Reconsidering liberal Christianity

Rev. J.S. Woodsworth  Liberal Protestantism revisited
Rev. J.S. Woodsworth
Liberal Protestantism revisited

I read in the New York Times recently about an increasing attention being paid by American academic researchers to the history of liberal Christianity. The article says that in the U.S. the dominant story for decades has been about the rise of evangelical Christians. The Times reports that decades ago evangelicals “began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.”

The Times says, however, that now “a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.” The Times describes this as a “mainline moment.”

Liberal religion

Historical books with the following titles are making their way onto reading lists: Matthew S. Hedstrom’s Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century; Jill K. Gill’s Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left; and Leigh E. Schmidt’s The Rise of Liberal Religion. This is significant because sooner or later historical research usually finds its way into popular consciousness. Continue reading Reconsidering liberal Christianity

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas
RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

The RCMP security service spied on Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier and federal NDP leader, from the 1930s until shortly before his death the 1980s. We know this only because Jim Bronskill, an Ottawa-based Canadian Press journalist, has waged a long battle with the federal government and its agencies beginning in 2005 to make public the files on Douglas which are being held in the vaults at Library and Archives Canada.

Bronskill used Access to Information requests and subsequent court cases to pry loose much of the 1,147 page file that the RCMP accumulated. A good portion of the material released has portions of the pages blacked out and it has also come to light that some material was destroyed. The federal government and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which inherited the files from the RCMP, fought Bronskill every step of the way. They argued that the files must remain secret to protect the names of sources and the RCMP’s methods of spying. This seems rather odd because Douglas died in 1986. The police last spied on him about 30 years ago and much of the material in the files goes back as far as 80 years. Continue reading RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician
circa 1979

I took the photo that you see here of Nicaragua’s Father Ernesto Cardenal in the Mexican city of Puebla in February, 1979. Catholic bishops from all over Latin America were meeting there and the new pope, John Paul II, was on hand to inaugurate the gathering. I was there as a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. The Vatican had already begun the process of reeling in its priests, theologians and some bishops from pronouncements that had been made at a similar meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968. There the bishops had promulgated a “preferential option for the poor” — not a popular thing to do in a continent where the division of wealth was scandalous and dictators sat in many of the palaces. Continue reading Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

The Blaikie report on faith and politics

Rev. Bill Blaikie
The Blaikie Report

Rev. Bill Blaikie stands tall in the annals of Canadian parliamentarians and it is not only his imposing physical presence that sets him apart. Few MPs have served with equal distinction or for as long in the House of Commons (1979-2008) as the United Church minister from Winnipeg Transcona. And no one among contemporary MPs has been as staunch an advocate for the social gospel – a belief that religious faith can inspire progressive politics. It frustrates Blaikie when many people believe that religious faith, when taken to the public square, is inherently right wing in its political connotations. Even some members of the NDP (whose predecessor, the CCF, was forged in part as a religious movement), believe that religion should not be political and that it is an inherently right wing force. Continue reading The Blaikie report on faith and politics

Pulpit and Politics, a review by Ron Dart

My recent book book Pulpit and Politics has been reviewed in the Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice, an on line publication.  The reviewer is Ron Dart,  a professor in the Department of Philosophy & Politics at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C. You will see that he recommends the book and is pleased that it deals with religion as an authentic force in public life, rather than dismissing it out of hand as is commonly done in secular academic analysis. He criticizes me, though, for being soft on religious progressives while being hard on religious conservatives. Also, he disapproves of my describing the current reality in Canada as one of competing religious ideologies, one progressive and the other conservative.  Continue reading Pulpit and Politics, a review by Ron Dart

Dennis Gruending to publish book on Pulpit and Politics

Pulpit and Politics by Dennis GruendingThose of you who follow my blog will wonder why I have not been posting for the past number of weeks. In fact, several of you have contacted me to ask about it. The truth is that I have been taken up with the final edits of a book that I will publish in October. It’s called Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, and Kingsley Publishers of Calgary will release it. The themes and details that I deal with in the book arise largely from this blog, which I have been writing since late 2007. Actually, many of you have contacted me with constructive criticism about the blog and have provided ideas for stories that I might pursue. Many of those suggestions have made their way into the book but it goes well beyond the blog. I have revised the material, updated and added to it, and the book will also contain a detailed index of names and organizations as well as a comprehensive reading list.

I have been struck over the past few years by the growing competition between religious progressives and conservatives for power and influence in Canadian politics. This is an historic rivalry and one that will become even more pronounced now that Stephen Harper has won a majority government, partly through the efforts of religious conservatives. Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, publicly funded childcare, a dislike of many social programs, and a general suspicion of government. Since its inception in 2006, the Harper government has courted conservative evangelicals, along with certain Catholic and Jewish voters, to join a political coalition that would change Canada into a leaner and meaner state, albeit it one with more prisons and a larger military.

The book will look closely at the political ideology and tactics of religious conservatives, but that is only half of the story. I will also report on efforts by religious progressives who are struggling to have their voices heard on issues of equality, justice, human rights, and peace. This is an effort that plays out on Parliament Hill, as well in church basements, synagogues and temples. It is not merely a topic of casual interest; the consequences for our future are potentially dramatic. Religious faith informs political decisions about the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, immigration, respect for democracy, foreign policy, and environmental issues, to name just a few.

The book will also examine religiously inspired ideas and events elsewhere that are having an impact in Canada. We cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom, but we are not immune to religious fundamentalism, even extremism. The bombing of Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people, making it the most widely felt terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living in Canada. There are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel, round-the-clock news feeds, and secured Internet chat rooms. Canada is not an island, particularly given its tradition of engagement abroad and its increasingly ethnic and religious diversity. It is for these reasons (in addition to natural curiosity) that on my travels and in my reading I pay close attention to the links between religious faith and public life in other countries as well as my own.

I have watched this drama unfold from my base in Ottawa, and I have also participated in it: as a writer, a director of information for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later as a Member of Parliament and a blogger. There is a fine body of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about the importance of understanding the motivation and tactics of religious groups involved in public life. Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit and Politics will help to fill this gap.

Pulpit and Politics will sell for $22.00 and will be available (in October) from Kingsley Publishing or Alpine Book Peddlers.  It will also be available as an ebook. I hope that you will consider buying a copy for yourself and perhaps another for a family member or friend. I’ll let you know when Pulpit and Politics becomes available. And now, I will get back to writing for my blog. I promise.

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Father James Gray, Bush Dweller

By Dennis Gruending

Note: This writing is drawn from a chapter that I contributed to a recently-published book called Bush Dweller: essays in memory of Father James Gray, OSB.

Father James GrayLong after I had finished with my years at university, I made a list of the five teachers and professors who had been my best. Two of them were Al Gerwing, better known to us during my student days at St. Peter’s College as Brother Thomas, and Father James Gray. James taught English literature to first year university students at St. Peter’s and he was also editor of the Prairie Messenger newspaper. His workload must have been daunting. He was my professor for only one year but he was amazing and had a great influence upon my intellectual development and upon my decision a few years later to become a journalist and a writer.

I was his student in 1966-67, the first year in which university classes at St. Peter’s became co-educational. As I recall, there were six or seven women among the 25 or so students. It must have seemed an odd fit to the women because most of the males had been high school students at St. Peter’s just a year earlier, and we simply continued on with our adolescent habits. That might involve seeing how hard we could punch each other in the shoulder during a break between classes, or setting someone’s shoe laces on fire with a cigarette lighter while he was deeply engaged in a conversation during a coffee break.
Continue reading Father James Gray, Bush Dweller