NDP promotes faith and social justice commission

By Dennis Gruending

Joe Comartin, NDP MP for Windsor-TecumsehThe federal New Democratic Party wants to reach out to faith-based groups and religiously motivated individuals through its recently created Faith and Social Justice Commission. Joe Comartin, NDP MP for Windsor-Tecumseh, is chair of the Commission’s provisional steering committee. “We are going back to our roots,” Comartin says. “The CCF-NDP was created in large measure by people who were trying to put their religious faith into action, and for many of us faith remains the main motivator for how we practice politics and make policy.”

Comartin says the FSJC was approved in principle at the party’s 2006 convention and officially recognized by the federal council late in 2008. The Commission will present its bylaws and elect officers at the party’s federal convention in Halifax August 14-16, 2009. Comartin says that the Commission has been somewhat slow to get going because there was a federal election in 2008 and a decision not to hold a convention in that year. But he says the Commission has proven worthwhile. “The Commission has already accomplished one major goal and that is to raise the profile of individuals within our party who come to their politics from the perspective of a religious faith.”

The FSJC arose partly from the realization that most often people and groups claiming a religious motivation for their politics in recent years were supporting right wing parties, particularly Reform, the Canadian Alliance, and now the Conservatives. The Harper Conservatives court the religious right and hope to incorporate them into a governing coalition that will wean Canadians from their essentially social democratic tendencies. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has also appointed an Ontario caucus member to lead in outreach to faith-based groups. Ignatieff recently participated in what was billed as a session of dialogue and debate organized by the Canadian Council of Churches.

Pierre Ducasse is a former contender for the NDP leadership and now a staffer who also acts as secretary to the FSJC. He says, “Some people believe that if you come from a faith perspective, you are inherently a conservative, but as social democrats we believe that the central religious message is one of justice and being our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.” Ducasse agrees that the Commission’s activities have so far been sporadic, but he adds, “The very fact that we exist is important. When our MPs meet with people who come from a faith perspective, we tell them about the Commission. For example, when MP Tony Martin meets with groups about poverty issues they are often people of religious faith and they are pleased to hear that we have this Commission.”

Comartin says that he has seen a change occurring among faith-based groups in the past four or five years. “We are witnessing a shift from the primary focus of these groups being right wing and based upon what they call family values back to a more left of centre position. These people are increasingly concerned about peace, poverty and the environment and they are coming at it from a more progressive perspective.”

Ducasse and Comartin agree that Barrack Obama’s effective outreach to faith-based groups during his presidential campaign in 2008 was an important development. Comartin says, “Faith groups in the U.S. became active on behalf of the Democrats in the way that they had been for the Republicans in earlier times. This arose from pastors and others seeing the problems that people in their congregations and their communities were facing, and they became involved in politics because of their faith and their desire to create change. Political leaders are recognizing this.”

There was some criticism from within the NDP in 2006 about creating a party commission that was faith-based, but Comartin says the response has mainly positive. “Our MPs are reporting back from their ridings that a lot of people think this is something that needed to be done for a long time given the importance that religious faith and the social gospel played in the founding of our party.” Comartin says caucus members have been supportive as well and that nine or 10 NDP MPs (out of 37) regularly attend meetings of a faith and social justice caucus.

Comartin says that Rev. Eric Irvin, a Baptist pastor from Kentucky who was deeply involved with the Obama campaign, will speak to a luncheon sponsored by the FSJC at the Halifax convention in August.

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Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament