Christian Legal Fellowship Keynote Speech, November 21, 2008
Keynote Speech Given by the Honourable John McKay PC, MP at the
Christian Legal Fellowship Annual Christmas Banquet
Laurentian Leadership Centre, Trinity Western University, Ottawa – Friday, November 21, 2008
My happy task this morning is to talk about two out of the three things that you should never talk about in polite company: religion and politics. I will leave the third topic – sex – to Pastor Don.
My overall context is Church – State relations but my specific context is the relationship between the Evangelical Church and the Government. Historically, we as community have blown hot and cold. At times we have followed the Biblical injunction “to come out from among them” and been largely disengaged from the democratic process and at other times such as today we have been much more engaged, particularly on specific issues. Both postures give opportunity but are also fraught with difficulties. Preston Manning (who I like a lot more now that he is out of politics) uses the Biblical phrase that we need to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
I tried to get this down to the classic three-point sermon but failed miserably and ended up with four points and a myriad of sub points.
Part 1: God is not a partisan.
Part 2: Religion and politics are a powerful mix.
Part 3: Evangelicals need to learn the language of our society
Part 4: Look at the Budget as a moral document.
North America has just been through two federal elections. The American one could rightly be interpreted as a demand for change (“Change that you can believe in”) and the Canadian one an aversion to change (“don’t change horses now”).
I have been in politics for 11 years and 5 elections. My parents were active Christians and we were raised that way. All of us siblings are active in our respective evangelical churches.
There is an illusion that God’s politics are evangelical, particularly in the U.S. and to a lesser extent here. Contrary to popular belief God is not a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor a Conservative or even a Liberal (even if he wanted to be). In spite of all the partisan praying, God did not take sides in either the recent election. Jesus was not on the ballot and no one on the ballot is perfect so you have to choose from among a collection of sinners.
It is always easier to see the sin in someone else than your own. How can you say to your brother: “Let me take the speck out of your eye when all the time there is a plank in your own eye.” (Matthew 7:3) That notwithstanding, the overt religiosity of political leaders, particularly in the U.S., makes me gag at times. I was at the U.S. Republican convention and throughout the day proceedings would be halted to pray for America and its leadership. Maybe some of you think this is a good idea - and it may well be a good idea - however, never once did that leadership include Senators Obama or Biden. Never once did America’s enemies merit a prayer.
Religion and politics are a powerful mix. Whether someone is being ushered into the White House, the PMO or 24 Sussex it is a pretty heady to exchange views with a President, a Prime Minister or even an M.P. in Ottawa. Doing it regularly can even create a sense of entitlement and an expectation of reciprocity by the participants. It’s very hard to be critical let alone prophetic after having had a five-course meal and some fine wine at 24 Sussex.
One group that I think maintains its integrity as well as any is a group of Pastors from some of Canada’s largest evangelical churches who come each year to the Hill to meet, talk, and pray. I arrange and frequently sit in on the discussions between the Liberal leadership and the Pastors group.
Paul Martin pushed them pretty hard on evangelical relationships with aboriginals and the pastors on another occasion pushed pretty hard on same-sex marriage. On both occasions the meetings were respectful and honest and conducted in a manner consistent with the Gospel. It was a good example of proper dialogue. There was no sense that one was using the other to further some goal.
This is not always the case. Some “self appointed” evangelical leaders are embarrassing. The biggest error I’ve observed is the use of religious jargon outside of the Church. Inside the sanctuary there is a language and a set of expectations that set the message in context. Outside of these four walls however, many evangelical spokesmen have never bothered to learn the language of our society. Our society speaks in a rights based language. It has its own high priests (judges and lawyers) its temples (the courts) and the acolytes have a specific training (law school) that gives them exclusive access to the forum. It may not be called a religion but it has the substance and appearance of the high priests and temples of ancient times. Evangelical leaders who refuse to learn the language and properly access the system do themselves and their message a great disservice. There is nothing more embarrassing than having some preacher pounding the table at a Justice Committee meeting repeating what he said the previous Sunday morning to a bunch of people who have not darkened the door of a church in 20 years and/or who are actively hostile to that message. The happy exception is the EFC who have taken the time to learn the language, learn the system, and deconstruct false arguments.
St. Paul, when he was in Athens said I see that you have an altar to the unknown God. Well let me tell you about him (Act 17:23). If St. Paul can take the time to learn the language of the Athenians so also should we.
Jim Wallis of Sojourner magazine is famous for the phrase “the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it at all.” He is speaking in an American context but it has some validity here as well.
