Faith leaders and politics: How close is too close?

March-15-11

By Mags Storey  | Christian Week Newspaper | Tuesday, March 8, 2011

OTTAWA, ON - How close is too close when it comes to the relationship between faith leaders and politicians?

In a January 2011 interview with Christianity Today magazine, Billy Graham said he wished he had “steered clear of politics." In the article, entitled “Q&A: Billy Graham on Aging, Regrets and Evangelicals," Graham said, “I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places ... But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now."

Graham has prayed with every American president since Harry Truman and met with Barack Obama last year. Both he and his son have spoken publicly of their admiration for former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Franklin Graham has made several joint appearances with the former vice-presidential candidate, including a recent trip to Haiti with Samaritan's Purse where Palin handed out Operation Christmas Child boxes.

During a Newsmax interview, Franklin Graham said, “I've seen the governor on a number of occasions and no question her faith is a big part of her life - that's who she is. She's a believer in Jesus Christ, a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ; that's just her makeup."

Samaritan's Purse and the Grahams' representatives declined the opportunity to comment on this article.

Certain perceptions

Public relationships between politicians and faith leaders can lead to a perception of endorsement if not handled carefully, says Jonathan Malloy, associate professor of political science at Carleton University.

“Christian leaders need to understand that you can't hang around, or be associated with, certain politicians without creating the perception you're supporting those people for elected office, and you're on their side," says Malloy, who has been researching how Canadian evangelicals engage in politics. “Perception becomes reality unless you're really quite careful."

Malloy observes two different and distinct streams of evangelical political engagement in Canada.

“One is definitely a more quiet influence - a non-confrontational, quiet influence approach," he says. “The other stream tends to take a more openly political, confrontational, often partisan approach to things.

“What makes the Harper government so interesting is that we've never had a government before who was really so openly amenable and friendly to evangelicals," he says. “That's not to say that evangelicals are really more powerful in the Harper government, but it makes them feel good; it makes them feel respected."

But Malloy is cautious when asked about the effectiveness of the close proximity to the corridors of power. “I'm not sure is if that is leading to an increase in influence or effectiveness. The general rule in public policy is that you are more effective the more behind the scenes you are," he says.

Counterproductive activity

Aligning too closely to a particular political party is counterproductive when it comes to having a meaningful, lasting impact of the Canadian landscape, says Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).

The EFC recently filed a complaint with the Broadcast Standards Council after a French language CBC program implied evangelical Christian groups had privileged influence on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

“The EFC works across party lines," Clemenger says. “It is not true that we are in bed with one political party, and claims that we are harms us and our ability to work across party lines; and harms the political party as it implies they are under the influence of one religious minority.

“To be successful," he adds, “the principles we promote and the policy that flows from these must be able to withstand the test of time. They need to survive changes in government and possible scrutiny by the courts. It they are too closely aligned with one party or one ideology, they will not last.

“If the church tries to influence elections or compel political action, it has overstepped its role," says Clemenger. “It will lose its critical distance and its ability to speak into politics."

Wise as serpents

Faith leaders also risk being used by political leaders and parties for their own gain, says MP John McKay.

McKay, Liberal Member of Parliament for Scarborough East, is past moderator of Spring Garden Church and has received strong support from the EFC for his work to require accountability in the use of foreign aid focused on the reduction of global poverty, and to hold Canadian gas, oil and mining companies to higher ethical standards when operating abroad.

“Faith informs your politics like oxygen goes into your lungs," McKay says. “But, like everything else, there's a good way to engage and a terrible way to engage. I adopt the New Testament saying that one should be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves."

McKay says the evangelical community is “foolish" if it aligns itself with one party or another.

“If your politics coincide with one party for a while, it's fine," he says “But it's nonsense and dangerous to say that particular party is 'God's party.' I can understand how parties would wish that to happen, and will manipulate situations so they get some political advantage, but I think the faith group will be dismissed immediately after it outlives its usefulness."

Wake-up call

Melannee Thomas, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University, had a nasty wake-up call as to how close ties between church and politics can exclude other Christians from both the debate and the faith community.

When she was 22, Thomas stood for the New Democrat Party in Lethbridge, Alberta.

“As soon as I went orange as opposed to blue, I had people who I had never met screaming at me in the church parking lot," she says. “There were people in my faith community who said, 'I thought you were so bright, and now I think you're going straight to hell.'"

She points out that Tommy Douglas, the former premier of Saskatchewan and first federal leader of the NDP, was a Baptist minister.

“I can't emphasize enough how hurtful it was for me to be totally chastised by people who, because of how they framed their sincerely held beliefs, thought I was now an anathema to Christianity," she says.

Get involved

There's nothing wrong with faith leaders engaging in politics, so long as it is a wise engagement, says Janet Epp Buckingham. The director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre at Trinity Western University in Ottawa, Epp Buckingham heads a program where students get to live in Ottawa and intern for politicians, non-profit organizations and media groups.

“If your support for a particular political leader has a public aspect to it, and people are looking at you as a role model, there is the risk of linking you to a particular political party," she says. “At a particular point you start looking like a mouthpiece for that party, as opposed to a mouthpiece for a particular issue or a faith perspective."

Epp Buckingham adds that she hopes Billy Graham's statements won't discourage faith leaders from political engagement. “I think it's really important for politicians to have the support of Christian leaders and to be supported in their faith," she says.

Mags Storey