We arrive on the morning after the election with some kind of freedom to speak about faith and public life in Canada. It was interesting that my colleague Shelby Gregg asked me whether it was a newsletter on faith AND public life or IN public life. We are unusual as a culture that we are not able to comment about faith in public life since we simply don’t know anything about it. I’d love to make some observations and see what you do with them. Here goes.
We have persuaded ourselves as a culture that we have a nation which practices a profound and powerful Baptist contribution to the general public by practicing separation of church and state. This is not historically accurate by any measure. Atlantic Canada experienced the strength of both Protestant and Catholic influences. Ontario was predominately Protestant (in many ways until the 60’s when multicultural faiths and Roman Catholicism attained a greater influence). Quebec, without the quasi-religious politics since it’s founding and most destructively expressed by Duplesis culminated in the persecution of both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. You can not define the social values in the Prairies around poverty, the vote for women, prohibition or medical care without reference to evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. British Columbia has in turns taken on all the attributes of those I have mentioned.
The preceding could easily be critiqued as a superficial, historical overview. It is. But it’s a start.
The more interesting religious landscape can be found in our past Prime Ministers and present political leaders. Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Tommy Douglas, Preston Manning, Joe Clark, Paul Martin, John Turner, Stephen Harper have all either personally declared or been “outed” by others as people of faith. This is also true of Pierre Trudeau in his latter years. I know that is hard to fathom for some, but it was something that was important to him. The notable folk that were absent in terms of a self-declared faith were Lester Pearson (a surprise for some), Jean Chrétien, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney.
I am concerned that having even raised the issue of the faith of Prime Minsters that I will stir up the debate and quibbling amongst ourselves. All I am describing is those who claimed that faith was important to them. I am not promoting their “Christian Credentials” nor defending their spiritual traditions. I am simply describing how they believe themselves to be. I did not include, you will note, that wonderful paragon of the mainline Christian establishment Mackenzie King, because I have never believed that a séance with your dog (named Pat, I recently learned, all three of them) has ever constituted a worship service.
What may be more interesting is how little we know about the personal faith journeys of the present political leaders. Elizabeth May is an Anglican studying theology and intending to be…I was interrupted at this point by Shelby who quipped “Elizabeth May is intending to be an MP in the next election”… but as I recover from that fiction (only kidding) I believe she intends to be an Anglican Deacon or Priest. She makes no bones about how important her faith is.
Gilles Duceppe and Stéphane Dion are unknown quantities in an understanding of their personal faith, although Mr. Duceppe permitted a Roman Catholic priest who is a member of his caucus (and forbidden by the Pope to run in this election) to be present at the National Prayer Breakfast to read scripture. There have been some significant influences in Dion’s party, which include John Manley and one of my personal heroes around Africa, David Kilgour. Both Duceppe and Dion face the challenges of being raised in Roman Catholic Quebec in which, until the 60’s, the church had an unhealthy and excessive influence. That neither explains nor excuses a lack of clarity on where they stand, but it goes some way to explaining it.
Jack Layton was the only party leader at the National Prayer breakfast this year in May. He sat at the head table, read scripture, and bathed in the light and assurance of never been portrayed as too religious. I find it an incredible irony that Mr. Layton, who is a profoundly compassionate man, is not seen in religious terms and therefore is able to go to National Prayer Breakfasts. It was also incredibly difficult to learn that under his leadership, free votes on personal moral issues are limited. The NDP have attempted to redeem the dialogue between faith and public life by starting a new faith and public life institute under Bill Blakely. Several of the parties deny their members free votes on conscience issues. I see that as the single most devastating threat to Christian’s in public life.
Lastly, we have Mr. Harper who has been grouped together as a particularly conservative person of faith. There is no public evidence of that, but I was profoundly grateful that he quoted scripture in his acceptance speech last night, acknowledged the prayers of people and wished God’s blessing upon the country. I felt badly for the Prime Minister in the way he seemed awkward and embarrassed in the abrupt sort of afterthought that “God bless Canada” seemed to be uttered. But I was very grateful that he said it none-the-less.
So there you have it. A brief overview to stimulate discussion. I have worked hard at being fair and may not have succeeded. For this I apologize in advance. I will, however, stick to my guns that it is important to talk about these issues. This newsletter is an outline of some things we may be able to talk about in the future. I am thankful that our second Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, was part of our clan and a committed Christian. I am grateful that John Diefenbaker, despite his foibles, was the same and a man who saw justice and behaved in a righteous way when he saw the downtrodden and the broken (albeit it, he exempted his political opponents). Above all, I am thankful that people of faith are now speaking of such when it comes to public life and that we are now becoming a healthier society because of it. I am also deeply grateful for the dialogue for the country we live in and the democracy we experience.
Bruce Hutchison, the most significant Canadian journalist in the first eighty years of the twentieth century was a lifelong agnostic, yet found an impatience with others who lack belief. Here is a note from the end of his autobiography.
My own recognition, despite these bold words and Swamp fantasies, was late and dim, the shadows dark and inscrutable, but after a life of scepticism I cannot doubt that the sun shines and a different life moves outside the cave. I understand and respect the man who believes nothing unknown to the sense of his body, but I cannot understand why he should boast of that limitation as if it were a laborious achievement. Anyone can do it, and it simplifies everything since there is no further need to think. Nor can I understand why the agnostic should boast that, after profound thought, he has no opinion at all, as a judge in court might claim superior wisdom because he could reach no verdict. Above all, I cannot understand why a man who believes in things beyond the senses should be afraid to say so, as if belief were somehow shameful and neutrality more respectable than commitment.
Yet so belief is widely judged, in Western society at least…
(Bruce Hutchison; The Far Side of the Street).