Faith & Politics Interface Conference

February-22-06

Faith and Politics Interface Conference

February 22nd-25th 2006

In an effort to become “as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove”, it strikes to me that one needs to start with a frank assessment of their own character traits and personal weaknesses. For me, I like to win and I hate to lose. I have little patience for fools, and suffer from an excess of candor.

    Given these weaknesses, plus a number of others that my wife could outline, being both wise and harmless is a significant challenge. Here, however, are a few working suggestions that have helped me navigate the complex interface between faith and public life.

The first recommendation is to demonstrate respect for both allies and opponents. At times it is exceedingly difficult to respect your opponent – especially if you are irritated by their “God given” personality traits, or are presented with seemingly ill-thought out ideas, or suspect motives. I am particularly suspicious when someone demands respect. It seems to me that the point of respect is that it is earned, not demanded. Those demanding respect have for some reason (real or imagined) failed to earn it. I try to be respectful of the individual, even if I am unconvinced by their position or ideas, or troubled by their methodology. I don’t always succeed but I do consciously try, and sometimes it even works.

    Respect is the hallmark of civilized dialogue, and while it may be a pretense it is probably the “sine qua non” of debate. It forces you to seek to understand the opposing position, even if you don’t accept it. In a strange way, perhaps God ordained, it also helps us to love our neighbour, even if their position is less than savory.

    The second recommendation is to listen. We have heard this hundreds of times, in communication seminars and marriage enrichments weekends, but there is a reason that this simple lesson is so oft repeated. Listening is very difficult. I find it quite offensive to watch “talking heads” fighting to be heard over one another in public and on TV. If you want to look like an idiot and discredit your idea or position, talking over another person is a fine way to do both.

    The benefits of listening are manifold. One the one hand, you will more readily see the holes in the other’s arguments and, with the help of a good moderator or interviewer, you will have an opportunity to offer a more intelligent rebuttal. On the other, you may discover a more intelligent or well-conceived position than your own. In any case, a manifest method of demonstrating respect is to listen, and to show the other that they have been heard, in a world in which so much talking and so little listening is done.

    Recommendation #3 is preparation.   Be sure to read the material available to you. Consult the research being done by individuals who have committed mental energy to the subject you are addressing, and whose perspectives you respect and adhere to. Write about the subject matter, and take time to collect and evaluate your thoughts as you put them down on paper. Rehearse your language and argumentation so that it sounds coherent, and reflects your style. If your style is convoluted and wordy, practice communicating in a more concise and pithy manner. If you are erudite in a particular era, share and expand your thought processes without delving into legalese or overly academic speak. The idea is to communicate your thoughts efficiently and effectively, not to baffle the listener.

    During this most recent election I debated with Stephen Lewis on child poverty, the “Make Poverty History” 0.7% of GDP goal, and other related topics. I knew at the time that I was in way over my head, and the only hope for survival was to stick to my knitting. I knew that I was incapable of communicating as eloquently as Stephen, but that I was not incapable of communicating the financial message. The issues being addressed reflected the clash between morality and the pragmatic choices that governments must make in constructing their budgets. I realized that I could never out-moralize Stephen, but that if I stayed with the analytical budgetary process, I stood a chance.

    The fourth recommendation relates to our use of language, and of terms that are relevant only within contemporary North American Christian circles. I wish I could encourage Christians everywhere not to use spiritual jargon. In public life, it comes across as being exclusive, and pathetic, and demonstrates an unwillingness to do the heavy lifting required to translate faith principles and beliefs into to the inclusive language suitable for the public square. Preston and EFC have over and over again done the work required to adapt “faith talk” – the God language -for society-at-large. For example, Christian positioning on the issue of homosexual marriage can’t be framed in terms of sin, as this term is either meaningless or deeply offensive term for almost everyone outside the faith community. Not a good starting point if you want to persuade these same people of your point of view. Instead, society-at-large must be addressed with language that is meaningful and relevant to them.   

Being realistic about expected outcomes is my fifth recommendation This includes accepting that you may experience more losses than wins. You have to be prepared to accept that – in fact, you should really get used to losing and to recognizing that on some issues your only gain will be to have stuck a marker in the ground. It is also important to recognize how significant these markers can be. Often, in an effort to remain true to Christian principles, we forgo small wins, in an effort to attain larger ones, only to lose everything. A case in point would be the abortion debate. While many Christians balk at the idea of accepting abortion with parameters, it is important to recognize that putting some legislation in place would mean getting our foot in the door in the abortion debate. Small wins can open enough public space to keep a controversial issue on the table, and to hopefully achieve larger ones down the road.

