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Trump-style politics put religion to test

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

01/25/2017

TORONTO (CCN) — As Donald Trump takes the reins of the United States’ presidency, Canadian scholars and politicians are wondering how faith and politics will get along in a world where right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-trade policies appear to be on the rise.

“From my western bias or perspective, we need to respect the integrity and autonomy of the state to do its thing and the autonomy and integrity of faith communities to do their thing,” said Toronto city councillor and Catholic theologian Joe Mihevc. “It’s an intersecting set. One should not dominate the other.”

The former St. Michael’s College lecturer in theology, who lived through the populist Rob Ford administration on city council, is worried about the Ford-Trump populist style of politics on a national stage.

“I absolutely fear that it would be the politics of faith justifying national populism gone awry,” said Mihevc, who will be one of the panelists discussing the potential for religion and politics to collide on Jan. 25 at St. Michael’s College in an event sponsored by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute

Whatever people think about Trump’s sometimes vulgar and incoherent rants on a variety of subjects, it’s clear that he has struck a chord with a populace tired of status quo. It’s the same kind of populist movement that led to Brexit in England.

“It clearly has to do with globalization,” said Campion College professor of political science Ann Ward from Regina. “And democratic publics are having second thoughts about globalization, and that is tied to immigration.”

While Trump is being inaugurated, world corporate and political leaders from around the world are meeting in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering of pro-trade one-per-centres. Ward worries about the inclination to accept the fact that global trade produces winners and losers.

“Talking about citizens as winners and losers is problematic,” she said.

If the church and other faith communities want to engage the new politics, they’re going to have to talk substantively about the anxieties driving Trump’s popularity, according to Ward.

“This is a clarion call to thinkers and leaders in society. You can’t just call democratic citizens losers in free trade. There has to be a more equitable distribution of wealth — not to end trade, but to produce fair trade,” she said.

It also means following Pope Francis’ lead in decoupling migration from economic inequality.

“Pope Francis has been very strong in having Catholics in the West accept migrants, especially from poverty and war,” Ward said. “To connect economic inequality to trade. . . . Economic inequality is not caused by people who don’t look like you coming into your country. Economic inequality is caused by trade policies that benefit corporations and not their workers.”

Catholic studies professor Reid Locklin at St. Michael’s College contrasts the Trump phenomenon against the democratic institutions that have governed life in the West since at least the Second World War. The challenge to faith communities is “to say to what degree are different religions or religious traditions themselves invested in the democratic project,” Locklin said. “The Catholic Church wasn’t always.”

Between Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and the Second Vatican Council, Catholics and their church only gradually embraced democratic politics. At the beginning of the 20th century it was not clear whether it was licit for Catholics to found or participate in Christian Democratic parties in Europe.

But now that Catholics are democratic, how do they engage with what Locklin calls “crass populism”? As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., Locklin sees the first order of business as protecting minorities. Trump’s message on Muslim immigration demands a Catholic response.

“If any particular religious group is demonized, history suggests that others are not far behind,” he said. “So there’s a real reason for caution.”

Locklin sees the Canadian situation in contrast to the U.S. debate.

“In Canada, the days of outright majorities are done,” he said. “In a certain sense, all of us religiously are minorities of different kinds. So all of us should be concerned about minorities.”

In his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis encouraged politicians to “build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

That’s a message religious leaders need to repeat, says Ward.

“Political leaders, economic leaders, have to see that politics is not just about economics or profits. It’s about justice,” said Ward.

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