“Faith and politics matters,” says John Milloy, editor of a new book of this very title, released by Novalis Publishing last month. And he should know. Milloy was a former staffer in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s office, later served as an Ontario provincial cabinet minister, and now is professor of Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.
From his Catholic upbringing, Milloy reports that “almost everyone’s parents told them that religion and politics were topics (along with sex) that never made for polite conversation.” Yet the provocative series of short essays he has edited challenges this very notion.
Milloy’s own chapter in this terrific collection is the only reflection from someone who once served as an elected member of a legislature. He admits that he rarely heard a substantive discussion of religious faith in political circles, but that among politicians, “Religion is often caricatured as being made up of rigid, conservative, and exclusionary rules based upon supernatural revelation; rules that are overly focused on sexuality and reproduction, and out of step with the times.”
Milloy is critical of the “obsessiveness” of some Christians on the abortion issue. While he would refuse Justin Trudeau’s demand for federal caucus members to never vote for any measure that curbed abortion, he readily admits that, “I have no idea how an absolute pro-life position could realistically be translated into practical public policy that would curb abortions and find the broad acceptance necessary to become law.” The author concludes that, “My Catholicism is much broader than one or two hot-button issues that are not part of any party’s political agenda.” As a proponent of “incremental progress,” Milloy cautions faith communities to “refuse to become so focused on an issue where there is no common ground or room for compromise that dialogue and engagement in other areas becomes impossible.”
Scott Kline, dean at St. Jerome’s University, is concerned that debates over religion and politics in North America have been filtered through the distorted rhetoric of the “cultural wars.” In Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s 2006 book, Culture Warrior, “secular-progressives” are pitted against believers in “traditional family values” (usually Christians.) The resulting culture wars “breed suspicion, animosity and intractability.” No wonder, then, that secularists argue for the complete separation of church and state — something ephemeral, as well as undesirable for the writers in this collection. Kline argues that “telling religion to shut up” is unwise, but that religious actors must be able to translate their moral and political values into a language of public reason if they really want to have an impact.
David Pfrimmer, former principal dean at the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, develops the term “public ethics” to describe the best role of faith in political society. This term was described by theologian Jürgen Moltmann as theology that “becomes political” in the name of the poor and the marginalized, and yet is critical toward political religions and idolatries. “It thinks critically about the religious and moral values of society . . . and presents its reflections as a reasoned position.”
Pfrimmer posits that, “public ethics offers a means to construct ultimate meaning.” He has often told his students that, “Life questions are the questions that Google can’t answer!” since they deal with fundamental commitments, convictions and values. He believes that faith communities need to become “communities of moral deliberation” where deeply personal, social and political ethics are both considered and then acted upon. Pfrimmer argues that “Canadian churches may require pastors to be less like “shepherds” (the paternalist model) and more like “adventure guides (the community leadership model), helping people explore beyond their comfort zones to experience new places and different ideas and sources of meaning.” He believes this could revitalize the public roles of both religious leaders as well as their faith communities.
A fruitful area for reflection that this collection did not treat, however, could be found in the study of organizations that while faith-based, are independent from churches. Organizations such as the one which I serve, can be more agile than ecclesial institutions with their complex and often hierarchical structures. Faith-based membership organizations can allow the proposal of deeper and more specific policy options than church bodies offer. In short, there are several new avenues open to persons of faith who wish to assert that their “faith and politics matter.”
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.