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.

Churches publish Health Care Covenant

By Dennis Gruending

Joe GunnThe Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) has released A Health Care Covenant, a short book that describes the involvement by churches in our country’s various debates about health care. The Ecumenical Health Care Network of the CCC says that it produced the book to “contribute an ethical voice to the ongoing dialogue and debate about the future of health care in Canada.” The publication is a timely antidote to yet another recent report by the Fraser Institute that calls for a parallel private health care system.

A Health Care Covenant is an encouraging book for a number of reasons. It contains clear information about our fundamental health care issues but also provides a moral and spiritual context into which we can place those issues. Beyond that, it is good to know that 21 of our churches are still working ecumenically after a number of years when it seemed those efforts were diminishing. Health care issues are so broad and deep that they demand an ecumenical response.

Canadian churches, as Joe Gunn points out in his historical chapter, have been involved in health care since the beginning. It was a religious order of sisters who founded the first hospital in what is now Canada in 1639. Gunn also chronicles the participation of churches in more recent times. They appeared before the Hall Commission in the 1960s to propose a publicly administered and comprehensive health insurance program. Hall, a Supreme Court judge, recommended medicare for Canada in 1964 and the Pearson government, along with the provinces, put the program into place later in the decade.

The churches were there again, this time under the auspices of the EHCN, to make submissions to the Senate committee led by Michael Kirby and also to the royal commission led by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romano. The churches asked Romanow to reaffirm the public health system and to call for improvements to it. The churches called as well for the federal government to develop a national pharmacare program. Romanow later told members of the ECHN that it was their brief that prompted him to propose a Health Care Covenant for Canadians in his report called Building on Values.

Nuala Kenny of Halifax is both a medical doctor and a religious sister. In her Foreword to the book she writes, “It is crucial that persons of faith understand that the future of the Canadian health and health care systems are matters of moral import. Visions of justice, compassion and community are at stake. Indeed we are at a cross roads for health policy. Challenges to the values of medicare are real and increasingly dominating the public and political agenda.”

Dr. Kenny continues, “There are many possible responses to these pressures. Most, in Canada, have looked to a careful systemic analysis of the system and suggested an agenda for reform. Others judge publicly funded health care as unsustainable and look to the market for answers.”

It is fair to say that Kenny and the others here believe profoundly that we should reform our public system rather than giving it up to market forces, as proposed by the Fraser Institute and some politicians. Janet Sommerville writes that public health care makes good economic sense. We spend proportionately less than does the United States and we provide care to everyone while in the U.S. perhaps 45 million people go without coverage. Sommerville says that the choice of systems is also a matter of what she calls applied ethics that appeal to Canadians.

Canada,” she writes, “still has a great many people who are religious believers. Even if most of us are shy about saying so in public, we think that the major tenets of our faith should affect our lives as citizens, not only our personal life. And the principles guiding our health care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by God’s word in Scripture.”

A Health Care Covenant is available from the Canadian Council of Churches for $10. The book can be ordered at and/or 1-416-972-9494 Ext. 21.

Note: This article appeared in a slightly altered form in the October 31, 2007 edition of the Prairie Messenger, a Catholic journal published in Saskatchewan.

Conservative think tanks multiply in Canada

clac_1251.jpgBy Dennis Gruending

When Donald Rumsfeld left the Bush Cabinet, he quickly found a new job at Hoover Institution, one of dozens of powerful and wealthy right-wing think tanks (such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and American Enterprise Institute) that wield tremendous influence in US politics. Canada’s best-known counterpart is the Fraser Institute, founded in 1974. Over the years, it has been joined by others, including:

· the Manning Centre, created by Preston and his wife Sandra to train people how to succeed at conservative politics;

· the Ottawa-based Institute for Canadian Values, which has as its executive director Joseph Ben-Ami, a former political organizer for Stockwell Day.; and

· the Ottawa-based Institute for Marriage and Family, created by Dr James Dobson’s powerful US Focus on the Family (Canada), to provide socially conservative research and advice.

Now meet the Hamilton-based Work Research Foundation (WRF). In mid-October, the WRF sponsored a lecture by Dr Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow Hudson Institute, at Ottawa’s exclusive Rideau Club. His topic: “God, International Affairs and the Global Economy.”

On hand to facilitate this lecture, on the 15th floor of a downtown office tower, was WRF’s vice-president of research, Ray Pennings, an unsuccessful Canadian Alliance candidate in the 2000 federal election. His colleague, senior researcher Russ Kuykendall, is a former legislative assistant to Manitoba MP Inky Mark and a graduate of the Alberta Bible Institute in Calgary.

Paul Marshall’s talk reflected the position of the Hudson Institute, which, in its own words, is particularly interested in the war on terror and the future of Islam. A corporatist institution, it is also concerned with market reforms and the 21st century welfare state.

Marshall said that the role of religion has been all but neglected in international relations. That lack of knowledge is dangerous, he said, and was one reason that the US was caught off guard on September 11, 2001. He also talked about what he called the “striking relationship” between religious freedom and economic prosperity, particularly in Christian countries. On the other hand, he posited that “closed systems” such as those found in many Muslim countries stunt economic growth.