Part of being wise and harmless is accepting that you may not, and perhaps should not get to impose your agenda.  The biggest false but effective argument circulating in the media today is that the “Christian Right” will impose their agenda on the helpless Canadian public. I’m sure that if the Christian Right (whoever the Christian Right represents) could they would, but there is no chance of this happening in a consensus society such as ours. The best we can strive towards is a positive and compelling contribution to the consensus.

    Finally, recommendation # 7 is to befriend your opponent. I like to think that anyone could walk into my office and propose ideas and strategies that I oppose, and feel quite comfortable doing so. I like to preserve my illusions about myself and the truth is far from the illusions but I have gone out for beers with lots of the proponents of SSM. The irony is that people talk to me about the “hated Christian right” and what a terrible curse they are to our society. At that point I try not to mention that I go to a Baptist Church.

    In summary, being both wise and harmless requires a commitment to respecting others, active listening, rigorous preparation, avoiding exclusive “spiritual jargon”, being realistic and celebrating small victories, and befriending opponents. Now you may have noticed that I’ve said nothing about prayer. That is not to say that it is not important. In fact, I believe that it is more important than any of these other “strategies”. But truth be told, I am more of a prayer wuss than a prayer warrior. If I tell you that I am praying for you, in all likelihood you’re in trouble or I’m off my medication. Some people are marvelous prayer people - I’m not. In fact, I’m a bit pathetic when it comes to prayer, but ultimately take refuge in the fact that Christianity is a team sport. As more visible political players I am sure that the Bruce Clemengers and Preston Mannings of this world will tell you how much encouraging it is to know that people are praying for you.

I represent one of the most multi-ethnic, multi-religion, multi-cultural ridings in the country. I can’t tell you the number of times people from all faiths have told me that they are praying for me. On prayer I’m quite ecumenical. I’ll take prayer from pretty well anyone of any faith group because they see in me, I hope, someone who is trying to make our nation a better place. And frankly, there is no downside to those prayers.

It seems to me that the SSM debate provides fodder for an illustrative case study of the above noted points.

The main lesson to be learned from this process is that whoever succeeds in establishing the terms of the debate will be the one who wins it. The proponents of same sex marriage were able to capture the attention and support of those in key decision-making positions using the rhetoric of equal rights, who then framed the debate as an equal rights issue.  Having successfully framed the debate in a manner favorable to their cause, proponents of SSM were able to dismiss “airy fairy” notions of what might be best for society, and to effectively label opponents as being homophobic, or against equality. The opponents were therefore dead on arrival.

Essentially, the opponents succeeded in executing a massive intellectual fraud. They were able to convince many people that marriage is nothing more and nothing less than a committed relationship between two people, rendering the gender mix that lies at the heart of marriage irrelevant. If one accepts that the heterogeneity and gender mix of marriage are irrelevant to its core nature, than there can be no reason to deny homosexual couples the “equal” right to marry. The nuanced difference between sameness and equality, and the uniqueness and purpose of marriage as one man and one woman is completely submerged.

The Ontario Court of Appeal was one of the more prominent decision-making groups that bought into the proponents’ line of reasoning, and concluded that marriage is, in fact, merely a relationship between two people. Having accepted this premise, it was then child’s play to deconstruct the “foolish” and “bigoted” understanding of millions of people, both nationally and internationally, and through out history, that marriage is a lot more than two people having sex. As a result, religious, cultural and sociological arguments relating to societal perpetuation, and cross-sex bridge building, let alone notions of Christ’s relationship with the church being mirrored on earth, were deemed mere cultural add-ons to the core issue of two people having their conjugal relationships recognized. All this so that no one would feel excluded, or unequal. There you have the 25¢ version of the SSM debate.

With the proper framing, and a great deal of over-representation in the media and the political arena, it isn’t difficult to see what happened.

I suppose that how you lose is an important as the fact of losing itself. I can’t say that that gives me a great deal of comfort at night, but I do like to think that I was respectful, that I listened to the positions being presented, and avoided “God language” like the plague. I knew well in advance of the final outcome of the debate that the instruments of state, be it the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, or the Court of Appeal, were arraigned against us. By the end, the only option left was to have a beer with the victors, and watch how the nation responded to the news.

The party politics that shaped the debate were perhaps what caused the most grief. I do have to say that the Prime Minister was quite decent with me. He and I spent many hours discussing his approach, and the core issues of the debate, and while the end result would suggest that these meetings were unproductive, I appreciated his willingness to engage with me. Given the option, I would have much preferred a truly free vote. This, in my opinion, was not only the right thing to do, but the best format to have employed from a political perspective.

At times the inside perch is far more uncomfortable than the outside one. I am a Privy Councilor, and, up until the 2nd of December, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance. I have been identified as a Martin loyalist (whatever that means) and enjoyed fairly direct access to the Prime Minister, and the PMO. The “quid pro quo” in government and in the party is that loyalty is a two way street. There is an understanding, albeit not a very subtle one, that once a decision in made, everyone shuts up and goes along with, irregardless of personal sentiments on the matter.

