Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life by Dennis Gruending (Kingsley Publishing, 237 pages, softcover, $23).

Polarization between the religious left, right continues

By  Duane Falconer, Catholic Register Special
  • June 15, 2012

Dennis Gruending’s latest book proves the religious left is still treating the religious right more like bogeymen than the people in the next pew, and that’s a shame.

Gruending sees a pattern in these facts: REAL Women of Canada, a conservative pressure group, urged the Harper Government to terminate Status of Women Canada, a government organization answerable to the Minister for Status of Women. The Christian Family Action Coalition (CFAC) lobbied against funding for KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice organization. The government seriously wounded the Status of Women, and entirely cut KAIROS’ funding.

The Harper government has not adopted every position that emerges from the religious right. It has, however, given religious conservatives more influence in public life.

In the last few years, two books have covered this ground. Gruending’s Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life is more careful than Marci McDonald’s Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada.

Gruending sticks to well-researched facts. He cautions that “the American religious right has been an important political player for the past 30 years. Religious conservatives in Canada may be on their way to doing the same thing.”

A religious progressive, Gruending fears an eclipse of the accord between successive Liberal governments and the religious left. Religious conservatives wish to unseat that agreement. For Gruending, the accord between pre-Harper Ottawa and the religious left nurtured such Canadian values as multiculturalism. The old Ottawa and mainstream churches worked hand in hand to guarantee political integration. Gruending’s fears that this competing religious ideology will lead to an “alternative (that) is not at all pleasant to contemplate” — political polarization and disintegration.

Despite accurate reportage, Gruending’s book contains mistakes. Lacking is a conclusive justification for its central claim — that the religious right is a polarizing force. In effect, he overstates its significance. Finally, he fails to argue for his own values, thereby missing an opportunity to engage religious conservatives.

Gruending misses the fact that religious conservatives are like most Canadians — relatively apolitical. They have moral qualms, but are politically powerless. He also overstates the vote potential of the Harper Conservatives courting the religious right and the ethnic vote. Does he truly believe Canadian Evangelicals and Catholic immigrants from Sri Lanka, for example, have enough in common to form part of a Conservative base?

Even if the religious right engages in political action against same-sex marriage, for example, such action does not constitute polarization. Gruending encourages the religious left to participate in the political process, but harangues the right for doing so.

Canadians cherish differences of opinion, even religious ones. But for a number of reasons they won’t stomach religion-based political polarization. This country has a tradition of political compromise. Widespread secularism is a fact of life.

Gruending fails to notice that polarization has already occurred — in the religious sphere. His book is a result of this schism and contributes, unfortunately, to its continuation. Pulpit and Politics could have extended an olive branch to the religious right. It might have listed, for example, the failures and anxieties of religious progressives.

Catholics who tend to focus on social justice seem willing to cede prayer to the religious right. Surely some Catholic politicians on the left agree with Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP, whose motion to re-examine the legal definition of human life would have re-opened the abortion debate. Will Catholic liberals insist on their right to vote according to individual conscience?

Gruending has no interest in engaging the religious right. No peaceful overtures appear. Gruending’s book reflects our narrow-mindedness and shallow-heartedness. We still lack vision, especially for what public life can be.

(Falconer lectures on social justice and philosophy at the University of Windsor.)

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