began to organize non-violent resistance against British colonial rule. He emerged as a leader of the Quit India campaign and the British imprisoned him on numerous occasions.

Gandhi was a political and a spiritual leader. For a time he was the president of the Indian National Congress, the major political movment in the struggle for independence.Later, as other leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru assumed political leadership, Gandhi withdrew but remained as the movement’s unofficial spiritual leader and icon.   Lord Mountbatten, who was eventually to negotiate the British withdrawal, said that the more saintly Gandhi became the less political influence he possessed, noting wrly that saints shouldn’t spend too much time around politicians.  

 The Congress movement was broadly based but as independence approached it became clear Muslims wanted their own homeland. Gandhi wished for all to live in harmony within one secular state and opposed any plan that partitioned India into two separate countries. Nehru did not want partition either but he and others ultimately convinced Gandhi that it was the only alternative to civil war. Still, Gandhi refused to join in any national celebrations when independence was won.Partition led to a massive two-way migration of Muslims from India and Hindus from Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands of people died in the accompanying violence. Gandhi was devastated and he went on a fast in January 1948 to protest against communal riots.

Nathuram Godse, a member of the extremist All Indian Hindu Assembly, assassinated Gandhi a few weeks later. He believed that Gandhi was sacrificing Hindu interests in an effort to appease the Muslim minority.The Assembly was a precursor of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which virulently opposes pluralism and sees Muslims as the enemy preventing a Hindu India.  Gandhi is revered in India and officially accorded the honour of father of the nation but he seems now to be a prophet without much of a following. There are also historians who claim that the success of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance was over-rated. The British, they say, left India due to battle fatigue following the Second Word War. 

 Sir Mark Tully, a former bureau chief for the British Broadcasting Corporation, in New Delhi, observes also that Gandhi’s “principle of non-attachment to things does not go down well in a materialist culture.” 

India is being hailed as an economic tiger and the national media lionizes entrepreneurs the country’s business schools. Foreigners are constantly providing self-assured advice. The Economist magazine criticized India’s 2008 national budget for providing fertilizer subsidies and loan forgiveness to small farmers. The British magazine says there are simply too many people in agriculture, without saying where millions of people it wants to see displaced from the land would go. The cities are already overcrowded and made barely habitable by traffic and pollution. The benefits of India’s boom have been captured mainly by the business elite and well-paid professionals. The new wealth has not trickled down to the poor, including thousands of farmers who have committed suicide.

Gandhi chose to live a life of extreme simplicity, dressing in simple cloth that he had spun himself. He turned the spinning wheel or “charkha” into a powerful symbol of self-reliance and bottoms up economic development that does not sit well with globalizers. Gandhi’s passionate call for non-violence, religious tolerance, and for gender and economic equality has not been realized in India or most other countries — but his message remains universal and timeless.  



Thanks for your comments

By Dennis Gruending

dg_140_white_border.jpgI 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; 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?  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?  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, 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?  I hope to deal with those in a future piece.

NDP faith and justice commission up and running

By Dennis Gruending joe_comartin1.jpgThe federal New Democratic Party has created a Faith and Justice Commission as a forum for progressive people who come to politics from a faith based perspective []. 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 elections 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,  “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 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 big faith-based social justice initiative building in the U.S. “They recognize that all of their big movements, including the civil rights movement,  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.

Journeys to the heart of Catholicism

By Dennis Gruending

ted_schmidt.jpgTed Schmidt is a former teacher in the Toronto Catholic school system and a staunch critic of a church hierarchy that he says is “patriarchal, misogynist and out of touch.” Schmidt also served as editor of the defunct Catholic New Times and has now written a book called Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism. He was in Ottawa on a recent evening to talk with about 30 people in a small room adjacent to an old church hall where a choir was rehearsing Christmas songs.

Schmidt’s book launch was reminiscent of a much larger event in March 2007 when the well-known theologian Hans Kung spoke to an audience of about 1200 people in Ottawa. Kung talked about how Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had systematically undercut the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s opened the doors and windows to change in the Catholic Church.

Those proposed changes were many but foremost among them were that the lay men and women in the church are not simply passive recipients of commands from on high but important agents in the church and the world; that all religions offer a path to salvation and that ecumenical dialogue is essential; that the pope is the bishop of Rome and perhaps the first among equals, but that the papacy was not meant to be an autocracy. The pope must consult widely and regularly with the world’s bishops on church matters.

Kung told a receptive audience that Pope John Paul appointed only “yes men” as bishops. “A priest can only become a bishop if he agrees with the Vatican, especially on birth control, celibacy and the ordination of women.” Kung also said that, “There can be no peace among nations if there is no peace among religions and there will be no peace without dialogue.”

Ted Schmidt would agree. He said in Ottawa that there has been a “slow motion coup attempt to turn back Vatican II.” He lays much of the blame at the feet of Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in an election by the church’s cardinals upon the death of John Paul II in 2005. “Pope Benedict wants to winnow the church down to a little flock,” Schmidt said. “This is just a cover for stale orthodoxy.”

Schmidt talked of “a church below the church” and about Catholics who are struggling to remain within an institution where “faith has been replaced by creed — an heirloom rather than a living fountain.” There were nods and murmurs of assent among his audience. Schmidt expands upon those and other points in his book, which consists of revised and new essays and some poems. He is particularly distraught, and angry in a prophetic sense, about war and the response by churches to it.