As a Privy Councilor, I would appear before Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, was involved in the budget creation process, and was able to consult senior civil servants in much the same manner as the Ministers themselves. The upside was that I enjoyed privileged access to important government materials. The downside was that there was no room for free-lancing. You were part of the team, and the mantra was loyalty, even when you thought a foolish decision was being made.

This issue was raised in a meeting of newly appointment Parliamentary Secretaries and the Prime Minister shortly after we were sworn in. In the end, the Parliamentary Secretaries were given the freedom to vote as they saw fit on Same Sex Marriage because we were not part of Cabinet, and therefore had no formal say in the Government’s decisions.

I like to think that I would have had the courage to resign had a free vote not been granted to Parliamentary Secretaries. Luckily, in some ways, I did not have to make this difficult decision, and was able to speak and write as I saw fit. It has crossed my mind, however, that the Prime Minister may have not been so generous had he expected the vote to be closer.

There was one other curious turn of events that I had not anticipated. You will recall that the Same Sex Marriage vote was not very close in the end, and thus the only way to ultimately defeat the Bill would have been to defeat the Government on a confidence vote. My more enthusiastic colleagues and supporters felt that I should do so, and vote against the Government’s Budget in the spring.

But, I could no more be expected to vote against the government on a budget bill than to be found jumping over the moon. I was the Parliamentary Secretary to Finance. I participated (however modestly) in the decisions involving the Budget. I spoke on the floor of the House and in committee in support of the Bill and quarterbacked it though votes on the floor, in Committee, and in the Senate. In my mind I would have been the foremost of hypocrites to vote against the budget, just to register my dissatisfaction with the results of the Same Sex Marriage vote.

In addition, you may also remember that we had little or no maneuvering room in the spring of 2005. We needed a floor crossing and the support of a couple independents to keep the proverbial Liberal ship afloat. Chuck Cadman, to the great relief of many of us, decided to support the government as well.

Regardless of this set of circumstances, some people are unable to accept my reasoning and decision not to vote against the Budget.

What lesson can be learned from this experience? What I drew from it was that sometimes your staunchest supporters can become your fiercest critics. Welcome to life in politics, where the options and choices are seldom black and white.

I started out today with some working principles for negotiating the political arena, and have given you a personal example of their application.  Now I’d like to offer a few observations about the bigger picture.

 

In my opinion, the so-called “War of Civilizations” is not being waged between or amongst faith groups. In my view, while Jews, Muslims and Christians etc. may have turf wars between each other the real war is taking place between faith and secularism.

 

Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with representatives of Toronto’s Bangladeshi community. We had quite an interesting conversation about the notorious cartoons. Whatever else you might say about the cartoons we quite easily agreed that this was not a Christian insult directed at Islam or for that matter any faith disrespecting another faith. Rather it was born out of secular ignorance. Its roots lay in secularism’s inability or unwillingness to understand or respect faith sensibilities. I may well consider some of the tenets of other faiths to be a bit unusual in character, but I hope that I recognize that religion, in all manners of speaking, is a way for people to order life, culture, and personal significance into a coherence that speaks to the deepest longings of mankind.

 

Secularists, in my opinion, particularly aggressive ones, dismiss the core values of religion as being nothing more than medieval hocus pocus, which leads to a clash of fundamentalists on both faith and secular sides of the equation. The irony that secularists have set up their own faux religion seems to be lost on them, as they tell religious people to “privatize” their religion, as it deserves no time or space in the public square. After all, what is the Supreme Court but a bunch of priests sitting on a raised dias, in a very impressive cathedral, being served by acolytes in black robes speaking a mysterious language which only the trained initiates can disseminate to the unwashed masses. The only thing that this faux religion lacks is incense, but even that will be remedied with the legalization of marijuana. The fatal hubris of this faux religion is its presumption that it knows what is best for society. The vigorous assertion that religion should be privatized and has no place in the market square is nothing more and nothing less than supreme arrogance. It is a distortion of the concept of Church and State separation which makes faith and its organized expression the poor cousin of societal influence. Faith groups cannot say that our faith outlines certain behaviours as commendable (love, hope, faith, honesty, integrity, etc) and other behaviours as condemnable (malice, envy, sloth, dishonesty etc). Secularism is particularly inept at directing good individual and societal behaviouor because there is no moral core to secularism other than the god of equality. The god of equality says all behaviour is equal therefore we cannot condemn any one behaviour nor for that matter encourage any one behaviour. Secularism is mute on behaviour modification, let alone right and wrong, let alone sin.

