Navigating the Faith/Political Interface

Preston Manning
June 19, 2009
Why even concern ourselves with "the faith/political interface"? Several compelling reasons exist for doing so, including: National and international security: Islamic extremists, professedly motivated by religious as well as political convictions, are a threat to national and international security. Their actions also threaten the political status and security of the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world who do not share these convictions.

Navigating the Faith/Political Interface

Preston Manning
June 19, 2009
Why even concern ourselves with "the faith/political interface"? Several compelling reasons exist for doing so, including: National and international security: Islamic extremists, professedly motivated by religious as well as political convictions, are a threat to national and international security. Their actions also threaten the political status and security of the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world who do not share these convictions.
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Why even concern ourselves with “the faith/political interface”?

Several compelling reasons exist for doing so, including:

National and international security: Islamic extremists, professedly motivated by religious as well as political convictions, are a threat to national and international security. Their actions also threaten the political status and security of the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world who do not share these convictions.

Relations with Islamic states: There are more than fifty nations in the world which profess in their constitutions to be guided by the Koran and Islamic law. Present and future relations between Canada and such states require an understanding of governments which operate by definition at the faith/political interface.

The necessity of understanding our own history and culture: Religious faith and people of faith have played a major role in shaping Canada’s constitution, public institutions, and culture. It is not possible to properly understand our own history and culture without studying and understanding the role of faith in shaping it.

Current democratic realities: Public opinion surveys which investigate the values held by Canadians consistently reveal that the overwhelming majority of us profess to hold and be guided by various religious convictions. Whether or not civil servants, legislators, or judges agree with such convictions, they cannot afford to completely ignore them in formulating public policies, laws, or judicial decisions.

Contemporary issues: Issues such as whether to provide for same-sex marriages in law, whether women should be eligible to vote while wearing a veil, whether to fund faith-based schools, whether to support Buddhist priests in their efforts to dislodge the military dictatorship in Burma (Myanmar), or whether Prime Minister Harper should meet the Dalai Lama – all by their very nature bring faith perspectives into the political arena. The challenge is not to avoid such issues but to learn how to deal with them wisely and graciously.

How do politicians currently handle issues or decisions where faith asserts itself on the political front?

Most Canadian politicians are very uncomfortable in dealing with expressions of faith in the political arena. We don’t know how to handle them and fear that even the attempt will unleash all kinds of misunderstandings and political trouble with no political upside.

So what do we do?

We seek to keep faith and politics in separate watertight compartments, strongly encouraging the privatization of faith and strongly discouraging its public expression, especially in the political arena.

Despite the guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in practice we institute and support taboos that contradict these provisions. For example, at present, Members of Parliament (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet) are constrained by an unwritten taboo which says, “We do not talk in Parliament or on public platforms about our own personal religious convictions or those of our constituents, except in vague generalities.”

In defence of this practice we cite the American constitutional tradition of the separation of church and state – a concept not recognized by our own constitution but often cited and appealed to nonetheless. This idea is increasingly invoked not simply as a rationale for keeping the institutions of religion separate from those of the state (a good idea) but also as grounds for keeping even the acknowledgment and discussion of religious values out of the parliamentary and political arenas altogether (a bad idea).

Thus when the Chrétien government organized the memorial service for the victims of the Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, and the memorial service on Parliament Hill for the victims of 9/11, the Prime Minister’s office gave instructions that the services were to have no explicit religious content, in particular, no Christian prayers or references to Jesus Christ.

In further defence of this taboo we invoke the liberal interpretation of multiculturalism which says that Canada accepts all cultures and religions as equally legitimate and valuable, and that, in the name of tolerance and fairness, we cannot allow public policy to be particularly influenced by the teachings of any one of them. Thus when the federal government was strongly criticized for banning religious expression from its 9/11 memorial service, and the Heritage Minister felt it necessary to sponsor a “religious service” the next day under the auspices of the Ottawa Inter-Faith Council, it was obliged to give equal time and billing not only to representatives of all the major faith communities but even to the Raelians, a Quebec-based group which teaches that we are descended from aliens and which is committed to a human cloning project in violation of Canadian law.

When occasionally forced in the political arena to take stands on issues with moral dimensions, the conventional default position rhetorically is to recite a vague mantra loosely rooted in moral relativism – to say, “you believe what you believe, and I’ll believe what I believe, and if we just respect each other somehow everything will work out.”