Marshall didn’t say much about Canada, although he did take a passing swipe at Louise Arbour, formerly a Supreme Court Justice and now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He stated that in Canada one can be fined for speaking out against homosexuality, but he provided no example or corroborating detail.

Although Marshall’s talk was predictable, his presence in Ottawa was somewhat puzzling. Who, exactly, is the WRF and why did it feature a talk by someone from the Hudson Institute?

The WRF describes itself as a Christian-inspired think tank that seeks “an alternative model for industrial relations policy.” The group was created by the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), which in turn arose from the Christian Reformed church about 50 years ago. The CLAC describes itself as both a “bona fide trade union” and an “alternative labour movement” – one based on Christian social principles. It claims to support no political party.

The CLAC claims to have 43,000 members in five provinces, with a concentration in Alberta and southern Ontario, and describes itself as having the third largest union presence in Ontario’s long-term care sector. The CLAC is no fan of the Canadian Labour Congress. The labour movement, in turn, sees CLAC as essentially a company union (or worse), which is making inroads into Alberta’s notoriously anti-union tar sands industry.

The WRF insists that it is an independent organization and is sensitive about its ties with CLAC even though two of its seven board members, and several of its staff, are drawn from that organization. The WRF recently admonished a sympathetic religion writer who had written that the two organizations were “affiliated.”

Peter Menzies, a former publisher of the Calgary Herald, is a senior fellow of the WRF, and acting in that capacity he wrote a recent op-ed article in The Globe and Mail warning the Alberta government not to raise royalties in the tar sand sands. Menzies also has a consulting company and lists as clients two other conservative think tanks – the Manning Centre and the Fraser Institute. The Fraser Institute’s senior research fellows include Preston Manning, Mike Harris and Ralph Klein.

Conservative think tanks have been very profitable ventures in the US. The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy 1999 report, called $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, concluded that, “the conservative policy establishment is perhaps the key generator and purveyor of public ideas.” Follow-up reports in 2004 (Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy) and 2005 (Funding the Culture Wars: Philanthropy, Church and State) traced the funding and influence of the ever-expanding field, in greater detail.

In Canada, too, the Fraser Institute has expanded beyond its initial Vancouver base to open offices in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Tampa, Florida. The Institute offers tax-deductible receipts for donations, in the US as well as in Canada.

Together with the Manning Centre, the Institute for Marriage and the Family, and the Institute for Canadian Values, the Fraser Institute anchors a matrix of conservative organizations whose personnel attend each other’s conferences, write for each other’s newsletters and appear as spokespersons on sympathetic media to discuss the latest budgets, elections and court cases.

These organizations share a deep suspicion of government, an antagonism toward social programs and a dislike for the labour movement. They have taken ideas once considered to be on the fringe right and moved them into the mainstream debate.

News media regularly cover Fraser Institute news releases on topics like “Tax Freedom Day”, wait times in health care, and report cards on public schools. These terms frame the public debate and overshadow questions of corporate responsibility, human rights, and education as the foundation of democracy.

The emergence of all these organizations might indicate that Canada is now seen as fertile territory for the think tank industry. If so, we all (and unions especially) should brace for an onslaught of “free market” propaganda. The challenge for progressive groups is provide better information and to distribute it widely within the community.

Note: This article appeared in the October 31 edition of the online publication Straight Goods. 

Dennis Gruending launches Pulpit and Politics blog

free_stuff_dg_140.jpgI plan with this blog to explore the growing influence that religion is having upon politics and society in Canada and elsewhere. This relationship is not merely a topic of interest but rather it has an effect upon the lives of millions of people.

There has been a perception among academics, journalists and other opinion leaders that secularism reigns and that organized religion, not to mention private religious conviction, have become largely irrelevant to people. That was certainly the common belief among my professors when I was a university student and my journalistic colleagues in subsequent years.

But far from fading away, religion has come to play an increasingly prominent public role in contemporary societies. One has only to think about the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions; the impact of liberation theology in places such as Brazil; the role of the church in Poland; the rise of the evangelical right in the United States, Canada and elsewhere; the rise of militant Sikhism and Islamic extremism. If ever religion was a marginalized force, it has rebounded markedly, and not always for the better.

Canada does not exist in a vacuum. 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 now is whether that pronounced religious vote is a blip or an emerging reality in Canadian political life (please visit my website to read my article about religion and voting behaviour in Canada –

The religious right is growing in power and political influence in Canada. Mainline Protestantism, as represented in the United, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches, has been in decline although it is showing some signs of revival. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals, who once disliked and mistrusted one another, are now engaged in a growing collaboration.  Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, publicly funded childcare and a resistance to various other social programs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are assiduously courting evangelicals, Catholics, and Jewish voters to join their political coalition. That has alarmed other parties, including the New Democrats, who are attempting to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf.

For their part, progressive Christians — in Protestant, Catholic, and even some evangelical congregations — have been marginalized in recent years and are now struggling to have their voices heard by politicians and the Canadian public.

I intend to deal with all of these topics on this blog.

There is a good deal of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about how important it is to understand the motivation and tactics of religious groups that involve themselves in the political arena. Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit & Politics will help to fill that gap.