Lois Wilson, former Senator and moderator of the United Church of Canada, addresses a Theology on Tap session in Toronto Jan. 30. Photo by Luc Rinaldi

Politicians can't just shed their faith

  • January 31, 2012

TORONTO - The separation of church and state is a concept engrained in the identity and culture of Western democracy as a means of protecting religion, not eliminating it, according to the Very Rev. Lois Wilson.

But that definition has become less and less believable, Wilson told a few dozen young adults gathered in downtown Toronto at a Theology on Tap event that questioned what role religion should play in forming the public policy of a secular state.

"Faith is a perspective on what public policy should be about," said Wilson, a former Canadian Senator and the first female moderator of the United Church of Canada. "We all have ideas about how we should live together in just, compassionate ways, and I think that is informed by our faith."

As both an ordained minister and holder of a political office, Wilson offered her thoughts on the topic to the young people at the Duke of York Pub. The subject — and the dilemmas that come with it — is familiar to Wilson.

"When you become a politician, you carry your faith into the new area if your faith means anything," said the 84-year-old Wilson. "You don't just shed it, but you have to figure out what you're going to do with it.

"It's a good thing that, in Canada, no religious group can form a political party, but it's also a good thing that faith informs political decisions and economic decisions. Otherwise, what's it for?"

While Wilson described her own accounts of using her faith to guide her political decisions, she recognized the classic problem of being a Christian — or any religion for that matter — in office.

"What do you do if you are a Member of Parliament and something comes up that your conscience disallows, or your Church was against the party policy?"

Wilson was quick to point out some obvious examples — abortion and gay marriage — adding that "the sexual areas seem to be the main areas of disagreement." Prostitution and euthanasia could easily join that list of morally contentious issues, each of which has been on the political stage within the past year. In a "pluralistic society" where the fastest growing belief is unbelief, the role of a Catholic or Christian MP would evidently be a difficult one, she acknowledged.

One of the most recent examples of religion and politics interweaving is the work-in-progress Office of Religious Freedom. Little has been revealed about the function of the new office, but it will likely deal with religious freedoms of people abroad, rather than within Canada.

"I think religion plays a huge role in foreign policy," Wilson said. "But that isn't how (the religious freedom office) is shaped. It's not the role of religion in foreign policy, it's freedom of religion. I suspect it's to garner brownie points."

She said it could nevertheless play an important role if the mandate is formulated carefully. Above all, it would depend on what the office's concept of religion is and what religions it chooses to recognize, she said.

In her work as the president of the World Council of Churches, Canadian delegate to China and North Korea and Canada's special envoy to the Sudan, Wilson has seen a wide range of different religions. In her travels, she said she's been to nearly every country in the world. She also has considerable experience with interfaith and women's issues.

The night was one of an ongoing series hosted by Faith Connections, a young adult ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

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