The Right (i.e. the Republican Party) has up until this election been able to frame the debate as about “moral values.” The Republican Party has been able to play the evangelical community like a fiddle and largely cast the moral values discussion as about abortion, homosexuality and prayer in schools.
The Left (i.e. the Democratic Party) has a toxic reaction to faith based discussions of moral issues in the public realm, arguing that religious talk has no place in the public square.
Both are wrong.
As Wallis says, God may be personal but never private.
The Right wants to use evangelicals as a path to power by playing the hot button issues of abortion and homosexuality. The evangelical community (in fact and perception) has been the willing handmaiden of this goal and has delivered George Bush two Presidencies. Now the Republicans are out of power and there will be a day of reckoning for the evangelical church and it won’t be pretty.
The Left on the other hand fails to see that some of mankind’s deepest motivations to do good are rooted in the soil of faith. Myriads of examples abound; The Salvation Army is easily the largest charity in North America, ministering to the poor, the homeless, the widowed and the orphaned in a Biblical mandate generated from Isaiah 1:17. World Vision is probably the most effective relief and development agency on the earth, seeing its mandate as profoundly spiritual and also profoundly practical. Habitat for Humanity has built thousands of homes for people around the world through sweat equity and a helping hand, counting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter among its most prominent sponsors.
The evangelical church has a proud heritage in providing assistance to “the least among us.” Many of the most revolutionary changes to our society have come from it. The rhythms and cadence of Dr. King’s speeches reflect the roots of the African American Church. Indeed, the entire civil rights movement could not have happened without the support and organizational muscle of the evangelical church.
A little Baptist preacher stared down the medical establishment in Saskatchewan and shortly thereafter, with the help of the son of a Methodist preacher (Lester B. Pearson), Canada had universal health care.
Wilberforce’s deepest motivations to free the British Empire from the grip of slavery came from scripture. Amazing Grace is not just a hymn about slavery but it is as well an aspiration to reach out to God. The core of all these social movements are rooted in the deep soil of faith and have shaken our societies to their foundations. The moral clarity of the call to free the slaves, enfranchise the disenfranchised and to make universal health care available to all is what drives the less than perfect among us to occasional greatness.
Wallis in the Great Awakening says the best social movements have spiritual underpinnings. Personal transformation is necessary for social movements and social movements are necessary to transform politics.
It is curious that the more a movement becomes detached from its faith basis the less effective it becomes and the less its successors pay attention to their religious/historical antecedents.
Both the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party would be well-advised to review their instinctive aversion to faith-based initiatives.
Curiously, evangelicals left the Liberal Party in droves in this past election. Counter-intuitively, it was not the Conservative Party that benefitted the most, rather it was the Green Party. Could this be the next great social movement in Canada where evangelicals shake the very economic foundation of the nation to put forward the concerts of creation care? Stewardship of God’s gifts to us runs deep in scripture. The days of treating the environment as our own personal toxic waste dump is not a morally sustainable position.
The Democratic Party would be stupid to shut out from America’s healing the communal resources and dedication of these faith-based organizations. The Left’s toxic aversion to groups such as these will result in the taxpayer footing an ever-larger bill for a less effective service to the widows, orphans, the disadvantaged and the helpless.
Yet what is Barak Obama to do with these evangelicals, many of whom have been so co-opted by the Right as to become his political enemies. In 2004 Obama’s political opponent declared: “Christ would not vote for Barak Obama because Barak Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”
Here’s a guy who’s had an astounding journey to faith. Many of you know the story that he was the product of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, largely raised by his grandparents in a non-religious household. He is whip smart and much like it is difficult for a wealthy person to go through the “eye of the needle” to faith it is also very difficult to a critical mind to yield to faith.
In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama says: “It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the south side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth.” (Obama, The Audacity of Hope, P.208)
So now we have a committed Christian in the White House, supported by a Party who have some instinctive aversions to people of faith opposed by a Party that has used and abused the evangelical movement to gain power for the last 8 years and won’t hesitate to do so again if it smells political blood in the water. John McCain may be finished but Sarah Palin is not. The Americans are facing economic and political turmoil that would cross the eyes of a Rabbi. Their economy is on the precipice of a recession and they need to extract themselves from 2 wars quick smart. Obama has about 6 months of political capital and effectively not that much time before forces beyond his control will make it very difficult for him or anyone else to right the ship of state.
What is the evangelical community to do? Prayer would be a good start. Please no more prayer of the super-sanctimonious. Those who wish to be seen praying Jesus had a warning: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (Matthew 24:8) Prayer in secret would be a good start.
Do you know the difference between a Liberal and a Conservative? A liberal prays in private and drinks in public. A Conservative prays in public and drinks in private.