Let me give you a politically incorrect analysis of violence in Toronto, which ironically cost us way more votes outside of Toronto than it did in Toronto. If you look at the victims of gun crime and its perpetrators you will find a pattern:

The context in which the perpetrators live is almost inevitably characterized by familial family dysfunction, usually in the form of an absent father

For most perpetrators, either the school system has failed them, or they failed school

Some sort of learning disability or mental health issue has almost always factored into the life of the perpetrator.

There are other patterns, including poverty, poor housing options, etc, which have played a role, and which can be addressed through community initiatives. Secularism, however, preaches that family dysfunction cannot be mentioned, let alone condemned, as it would sound judgmental and, after all, all behaviour is equally acceptable. I have trouble understanding how a child raised by a single parent (almost always a woman) has the same opportunities to thrive as a child raised in a two-parent family. Why does secularism not condemn the personal behaviour of men and women that has demonstrably lead to this inevitable cycle of poverty and violence? Because secularism can’t condemn, because all behaviour is equally valid.

Until their behaviour is changed, and parents start to take personal responsibility for their own behaviour, and that of their children, until parents get personally involved in their children’s education, and deal with their children’s disabilities be they learning or mental health related, then shooting will carry on in Toronto.

Society can do the housing piece and the poverty piece but nothing will happen unless and until personal responsibility becomes ingrained. Faith groups are uniquely positioned to encourage positive behaviours and to discourage negative ones. Secularism needs to see its own limitations and to widen the boundaries of public discourse, so that those who counsel personal responsibility are not considered politically incorrect.

During the election I was far more encouraged by the role that pastors and imams were taking than the simple-minded solutions of politicians: higher minimum mandatories, hand gun bans, and more money for poverty.

That ends my politically incorrect rant and I feel a lot better for it.

I don’t know where the battle of Church (or mosque/temple/synagogue) and State begins and ends but it seems to me that the demand to privatize faith leaves a huge gap in societal dialogue. Housing fixes while politically satisfying don’t cut it. Amendments to the Criminal Code have a certain purity to them that is quite charming but equally quite naïve. Equally appalling are positions that reflect a “my way or the highway” approach to questions arising from the intersection between faith and politics. Consider recent comments by Australian Treasurer Peter Costello, considered the heir apparent to Prime Minister John Howard, with regard to permitting Sharia law subscription in Australia, and to the possibility of asking radical Muslim clerics to leave the country if they do not accept that Australia is a secular state whose laws are created through parliament. “If those are not your values, if you want a country which has Sharia law or a theocratic state, then Australia is not for you… I’d be saying to clerics who are teaching that there are two laws governing people in Australia, one the Australian law and the other the Islamic law, that is false… If you can’t agree with parliamentary law, independent courts, democracy, and would prefer Sharia law and have the opportunity to go to another country, which practices it, perhaps, then, that a better option.” I do have some foundational differences with the imposition of theocratic law when the state is a committed secular state. I can’t fathom how the imposition (even with consent however dubiously obtained) of theocratic law on citizens in a secular state leads to anything other than societal dysfunction. It is impossible to serve two masters, and it offends the principle of being as “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” The only reconciling point would be in the words of Jesus to give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

It strikes me that Sharia law, regardless of its merits, over reaches in a secular state when in is imposed. Canon law or law based upon Biblical or theocratic principles should still be available to those who wish to have their lives governed by their belief (faith) system but it cannot be imposed on those who have not consented, can not consent, or have withdrawn their consent, or whose consent was obtained under questionable circumstances. Is that a fair reconciliation between Church and State, wisdom and harm? I don’t know, but it does seem to me to create some political space in the public square. Faith has a role which it cannot fully play and so space has to be created.

So how does this all tie together? The clash of civilizations, personal morality, ceding the moral debate seems to me to have a common denominator and it is a low common denominator. The position is that no faith group has ascendancy in the public realm therefore all faith groups have no ascendancy and therefore secularism wins by default. The negative consequence is a low grade war between secularism and faith groups. Sometimes it is over things like Sharia law, sometimes personal morality and sometimes the core meaning of institutions such as marriage.

There are principles but no easy answers. Some principles include being as wise as serpents and are harmless as doves: to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; to call for but not impose personal morality that uplifts society; to challenge current ideology ( read political correctness); to create space for faith-based groups. The application is probably more important than the principle since befriending, praying, generous advocacy, respect, and listening reflect the ultimate motive to improve our society and call each individual out to face his or her God.

In conclusion I would argue that the failure to get Church and State relations right puts our nation at risk. Over-reach by the State is sure as offensive as over-reach by the Church (Quebec pre-1960). We are a religiously diverse nation and there is an expectation among many non-majoritarian religions that they be given space in the public square. Default to secularism is not an answer. Respect for space is.