And when we can’t completely avoid decisions where faith perspectives threaten to intrude into the political arena, the current political practice is to hand such decisions off to the courts. This may be done directly by “reference,” as in the same-sex marriage case. But far more often it is done indirectly, by declining to legislate at all as in the case of abortion, or by passing statutes which deliberately fail to specify legislative intent, thereby requiring the courts to “fill in the blanks.”

Are these approaches adequate to handle the present and future impingement of faith based issues and demands on the political front?

No, particularly in the light of security concerns, foreign relations challenges, the role of faith in shaping our own history and culture, current democratic realities, and the demands of contemporary issues cited above.

Politicians can profess to be able to separate faith convictions from political opinions and actions but citizens and voters simply don’t – their heads and hearts are not organized that way. We can and should keep the institutions of religion and those of the state separate but we can’t keep the subjects separate nor should we attempt to do so if we truly believe in freedom of conscience and expression.

We can continue to deny the existence and strength of religious conviction among the Canadian people, but in doing so we run the risk of adding to, not remedying, the democratic deficit and widening the gap between the general populace and our media, political, and academic elites.

We can continue to ignore and even deny the past influence of religious conviction and action on our nation’s history and culture, but in so doing we are denying “where we came from.” Psychiatrists tell us that, on a personal level, constantly denying where one comes from can lead to an identity crisis and mental disorientation. Do we not run the same risks on a national scale by denying key elements of our own history?

We can fall back on moral relativism as a default mechanism when confronted with different faith-based moral claims. But eventually we will run into situations like 9/11 where this default position will prove to be totally inadequate. Any Canadian political leader who responded to the events of 9/11 by saying, “Well, let the Islamic terrorists believe what they believe, and let the Americans believe what they believe, and somehow it will all work out” would have been hooted off the national and international stage.

And we can continue to fob off complex moral decisions to the courts, especially on issues that bring out strong expressions of faith-based convictions from the public. But if we do so, then as legislators we cannot complain about the growing power and prestige of the courts at the expense of the legislature and elected officials.

So how should we do better in handling the intersection of faith and politics in the future?

As a first modest step, we should begin by “legitimating the discussion” of faith-based convictions and issues in the Canadian political arena, including Parliament and the legislatures.

We Canadians are inherently deferential to the status quo, and usually need to be told by someone or something in authority that “it’s OK” to change and do things differently. But who or what can tell Canadians and our parliamentarians that it is acceptable, at least on occasion, to bring the spiritual dimension of life into the discussion of public policy issues? Here are two suggestions:

Let the People Speak: If our elected representative is a small-d democrat – and there are at least a few of them in our Parliament and legislatures – we show them the “religion polls.” Examples may include those pioneered by the late Dr. George Rawlyk of Queen’s University or the more recent work of academics like Dr. Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge and practicing pollsters like Andrew Grenville of IPSOS Reid. It would be helpful if at least one such poll was done periodically for every federal and provincial constituency in the country.

What these polls show is that a strong majority of Canadians nationally – up to 80% in some regions and constituencies – profess to hold explicitly religious beliefs, to hold them and the values that flow from them more deeply than they hold many of their political convictions, and that these values (even when they are not shared by our media and political elites) are nevertheless an integral part of how many Canadians live their daily lives and make important decisions.

Consider, for example, the following polling results presented by Andrew Grenville of IPSOS Reid to a “Navigating the Faith/Political Interface” Seminar held in Toronto in May of 2007 under the direction of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy:

· More than 80% of Canadians profess to believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, and this percentage has changed very little over the last fifty years.

· In the most recent national polls, 64% of Canadians say they believe the Bible is the Word of God, 62% say they believe in “forgiveness through Christ,” 45% claim to pray daily, 42% profess to have “felt God’s presence,” and 41% claim to have “committed their life to Christ.”

· At the same time, over the past 50 years, overall attendance of religious services at a place of worship has steadily declined (with only 17% of Canadians now attending religious services weekly), leading to the conclusion that “Canada is a nation of believers but not belongers.”

Other polling results from the same presentation which shed instructive light on the faith/political interface in Canada include the following:

· 62% of Canadians say religious communities are a force for good in society, and 59% say that religious leaders are a force for good.

