Mixing Faith and Politics in Canada: Not a New Idea

A recent news item here in Ontario caught my attention. My mother pointed it out to me, in fact. But before I talk about that, let me give some context to the question of faith and politics in Canada.

We are used to secular leaders in Canada who fear that religion (which they believe to be a private matter, a conservative force, and/or inherently controversial) is a danger to public institutions. This was a significant point about contemporary Canadians in general in my 2019 book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch, and I claimed that much of this fear has to do with a negative impression of religious political participation in the USA, and more specifically, from seemingly obnoxious evangelicals on the right-wing edge. Then 9/ll radically reinforced this impression that religious conviction is dangerous to public safety.

The most extreme example of this aversion to religion in Canada is Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans public workers in positions of “authority” from wearing religious symbols, specifically while they are on duty. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has come out to say unequivocally this is unconstitutional. We could also mention the Supreme Court of Canada ruling against Trinity Western University’s proposal for a law school saying it’s “proportionate and reasonable” to limit religious rights in order to ensure open access for LGBT students. Such national news demonstrates how religious symbols and institutions are being increasingly regulated by the government and judiciary. “Religion” is seen as inherently divisive and offensive and in need of management.

This is a long way from the days of “Christian Canada”—an old notion which Gary Miedema chronicles in his book For Canada’s Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Re-making of Canada in the 1960s (MQUP 2005). Miedema demonstrates how the assumption that one faith was synonymous with Canada was deliberately opened up to a multi-cultural policy in which all faiths were officially deemed “Canadian.” Unfortunately, what seems to actually have happened since—to a large extent—is that symbols of faith and the thick language of religious belief (especially if conservative in social ethics) have become rare in the political arena.

So it was refreshing to see an article this week in the Hamilton Spectator entitled “Mixing Faith and Politics Could Be a Good Thing for Canada” written by a former MPP John Milloy advocating for a larger public presence for Canada’s religious communities. It describes a conversation on the topic of faith and politics between three MPs representing three rival political parties. Here is evidence that “faith” can bring people together and help cooperation happen. While it appears Milloy may have needed to retire from his public role before making such a public statement, it argues that more “religion” can mean stronger communities and more justice. As close-knit associations, faith groups form an important fabric of civil society.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s unapologetic decision to wear a colourful turban in his public role in parliament was a refreshing symbol that Canada may yet be open to a greater public role for religion. We are talking here about the Sikh head covering. But the visibility of multi-cultural fashion, festivals, and food needs to also include some of the deep convictions of faith, including political theology. The idea that John Milloy describes in his article mentioned above—of forming an All-Party Interfaith Caucus—may be a step in a positive direction, where religious groups can offer some of their best practises and values towards the national welfare while demonstrating rigorous, peaceful dialogue.

Canadian NDP leader Jagmeet Singh displays a religious symbol in public, demonstrating that religious faith and politics can be properly combined in unoffensive ways. A deeper thought is how does his Sikh faith shape his political perspective, and how does that faith address the common good, and not just Sikhs? It’s a question for all religious groups to ask. (Photo from Joseph Costa on Unsplash).

This reminds me of the work of Eboo Patel, a Muslim writer who has spoken at my alma mater, Calvin University in Michigan, on the imperative of inter-faith leadership for a divided America. He is an ardent advocate for conversation and cooperation between faiths—interacting in ways that do not compromise one’s faith, but precisely calls one to articulate one’s religious motivations in theological language. In his book Acts of Faith (2007), which he wrote in the shadow of 9/11, he says, “To see the other side, to defend another people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.

Patel’s 2016 book quotes philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff who wrote, with some irony: “To require [religions] that they not base their decisions and discussions concerning political issues on their religion is to infringe, inequitably, on the free exercise of religion.”

It is necessary to say, however, that “faith,” is not limited to traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. As our global scholar David Koyzis has written in his re-published book Political Visions and Illusions, some sort of faith is always mixed into politics. It’s not just beliefs in a deity that constitute a worldview—meaning a view of the world that is ultimately grounded in faith-based convictions about what is reality and what it means to be human. Koyzis demonstrates how ideologies, whether grounded in class struggle, markets, human autonomy or patriotism, are a form of religious orientation, and may become our dearest idol. Using the word “idol” immediately brings the subject of religion back into the foreground of political culture.

When I brought this article to Dr. Koyzis attention, he wrote me saying,

“Faith is not restricted to so-called ‘people of faith.’ If we can get everyone to admit that they follow a faith of some sort, we may make some progress towards sitting down with each other and openly discussing our differences, especially with respect to public life. And if so, then we will better see that the issue is no longer whether religion has relevance for public life but how it is relevant and what impact it should have on the communities we share.”

At the core of democracy is people committed to conversations and debates about what is important in our lives together. Surely our convictions about what is wrong with the world and where transformation lies will need to be part of that exchange. Whether our hopes and fears lie in material goods, human ingenuity, divine intervention, or a mix of such elements, our beliefs are fair game in developing public policy. Religious convictions can disrupt, degrade, and divide—no doubt about it—but they can also be a source of peace, cooperation, and goodwill.

Christian organizations like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Cardus and Citizens for Public Justice are good examples of Christian faith in civil but ardent dialogue with governments about public policy. As we see with Quebec’s Bill 21, secular ideologies are just as capable of being exclusive and divisive. Let’s get faith—whether secular, traditional, or otherwise—onto the political table and in a way that works towards the common good.

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