Speaking in Charlottetown recently, former Reform leader Preston Manning mused that there is no place in today’s politics for faith. “It is not acceptable for politicians to make their spiritual beliefs known in the federal political arena,” he stated to his audience. He went on to speak of the “watertight compartments” of religion and faith in Ottawa, and even referred to the disciplines of party whips to keep members on message and away from religious expressions of personal faith.
Mr. Manning was obviously in politics much longer than I and was clearly far more effective, but I’d like to personally state that I think the reality is the opposite of what he stated.
It’s complicated. For some time there has been a kind of hidden rule in Parliament that you don’t press matters of your personal faith too far into the public political domain in Ottawa. But that’s only right. We don’t speak about the division between Church and State in this country the way our neighbours do south of the border, but it is implied and usually followed. But it remains that way for the health of the nation and not because of any hidden agenda to silence the faithful.
Consider how Diefenbaker, Trudeau and Paul Martin mulled over their faith in public life. Never making it part of public policy, they nevertheless spoke of their personal religious leanings and even some of the exquisite difficulties in passing certain pieces of legislation that in effect ran contrary to their faith principles. But the point is that they let it happen. I spent the evening last night with Paul Martin here in London, and I recall his own personal struggles with the same-sex marriage legislation because of his Roman Catholic beliefs. He neither permitted those beliefs to scupper his responsibilities as policy leader, but neither did he hide his religious difficulties over an obviously divisive issue.
The Chamber is not a church. Yet neither is it a place of anti-faith. It is what it is: a gathering place for people of many motivations to put policy and legislation above all personal leanings.
Let me make an obviously contentious observation, one meant in good faith. When Preston Manning first came to Ottawa, he brought religion with him – largely the evangelical kind. It became a jarring experience for the capital because so many individuals of one particular religious persuasion arrived on the scene at the same time. Many of those MPs are still with us.
One of the problems, as I see it, in the present Parliament is the division not between church and state but between character and politics. The Conservative Party has lobbed its grenades of hyper-partisanship into a House of Commons meant to be a place of respect and mutual deliberation. As the leading party, instead of leading by example, they have reduced statesmanship to retail political dementia. Sadly, the other parties followed suit. The fact a large number of individuals in the governing party, including the PM, adhere to one religious faith tradition automatically gets people to connect the dots between their faith principles and their practice of sheer brutality in the House and they conclude that religion in the political spectrum is a bad thing.
Not true. It has motivated a good number of us in the House. Personally, I’ve expressed my faith easily in the political arena without recrimination; but then again, my faith hasn’t been of the pummelling kind. Mr. Manning would be better to press his own team players by saying simply this: “There is a clear difference between the kindness and grace of Jesus and how you folks are behaving in the House. You’ve introduced corporate meanness into the place and faith has been maligned and denigrated in the process. Align your public character with the life of your faith Founder before you undermine religion altogether.” Now that’s the kind of faith we could actually use in the place.