“Our most unlived teaching,” he said, “is of peace and war. What are we doing to disavow the idea of war? This is part of the great turning point in Christianity.”  The war in Iraq has been “catastrophic” – with 600,000 killed and four million refugees as of October 2006. Schmidt acknowledged that Pope John Paul spoke out strongly against the war but adds that America’s Catholic bishops have been timid in their comments and even more so in their actions.

“Catholicism, despite its institutional size and cultural clout,” he writes in his book, “has become a silent accomplice to the horrific homicidal violence which has taken place in Iraq.” His criticism also extends to rank and file Catholics, who Schmidt said, “have made too much money and have fallen asleep.”

The behaviour of evangelical churches in the U.S. has been even more egregious regarding the war in Iraq. Christian evangelicals, Schmidt said, have been enthusiastic backers of the war and he predicted they will “take the greatest hit” as a result. Evangelical enthusiasm for the war and Catholic silence, he said, “tell us that the non-violent voice of Jesus has been totally muted in our time.”

Schmidt announced in his Ottawa appearance that the Catholic New Times, which ceased publication several years ago, will be revived as an on line publication called New Catholic Times. “We’ll take the best of the Catholic New Times type of writing and analysis and put it on line. Our inspiration is the social teaching of the church.”  New Catholic Times will publish twice monthly and will ask for $20 per year in support from individuals who read it and $50 from institutions.

Schmidt provided further details on regarding New Catholic Times on a December 5 posting on his blog, Theology in the Vineyeard.

Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism is published Seraphim Editions and sells for $20. You can contact Seraphim by telephone at 905-525-5509 or by email at

The Economist on the new wars of religion

By Dennis Gruending

economist_religious_wars.jpgThe Economist magazine in a recent edition published a special 18-page section called In God’s name: A special report on religion and public life. Editor John Micklethwait said in an accompanying interview, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” With the exception of Western Europe, the magazine says, “religion has forced itself dramatically into the public square.”

The article uses several examples to illustrate its point: a born again Christian sits in the White house; an Islamist party rules once secular Turkey; Hindu nationalists may return to power in India; in China, religion appears to be on the march, and Iran is a theocracy. All too often — from Northern Ireland through Lebanon, Iraq and Ceylon — these religious intrusions are violent and bloody. Canada, so far at least, is the peaceable kingdom but the culture wars so common south of the border are appearing in this country as well.

The Economist is secular and economically conservative – almost libertarian — in its outlook. It believes that church and state should be kept separate, and is thus alarmed about theocracies and even opposed to Western European countries subsidizing certain churches. On the other hand, the Economist is sanguine about what it describes as a growing “multiplicity of sects” — evangelical churches in the U.S., South Korea and elsewhere would fit this description. The magazine describes them as a “bottom up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalisation.”

American author Kevin Phillips is not nearly so positive about the Christian right. He argues in his 2006 book American Theocracy that the Republican Party has become captive to religious zealots who would propel the U.S. toward theocracy as well. That case is perhaps somewhat over-stated, but former president Jimmy Carter, in his book, Our Endangered Values, decries the embedding of right-wing Christianity in the Republican Party and administration. “Narrowly defined theological beliefs,” Carter writes, “have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.” Carter believes that most Americans do not support policies that are isolationist, pro-war, anti-environment and hostile to poor people and women.

The actions of the Christian right in the U.S. might well resemble a hostile corporate takeover more than they do a “bottom up marketing success”. Beginning in the 1970s, the Christian conservatives infiltrated the Republic Party and became its single most important constituency. That support held firm even in the 2006 mid-term elections that saw the Republicans lose both houses of Congress. Christian conservative leaders are now busily engaged as Republican power brokers in the 2008 presidential race.

Early in November Pat Robertson surprised his cohorts by endorsing Rudolph Giuliani, who has supported of gay and abortion rights, as ”an acceptable” Republican ”who can win the general election.” Other Christian conservative leaders have threatened to bolt the Republican Party if it nominates Giuliani or any other candidate who supports a woman’s right to choose. In explaining his endorsement, Mr. Robertson said he was confident that Giuliani would defend the country against ”the blood lust of Islamic terrorists.”

The Christian right first came to political prominence when it mobilized the vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The movement has consolidated and grown in its sophistication, and religious conservatives in Canada may well be poised to do that as well. Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have been courting conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Jews and others in an attempt to build an enduring political coalition and it has worked — at least in the short term.

An IPSOS-Reid poll reported, for example, that the vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in the election of a Conservative minority government in January 2006. The question is whether this was a blip, or a new and permanent fixture in Canadian public life.

Harper is an evangelical Christian although unlike Preston Manning and Stockwell Day he has been guarded about discussing his religious motivation. Harper is arguably more of a social than a religious conservative but he is determined to embed the religious right in a political coalition that will remake Canada into a leaner and meaner state. For its part the religious right must decide whether to stick with the Conservatives, or to adopt other strategies if the Conservatives let them down, as they perceived Harper to have done following a vote held on same sex marriage in December 2006.

Chances are that support will remain firm, but in any event there is little doubt that the religious right is growing in power and influence. Other political parties, including the NDP, are attempting to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf while progressive religious groups are struggling to be heard.

Conservative Christians have every right in a democratic society to become involved in the public debate, to organize around their issues and to attempt to elect their candidates. But in that contest they can claim no monopoly on truth, wisdom or the common good. By engaging in the public and political sphere, they are open to the same analysis and scrutiny of their motives as anyone else who engages in democratic competition.