· 39% of Canadians (down 7% from 1996) and 54% of Americans (down 10% from 1996) say that Christians should get involved in politics to protect their values, revealing a growing public discomfort with the current blend of religion and politics on both sides of the border. (More later on how Christians should respond to this discomfort.)

· In the Quebec secession referendum of 1995, 60% of Catholic weekly church attenders and 43% of Catholic monthly attenders voted NO to secession, whereas only 24% of Quebecers with no religious affiliation voted NO, leading the pollster to conclude that it was “Catholic communitarianism that saved Canada in the 1995 Quebec referendum.”

· When asked what the church should be “doing” in Canadian society, the highest support levels (over 50%) were for “preventing exploitation of children in pornography and the sex trade in Canada and the world” and for “supporting Canadians children living in poverty.”

If a politician is elected to represent his or her constituents in the Parliament or legislatures of Canada, and if that representation on occasion requires reference to the most deeply held values of constituents, the concept of democratic representation itself should legitimate at least some reference to religious values and convictions such as those documented above. The fact that religious views, like political convictions, may be diverse or even contradictory (and time and space restrictions do not allow me here to present or examine the extent and nature of the deeply held convictions of Canada’s Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and aboriginal communities)[2] does not make consideration or discussion of such convictions in the political arena unacceptable or off limits.

Appealing to the Influence of Eminent Persons: Suppose however that our elected representative is more of an elitist than a democrat, not religiously inclined personally, and not particularly impressed by the “opinions of the rabble” on value questions. How do we convince that type of politician that it is OKto at least investigate religious perspectives on certain issues and even to acknowledge and discuss them openly in the parliamentary and political arenas?

In this case, legitimating the discussion will require the help of some eminent person whose opinions the politician respects, preferably someone of the same political persuasion. For example, if our MP is a longstanding Liberal, we might encourage him or her to read The Hidden Pierre Elliot Trudeau: The Faith Behind the Politics.[3] The book itself is based on the results of a conference on The Hidden Pierre Trudeau: His Spirituality, His Faith, His Life, His Times,held at the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario, in May 2003.

The conference was held to examine evidence, only recently brought to light, that Pierre Trudeau never really abandoned some of the key Christian teachings he absorbed from the Jesuits during his years of study at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf. Trudeau rarely spoke publicly about his spiritual convictions. (Since the 1960s, the taboo against doing so in the political arena has applied doubly to politicians from Quebec.) But apparently those convictions included a deep interest in “Christian personalism” as taught by several Catholic theologians and had a direct influence on Trudeau’s views concerning individual human rights as eventually incorporated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Undoubtedly some of Trudeau’s old political colleagues, invited to a conference to discuss “Trudeau’s spirituality,” may have initially thought that this would involve reflections on their former leader communing with nature as he floated in his canoe down the Nahanni River and gazed at the northern lights. But Jacques Monet, an authority on Jesuit teaching and one of the contributors to the conference, gave a much more Christian definition of the spirituality which Trudeau absorbed as a result of his studies at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf. Putting Trudeau’s spiritual education in context, Monet writes:

The aim of the (Jesuit) Exercises is, first, to develop in each individual person a close, affectionate – indeed a loving – friendship with the person of Jesus Christ as both the model of human life and the inspiration for one’s service to others. Second, it is to integrate into this relationship with Jesus Christ all other relationships and concerns….

Ideally the graduate of the (Jesuit) system will be motivated (a) to seek and find God in all things …; (b) to relate personally to Jesus Christ (God incarnate) as a living human person and then to articulate and defend this faith; and (c) to participate actively in human society in the service of others.”[4]

The discovery of the Christian dimensions of the former Prime Minister’s spirituality, its impact on his conception of personhood, and the focus of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which flowed from that conception has “legitimated the discussion” of Christian spirituality and its relevance to public policy among a number of high-ranking Liberals and other Trudeau admirers. It is in the national interest that this circle be expanded to include more of the Liberal Party and Canadian politicians in general.

What must people of faith themselves do to participate more effectively and responsibly at the intersection of faith and politics?

The discussion of spiritual values and their application to public policy will not become truly legitimate or accepted in Parliament or the political arena until members and spokespersons for faith perspectives and communities learn to express their convictions wisely, responsibly, and non-threateningly.