What about looking at a government budget as a moral document? In Canada the federal budget constitutes about 15% of our nation’s GDP. Overall, when you add provincial and municipal governments we’re around 37 or 38% of our GDP in taxes. The comparable U.S. figures are about 34%. What’s not comparable are the weightings.
The U.S. budget is heavily weighted to military spending and away from health care. Ours is reversed. Are these moral statements? Do we have anything to say about it?
We have a growing gap between rich and poor with the upper 1 or 2 % of the population just rocketing away from the rest. Executive compensation in 2007 was 218 times that of employee compensation (Source: Library of Parliament). History teaches us that this is not sustainable and that middleclass anger will create social instability and that wealthy people will increasingly use security services to protect and isolate themselves. So wealth redistribution will inevitably become a point of some tension both here and in the U.S.
Obama was relentlessly criticized by Palin as a wealth redistributor. Apparently that’s a bad thing.
So if evangelicals claim a prophetic voice where is it? Surely no one can be happy with the number and frequency of abortions on an annual basis but is that all that we have to say? Do we think that it’s OK to use God’s creation as a toxic waste dump? Some, to be fair, are speaking out on environmental stewardship but surely the evangelical church should be as motivated about it as say, same-sex marriage. Where’s the voice for the voiceless – the poor, the widowed, the orphaned? Why do social services have to go around “begging, borrowing and stealing” program funding for our most disadvantaged communities yet the loudest voices get reserved for tougher criminal laws? If longer sentences and tougher laws worked then the U.S.A. would be the safest country in the world.
I could go on but if you looked at a budget from the standpoint of does this document develop community rather than what’s in it for me maybe the evangelical community would be regarded as “Salt and Light” rather than something to be exploited or avoided. Our Catholic friends have the principle of the Common Good for guidance. “According to the Church’s social teachings, respect for the value and dignity of the human person lies at the centre of a healthy economy and society. Since all persons are made in the same image of God, they have an inalienable right to the basic needs of life, namely, the right to adequate food, clothing, shelter, employment, healthcare, a clean environment and the right to participate in decisions affecting these rights. This is what is known as the principle of the common good.” (The Catholic Health Association of Canada)
Maybe politicians like me wouldn’t have to be fending off questions like “What are you going to do for me?” My usual response is nothing – vote for the other guy.
The greed of Bay St. and Wall St. has led us into this mess but before you get to high and mighty let’s realize that our own greed demands better and better returns because we want more and more of whatever it is that we think we don’t have. And it is our greed that filters up the food chain that forces the creation of ever more exotic financial products until we get to the point where very smart people have completely divorced risk from reality. This is not a new story – it is an old, old story and the Church should have something to say about it. The prophets of old railed against the injustice of impoverishment. “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countryman work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.” (Jeremiah 22:15)
Surely and finally one of the stains on our national character has to be our reluctance to embrace the commitment to the desperately poor around the world by committing 0.7% of our Gross National Income to poverty alleviation. In fact over the last 2 years we’ve actually gone backwards from 0.33% to 0.29%. It is actually even worse when we consider that much of our aid got spent on things that no right thinking person would consider help for the poor. My modest contribution (C-293), greatly supported by the evangelical community at large – World Vision, EFC, etc. – will focus of our aid on poverty alleviation but the outstanding problem remains that as a percentage of our GNI we are laggards. It is no comfort that the U.S. is an international embarrassment at 0.16% (half of Canada’s) ( 0.23% if you add private donations) and 25% of it is distributed by the military. The confusion between strategic goals, economic imperialism and genuine charitable impulses is not as large a problem here as there but we cannot be too smug. We don’t hit the targets and we are confused about our goals. Seems pretty simple to me – This money is for poor people.
Let me try to bring this together. Politics and religion are a dangerous brew, but that doesn’t excuse the evangelical church from abdicating its prophetic voice. If we start to look at the budget as a moral document what does our critique say about us? If all that I want is lower taxes we have made a moral statement. If we wish to confine ourselves to positions on homosexuality or abortion that too, is a moral statement. Or is our critique larger? If the budget does nothing about environmental degradation or little or nothing about wealth redistribution here and abroad and the evangelical church is silent what does that say about us? If we fail to pray for our leadership what does that say about us?
Canada is led by imperfect people. Important decisions are made which affect us all. If the Church is silent it can safely be ignored and will be. I don’t think that’s a good idea and I hope that you don’t as well.
Remember, God may be personal, but he is never private.
Micah 6:8: “What does the lord require of you? To Act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Hon. John McKay PC, MP