Pulpit and politics in The Hill Times

By Dennis Gruending

(The following post was published in the 20th anniversary edition of The Hill Times newspaper on October 5, 2009):

Dennis Gruending The Hill Times is a niche publication in the best sense of the word. It is preoccupied with everything that happens on (and around) Parliament Hill and that cuts a broad swath. I know, based upon my eight years as a staff worker and a Member of Parliament that the newspaper is read avidly by pretty well everyone in the precinct. The Hill Times is also characterized by a civility that provides at least some sense of community in a place where that is not easy to achieve. I have come to occupy a niche of my own since I left the Hill in 2004, returning to consulting, to writing books and now a blog called Pulpit and Politics. I am interested in the growing influence that religion is having upon politics and society in Canada and elsewhere. I am pleased that the Hill Times has published some of my articles on this topic.

God is back

In one of my first blog pieces in November 2007, I reported on a lengthy article carried in The Economist. The magazine’s editor John Micklethwait said, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” This year Mickhlethwait has published a 400-page book called God is Back, in which he makes his point in even greater detail. Rather than fading away religion has come to play an increasingly prominent public role in contemporary societies. One has only to think about the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions; the impact of liberation theology in places such as Brazil; the role of the church in Poland; the rise of the religious right in the United States, Canada and elsewhere; the rise of militant Sikhism and Islamic extremism. If ever religion was a marginalized force, it has rebounded markedly and not always for the better. All too often, from Northern Ireland through Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, religious intrusions have been violent and bloody. Canada, so far at least, is the peaceable kingdom but the culture wars so common south of the border have their echoes in this country as well.

Canada does not exist in a vacuum. An IPSOS-Reid poll reported, for example, that the vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in the election of a Conservative minority government in January 2006. The question is whether that was a blip or an emerging reality in Canadian political life. The religious right is growing in its political influence. Mainline Protestantism has been in decline although it is showing some signs of revival. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals, who once disliked and mistrusted one another, are now engaged in a growing collaboration on issues such as same sex marriage. The Conservatives are assiduously courting those evangelicals, Catholics, and certain Jewish voters as well to join their political coalition. That has caught the attention of other parties. The NDP has responded by creating Faith and Social Justice Commission, which attempts to mobilize a religious constituency on their behalf. Michael Ignatieff has given Toronto-area Liberal MP John Mackay the task of reaching out on behalf of his party to evangelical Christians.

There is a good deal of research and reportage in the United States about the relationship between religion and politics. Journalists follow the power and the money and in the U.S. the religious right has been an important political player since the days of Ronald Reagan. Recently, for example, there has been coverage about what American religious groups are saying about President Obama’s proposed reforms to health care – the response from those organizations has, unfortunately, been mostly opposed to the reforms. Far less attention has been devoted to the relationship between pulpit and politics in Canada.

What the media misses

I have reported on my blog how several Catholic NDP MPs were denied full participation in their church because of their party’s support of same sex marriage legislation. This is an unfortunate regression on the church’s part to the 19th century when the bishops and clergy in Quebec tried to bring Wilfrid Laurier to heel. I have reported on the National Prayer Breakfast, which I believe should become an inter-religious rather than exclusively Christian event. Other of my blog stories have been about what churches had to say about issues in the 2008 election campaign; about how there has been a proliferation of socially and religiously conservative lobby groups in Ottawa in the past several years; about religion and multiculturalism; about how some MPs and senior bureaucrats see the connection between religious faith and their own public lives.

A story that the mainstream media both covered and missed was the Prime Minister’s promotion of two individuals to senior positions in the PMO in March 2009. Darrel Reid became chief of staff and Paul Wilson replaced him as PMO policy director. Reid and Wilson have deep roots in both religious and political organizations. Reid was chief of staff to Reform Party leader Preston Manning while he was leader of the opposition. Later he became the president of Focus on the Family Canada, a conservative Christian lobby group that has worked against public childcare, same-sex marriage, and against adding sexual orientation to a list of minorities protected from hate crimes.

Wilson has worked for Trinity Western University, which is based in Langley, B.C. and is one of the largest evangelical educational institutions in Canada. Trinity established an Ottawa “campus” in 2001 in an old mansion near Parliament Hill. It houses the Laurentian Leadership Centre, which places students as interns with Ottawa-based organizations, predominantly with MPs. Wilson co-ordinated that internship program but when the Conservatives won election in 2006, he left Trinity Western to become a senior policy advisor to Vic Toews, then the justice minister. Wilson later served in a similar policy role for Diane Finley, the minister of human resources.

There is nothing wrong with these individuals occupying senior positions but their combined political and religious connections are worthy of note and journalists reporting the promotions missed the religious side.

Potential stories

There are other potential stories that I have not had the time or resources to follow. For example, the government is rolling out grants under its infrastructure program and a number of them are going to religious institutions. These include grants to the above-mentioned Laurentian Leadership Centre, and larger one to its parent Trinity Western University. Other grants have gone to Atlantic Baptist University in New Brunswick, Redeemer University College in Ontario and the Briercrest Bible School in Saskatchewan. There is a long tradition in Canada of religious schools and hospitals receiving public support, but it would be interesting to see the full list of religious institutions receiving money under the economic stimulus package and a description of the projects involved.

Ultimately, I am interested in how religious faith informs our political decisions – the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, the environment and foreign policy, to name just a few. People of religious faith should, like anyone else, be welcomed to participate in political debates and movements for the benefit of the common good. But that participation is worthy of journalistic scrutiny undertaken with a sense of detachment and at least some degree of skepticism.

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Dennis

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

One thought on “Pulpit and politics in The Hill Times”

  1. Just out of interest, do you think there would be anything wrong with outspoken, “professional” atheists occupying senior positions in a government, just like Wilson and Reid? Atheists who were as vehemently intolerant? Who believed that religion (instead of just every other religion) was wrong, and who thought that everyone should really just believe what they believe? Who were as interested in manipulating government policy to support their beliefs?

    Perhaps the more interesting question is whether Wilson, Reid, and Harper would accept something like that in the PMO.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Jesse for your comment and questions. The reality is that Mr. Harper is the PM, he  makes the appointments and these represent the ideas and ideology of a group people that the Conservatives rely upon to win and wield power. A different prime minister leading another  party would make different appointments — ones that would likely be more pleasing to you, and to me.

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