Christians in particular should read again the explicit instructions of Jesus of Nazareth to his earliest disciples on the first occasion that he sent them out to do “public work.” “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” he told them. He did not instruct them or give them license to be vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons. He even instructed them to stay away from people who did not share their faith (the Samaritans and the Gentiles), until they learned how to live by this rule.

The biggest single reason why secular politicians are afraid to open the door, even a crack, to religious discussion in the political arena is that they are afraid of unleashing a flood of ill-considered, ill-tempered, and contradictory statements, animosities, and positions, accompanied by shrill demands that such positions be imposed on others whether they subscribe to them or not. Unfortunately there are enough historical and contemporary examples to justify such fears.

How can people with deeply religious convictions learn to conduct themselves more wisely and less threateningly, and therefore more effectively, at the faith-politics interface? By studying positive examples and learning from past mistakes and successes.

The example of Jesus himself: Although the political and religious elites of Jesus’ time had good reason to fear his example and his teachings, the ordinary people among whom he lived and taught had no reason at all to fear him nor did they. He invited people to accept him and his teachings; he never compelled anyone to do so. If he had run for parliament, no doubt his opponents would have accused the Honourable Member from Galilee of wanting to “ram his Sermon on the Mount down our throats.” But that was never his modus operandi nor should it ever be that of his followers.

What does it mean to be wise as a serpent and gracious as a dove in the public arena? Again consider his example: He was once asked in a scrum if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar[5] – a loaded question as questions asked in public by your opponents usually are. If he answers “yes” he loses his followers who hated the Romans and their taxes with a passion; if he says “no” he will be charged with treason. What does he do? He doesn’t answer right away – think before you speak. Then he asks someone in the crowd if they have a Roman coin. Someone hands him a Roman denarius. “Whose portrait is this?” he asks. “Caesar’s,” they reply. Then like the flash of a rapier comes the shrewd answer: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” A dozen words – the perfect sound bite – it would have made the evening news, establishing his reputation for speaking wisely and not foolishly in the public arena.

On another occasion[6], he is presented by the legalists of his day with the type of question that most often derails and discredits people of faith in the public arena today – a question on sexual morality. They present him with a woman accused of adultery, and say “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Again a loaded question, asked not out of any desire for an answer, but to discredit and destroy him. If he says, “Stone her,” he contradicts his own message of God’s love and forgiveness of sins; if he says, “let her go,” he will be charged with violating the Law of Moses. What does he do? Again he doesn’t answer right away – think before you speak. Then comes the answer – in two parts – the first part shrewdly aimed at the legalists, the second part graciously addressed to the accused. To the legalists, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” The perfect answer – it too would have made the evening news – and the legalists are forced to withdraw. And to the woman whose life he has saved, his response is gracious without condoning her actions: “Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The wisdom of the serpent, the graciousness of the dove – illustrated. People of faith operating in the public arena today should learn and benefit from such examples.

The example of the Wilberforce Campaign to Abolish Slavery:[7] A few years ago I wrote to the archives of the British Parliament requesting a copy of the very first resolution on the abolition of slavery introduced in the House of Lords on April 7, 1788. The man behind that resolution was of course William Wilberforce, a committed Christian and moral crusader against the evils of slavery.

In 18th century England, it was still the House of Lords, not the Commons, that was the dominant parliamentary chamber. Most of the Lords, while not slave owners themselves, nevertheless profited from the use of slave labour in the colonies and saw nothing morally wrong with the practice. To even raise the subject of slavery in that House, particularly to challenge it on moral grounds, was strictly taboo – equivalent to raising the abortion issue in our Parliament.

So how do you introduce the subject of slavery in such a chamber – how do you legitimate the discussion? No doubt the first inclination of Wilberforce, the moral crusader, like that of many well-meaning moral crusaders today, was to ride into the chamber on a white horse brandishing a sharp-edged resolution denouncing slavery as an abominable evil and demanding its immediate and complete abolition. But had Wilberforce done so, he would have alienated his potential allies, and severely hurt rather than helped his cause.

Fortunately, Wilberforce had a friend – the young Prime Minister William Pitt – who sympathized with Wilberforce’s objective even though he did not share his Christian convictions. Pitt was wise as a serpent when it came to understanding the ways and prejudices of Parliament, and he shared that wisdom with Wilberforce.

