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The God Squad has a Left Wing, TooThe God Squad has a Left Wing, Too

The God Squad has a Left Wing, Too

"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."

Bill Blaikie
9 minute read

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.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge also talk about a newly emergent religious left, and refer, as an example, to Rabbi Michael Lerner, the leader of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Another person cited as a leader of the new religious left is the Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C. One of the three tenets of the Network of Spiritual Progressives is titled "challenging the anti-religious and antispiritual biases within liberal culture:"

"We seek to educate liberals and progressives to carefully distinguish between their legitimate critiques of the Religious Right and their generalizations about all religious and spiritual beliefs. We challenge the elitist notion that secular people are intellectually or morally on a higher plane than people who believe in God or participate in a spiritual or religious community. We help social change activists become more conscious of, and less afraid to affirm, their own inner spiritual yearnings. The more we all articulate the spiritual vision that underlies our activism, the more effective we all will be."

Whatever may be the result of the American presidential elections in 2012, it is clear that Barack Obama was aware of this problem and was able to some degree to reset the faith and politics interface in America.

The need to better articulate the spiritual vision that underlies the activism of so many on the political left in Canada was one of the reasons that, several years ago, a number of NDP MPs started a faith and justice caucus that met regularly to discuss the relationship between our faith and our politics. We went on, with party members at large, to create the Faith and Social Justice Commission of the party, all by way of making a statement about the history, the present and the future of left-wing politics in Canada. We also wanted to create a context in which party members could come to know each other as faith-inspired political colleagues. A workshop held at a national convention was like a giant coming-out party, where dozens of people who had worked together politically for years became aware of each other as fellow people of faith from a variety of religious traditions.

As I write this, the future of the NDP has had a cloud cast over it by the death of its leader, Jack Layton, himself an enthusiastic product of the United Church of Canada and a person who took faith very seriously. It will be interesting to see what effect the presence of so many new Quebec MPs in the NDP will have on the dialogue within the party on faith and politics given the uniqueness of the debate in Quebec about religion, secularism and the public realm. In this, the NDP might do well to pay close attention to, among other things, the thinking of their fellow New Democrat, Charles Taylor, renowned Canadian philosopher, author of A Secular Age and co-chair of Quebec's Commission on Reasonable Accommodation.

It is not clear whether the culture wars are cooling down or just being reorganized, but perhaps there is hope for a new or partial Christian convergence on the economy, especially if a stronger re-engagement of Roman Catholics with economic questions is the result of recent papal teachings. There, one can find an analysis of globalization not dissimilar in many ways from that offered by the political left. Passages in the 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, seem to take dead aim at the free market fundamentalism, some might say idolatry, of the last two decades. For example, Pope Benedict XVI says the "conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from influences of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way."

I remember an exchange many years ago with Father Richard John Neuhaus, the late founder of the magazine First Things and the inspiration for this magazine, at an event in Ottawa. I asked him why someone who had written a book called The Naked Public Square, a book that lamented the absence of biblical values in the public square, didn't also lament the absence of biblical values in the marketplace, or the naked marketplace, so to speak. Pope Benedict seems to share the concern of many about an amoral economy, while also lamenting the downsizing of social security systems and calling for the strengthening of trade unions, among other things.

In a Parliament that is bound to have many debates on the nature and future of the global economy, perhaps papal teachings on the economy can help the newly expanded NDP reinvigorate the bond that it felt a quarter century ago with the Canadian bishops and reaffirm for Canadians the fact that, at a personal and a policy level, there are genuinely Christian arguments to be found on both sides of the aisle.

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