In 1959, M.J. Coldwell, national leader of the CCF called for the admission of 2,500 tubercular European refugees instead of the 100 actually being admitted, a policy he publicly advocated on the basis of what he referred to as "Christian compassion." Coldwell, an Anglican layman who worked closely for many years with Methodist J.S. Woodsworth and Baptist Tommy Douglas, in Saskatchewan and in Ottawa, was an example of what Professor Ian McKay was referring to in his book Rebels, Reds, Radicals when he claimed that "many leftists in Canada have been believers, rooting their resistance to capitalism in religious values." McKay also refers to the discomfort that many on the secular left feel when confronted with this fact.
Yet we have just come through a long period where religion was largely characterized in the political arena, in the public realm, as almost uniquely a conservative force. Christians who were otherwise inclined politically were strangely invisible, whether the analysis was being offered by Walrus magazine or Faith Today or Christian Week. Articles about Christians in the House of Commons, for example, were most often searched in vain for the names of Christians who sat on the left in Parliament. They did not fit the dominant stereotype, and so were left out of the narrative by the secular and the religious alike. Marci McDonald's book The Armageddon Factor, which spends only a few of its 360 pages on the religious left, is arguably another example of this same phenomenon.
Perhaps, then, it is time to diversify the face of religion in the political realm, to reclaim territory that was once seen to be held in common between religion and the political left. Perhaps it is time to re-establish in the public mind, for the sake of accuracy if nothing else, the fact that there are and have been faithinformed progressive perspectives on issues.
This would prevent the common misrepresentation of the public debate on certain issues as a debate only between faith and antifaith. For this to happen there needs to be a recognition, at the very least on the part of those on the Christian political right, that the progressive politics with which they disagree in the public realm is nonetheless a genuinely Christian politics.
In fact, what is going on is often a debate between Canadians of the same faith. Either that, or a debate between conservative faith communities and a secular liberal-democratic culture that owes its values in no small part to Canada's Judeo-Christian heritage in the first place and to the work of former generations of Christian activists.
As Richard Allen points out in The View from Murney Tower—his recent biography of Salem Bland, the controversial social-gospel Methodist preacher and professor in early 20th century Canada—reclaiming "the formative role of religion in shaping the country's national and regional cultures and promoting a wide range of social movements" is an important task. In his earlier history of the social gospel, The Social Passion, published in 1971, Allen set out to challenge "the secularist bias" of Canadian historiography, in which religion is treated "as a sideshow of slight importance." Some sideshow. It might be a mistake to not reflect on the fact that the government and official opposition created by the 2011 election both have their origins in political movements that were heavily influenced by religion.
It is not a good thing for the relationship between faith and politics to be so rigidly caricatured as something to be found only on the political right. It is also not a good thing to have religion caricatured as being narrowly focused on only a few issues and therefore, by extension, to have faith or religious arguments seen as inadmissible in public discourse about other public policy questions. Questions of peace and war, of economic justice and environmental policy are also issues that can be informed by a faith perspective. For Christians, the Lordship of Jesus Christ should not be corralled to exclude such very important issues.
When I was first elected to the House of Commons, one of my colleagues in the NDP caucus was Father Bob Ogle, a Roman Catholic priest who represented Saskatoon East. When Father Bob and I were elected in 1979, he was the health critic and I was the social policy critic. When we did some touring together across the country, we were sometimes called "the God Squad" by the press. Indeed, I suppose that the first few NDP caucuses I sat in were certainly open to being caricatured as the God Squad. The Rev. Stanley Knowles, the Rev. Jim Manly, Father Bob Ogle, Father Andy Hogan, Anglican worker priest Dan Heap, and myself—a half-dozen clergy in caucuses that ranged from 26 to just over 30.
The God Squad that Father Bob Ogle and I represented at the time was seen as idealistic, a sort of conscience at work in the political realm. We were also seen as unrealistic for thinking the world could be a better place. Our lack of realism, socalled, was to be tolerated as we were speaking to society's better angels. This was certainly true when we were speaking about social programs such as medicare. There was less tolerance for talk about the need to bring Christian values to bear on economic policy.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) found this out on New Year's Day in 1983 when the bishops published their infamous "Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis" and were told to butt out of something that was none of their business by no less a Catholic than Pierrre Trudeau. One is reminded of the story that Bishop Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil used to tell about how when he helped the poor, he was called a saint; but when he asked why they were poor, he was called a Communist.
The God Squad that Father Bob Ogle and I represented was a feature of a time when, in a post-Vatican II context, Catholic liberation theology and a rediscovery of the social gospel by Protestants had led to unprecedented ecumenical action on major public policy questions. No less than 12 ecumenical coalitions were formed in the 1970s: Project North, GATT-Fly, Ten Days for World Development, Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, Project Ploughshares, the InterChurch Committee on Corporate Responsibility, to name just a few. This was an ecumenical convergence quite different from the convergences of recent years around issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, which have led to the term God Squad being used on occasion in a much more derisive manner.
One might argue that the Catholic bishops' statement was the highlight of a lost era. It was an era brought to an end by the culture wars, by the onslaught of free trade and globalization, and by events in the Church's own life, such as a preoccupation in some churches with internal disputes over sexual orientation or the general disrepute inflicted by the residential school saga.
I hope those of us on the religious left might be forgiven if we look back somewhat nostalgically on a time when genuine controversy could erupt over an ecclesiastical declaration, especially a statement such as the CCCB's proclamation that "the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich, the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits, and the participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system that excludes them."
Much of the discourse about faith and politics in a previous era involved a faith on the part of many that faith itself was on its way out, that God was dead or dying. Friedrich Nietzsche and Bishop Robinson would be surprised by the title of the recent book God is Back, from journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Unlike the expectations that inspired The Politics at God's Funeral, written 35 years ago by the great American socialist Michael Harrington, we are all challenged, even if we are not all delighted, by the politics of God's persistence.
The authors of God is Back make a case for the view that, far from being the enemy of religion, as modernity was traditionally thought to be, modernity and its hallmarks—democracy, markets, technology and reason—are leading to a kind of pluralism in which religion is thriving. Peter Berger, the iconic sociologist of religion, is cited as admitting to the mistake of assuming that modernization was connected to secularization, when it is actually connected to pluralism. It is a pluralism that includes non-belief, but a pluralism that is characterized by an explosion of faith types that seek to provide meaning and guidance in the meaninglessness created by the modern world. The Americanization of the global culture, of the global economy, the argument goes, creates the opportunity for the spread of American religion, as one form of Americanization seeks to solve problems created by the other.