It was Pitt who convinced Wilberforce that before Parliament could come to grips with an issue like slavery, it would first be necessary to legitimate the discussion. Hence the innocuous wording of that first resolution laying the issue before the Lords: That this House will, early in the next session, proceed to take into consideration, the circumstances of the Slave Trade.

Can you not just hear the howls of righteous indignation from some of Wilberforce’s more zealous supporters when they first read this resolution? “Early next session…?” We want Parliament to proceed now!“Take into consideration…?” We want action,not mere consideration. “Consider…the circumstances…?” We want Parliament to focus on the evilsof slavery and measures to abolish it, not on the circumstances surrounding it.“Consider…the Slave Trade…?” We want Parliament to deal directly with the institution of slavery itself,not merely with the trade that facilitates it.

Notwithstanding these objections, Wilberforce and Pitt proceeded to act “wisely as serpents and harmlessly as doves.” Consider the tone and language of the opening sentences of Wilberforce’s first speech on the subject:

“I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business.”[8]

Time and space do not here permit a full examination of all the aspects and tactics of the campaign to abolish slavery. But many of these further illustrate the elements of shrewdness and graciousness which ought to characterize any faith based initiative in the political arena. A partial listing would include the following:

· Begin such initiatives, not by moralizing self-righteously or legalistically against the evil to be remedied, but by identifying with and publicizing the human suffering which will be caused and perpetuated if it is not.

· Use the existing law (in our case, Charter guarantees of freedom of conscience, religion, and expression), imperfect as it is, to the maximum extent possible to advance your cause.

· Employ “divide and conquer” tactics where applicable. (The abolitionists, after suffering many defeats, eventually proposed a motion calling for the abolition of the slave trade with France, at a time when England was at war with France. This made it impossible for their opponents to vote against the measure without appearing to be siding with France.)

· Find and train the “right” spokesperson(s) to advance your cause (it might not be you) by asking the question, “Out of whose mouth would this message be most credible?”

· Chose the “right” pubic arena in which to advance your cause and focus much of your efforts on strengthening that arena and effectively presenting your case there. (The abolitionists had a better chance of getting an abolition bill through the House of Commons, which was more susceptible to public opinion favouring the abolitionist cause, than through the House of Lords; so they worked assiduously, in coalition with democratic reformers, to expand the franchise and strengthen the Commons.)

In summary, a faith-oriented campaign to eradicate a great social evil (slavery) and achieve a great social good (freedom for hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings) was conducted by people operating with the wisdom of serpents and the graciousness of doves at the interface of faith and politics. Canadians who want to conduct such campaigns to address the social evils of our time and advance social goods should study this campaign backward and forward until they have learned and are able to practise its lessons.

“Legitimating the discussion” of contentious issues with moral and religious dimensions in Parliament and the political arena, rather than trying to ignore them or shuffle them off to the courts, is possible and desirable in Canada. But this will involve greater respect for democracy, the help of eminent persons, and a new commitment on the part of faith-oriented Canadians to wisdom and graciousness.


  1. Much of the material presented in this article is derived from lectures given by Preston Manning to Faith and Politics Seminars conducted by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (www.manningcentre.ca). The first four seminars conducted by the Centre on this subject focused, as does this article, on Christian perspectives on the faith/political interface. More recently, the Centre has held seminars involving members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, and future seminars are planned involving both the Hindu and Sikh communities. Future lectures/articles on “Navigating the Faith/Political Interface” will include insights and experiences drawn from the perspective of these faith communities as well as those of the Christian community.
  2. Statistics Canada 2001 Census figures show the following:
    Protestant 29.2%
    Catholic 43.6%
    Christian Orthodox 1.6%
    Other Christian 2.6%
    Muslim 2.0%
    Jewish 1.1%
    Buddhist 1.0%
    Hindu 1.0%
    Sikh 0.9%
    Other religion 0.3%
    No religion 16.5%
  3. eds. John English, Richard Gwyn, and P. Whitney Lackenbauer (Ottawa: Novalis, Saint Paul University, 2004).[4] The Hidden Pierre Elliot Trudeau, p. 87-88.[5] Mark 12:14-17 (NIV).[6] John 8:3-11 (NIV).[7] As a good general reference to the story of Wilberforce and the campaign to end slavery within the British Empire, see Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).[8] William Wilberforce speaking in the British House of Commons on May 12, 1789

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