With politics so engulfed in scandal, there’s a tendency for religious people to despair of politics. But voting should be a moral activity, some believe. Photo by Michael Swan

Voices of faith struggle to be heard in a cynical political world

  • May 24, 2018

Voting is easy. Walk into a booth, tick off some names — what’s complicated about that? Nothing, except that each name ticked represents a choice and a direction for our common future.

“Voting should be a moral activity,” explains Catholic theologian Nick Olkovich, who studies the relationship between ethics, politics and religion in democratic society. “Citizens have a duty to vote in ways that serve the common good of society as a whole, rather than in ways that serve a narrow, partisan agenda or one constituency at the expense of others.”

Canadians have plenty of opportunities for exercising that duty. Between federal, provincial and municipal elections, voters are given regular opportunities to make their voices heard. Ontario goes to the polls in a provincial election June 7, and Quebec and New Brunswick voters have fall dates. Seven provinces and territories also have municipal elections slated for later this year.

Olkovich, a theology professor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College in Vancouver, believes the simple duty to vote is now more complex than ever in our highly polarized, media-saturated world. On the left and the right, politics has become “an irrational battle between interest groups,” Olkovich told The Catholic Register in an e-mail interview.

“Fake news and alternative facts are symptoms of a post-truth era,” he said.

Swirling political agendas with no common focus make outsider candidates attractive. They promise to break through the competing rhetoric that comes with living in a complex society. But detail-averse candidates who trade in sweeping condemnations, big numbers and unexamined promises can actually make a responsible vote more difficult.

“Outsiders make for great candidates in today’s increasingly cynical political climate,” Olkovich said. “But what exactly is that candidate challenging, and why?”

Like most moral choices, political choices are rarely as easy as choosing good over evil.

“There are no perfect candidates and no perfect platforms,” said Olkovich. “That’s why political deliberation and voting is such a difficult thing to do responsibly.”

Any temptation to separate faith from politics, to simplify the process by taking ultimate values off the table, would leave us with the shallow, if not brutal, politics of self-interest, said former Liberal MPP and Queen’s Park cabinet minister John Milloy, who now leads the Centre for Public Ethics at Waterloo-Lutheran Seminary and teaches as “practitioner-in-residence” in Wilfrid Laurier University’s political science department.

“We’re a society that I think is looking for some grounding in a little bit of wisdom,” he said.

As he heads up an ecumenical and interfaith effort to encourage voices of faith in the public square, Milloy worries about people of faith turning their backs on politics, and politics turning its back on people of faith. With headlines dominated by scandal and politicians who lie, there’s a natural tendency for religious people to despair of politics. On the other hand, strident social conservatives have made it easy to dismiss all voices of faith, Milloy said.

“I never said they shouldn’t be heard. I just said they can’t be the beginning and end of it,” he said. “There are other issues and other concerns.”

Catholics should be suspicious of politicians who promise a better society without sacrifice and without challenge, Milloy said.

“We might have to pay a little more in taxes. We might have to volunteer. We might have to have different attitudes towards addiction,” he said. “Sometimes these things hit a little closer to home. I believe all faith traditions, including our own, have a responsibility to connect the dots.”

Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen believes Catholics have a fight on their hands in the public square.

“As Catholics we need to stand up against the discrimination against our values and faith,” she said. “And use our voice and say we will not tolerate this.”

Granic Allen claims she “never intended to run for political or public office.”

But as a social conservative running a lobby group called Parents As First Educators, she believes her concerns about the sex ed curriculum lack a forceful voice at Queen’s Park.

“Perhaps in some other generations, or some other decades, simply voting on economic issues was satisfactory,” she said. “However, in the last couple of decades we have seen, with the emergence of moral and ethical issues, for Catholics it simply is not acceptable to ignore social issues that are having an impact not only on the moral fabric of society, but also on the family.”

The Interfaith Social Assistance Coalition, which has been lobbying Queen’s Park on behalf of the poor and homeless for more than 30 years, also focuses on family and human dignity. The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario and several other Catholic institutions belong to the coalition.

“Our sacred texts motivate us to be passionate, prophetic voices about loving and serving our neighbours, ensuring that they have decent homes to raise their families,” reads the ISARC Provincial Election Kit 2018.

With two million Ontarians living below the poverty line, one in six children growing up in poverty, and 170,000 on waiting lists for affordable housing, the group believes it is immoral for government to allocate any of its billions before it makes sure the poor are included in society.

ISARC’s concerns are echoed in the Ontario Election Guide 2018 from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto. 

“Responsible use of freedom means promotion of human life and dignity at all stages, from conception to death,” it reads. 

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