Less whining, more action needed to open government ears to church views

  • June 5, 2007
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - After more than an hour of mainline Protestant and Catholic consternation and deep thinking over the declining influence of Christians in Canada’s political life, Jeremy Bell had had enough.
“It’s a crock,” the executive minister of the Baptist Union of Western Canada told his fellow delegates to the Canadian Council of Churches’ annual meeting at Queen of the Apostles Retreat Centre here May 23.

“Get a life,” Bell told the senior clerics gathered for the evening forum on faith and the public square.

The Baptist Union of Western Canada, based in Calgary, is the newest member of the 21-member Canadian Council of Churches, the ecumenical forum for Canada’s largest Christian churches. Bell wanted his colleagues to know that the new guy doesn’t buy the woe-is-us line.

Bell points to studies by Reginald Bibby, Canada’s leading sociologist of religion, showing church attendance higher than it has been for a generation, and the rising church attendance of teenagers. Nor does Bell believe the new diversity of recent immigration is much of a threat to the Christian consensus of Canadian society. Nearly 70 per cent of Canadians believe Jesus is the Son of God and His death and resurrection have implications for the forgiveness of their sins, said Bell.

“Only six per cent of Canadians belong to non-Christian religions at this particular point. It was two per cent in the 1860s,” he said.

The majority of the 16 per cent who tell census-takers they have no religion eventually do join a church — usually the church of their mothers, said Bell.

Christian-founded-and-inspired health care and education continue to be integral to Canadian society, with the tiny Salvation Army alone running 53 per cent of all Canadian hospice beds.

Nor will Bell let the doomsayers get away with decrying the media for ignoring religion. He points out that in recent months the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ideas radio program has dedicated an entire week to Christian thinker René Girard, rebroadcast Margaret Visser’s Massey Lectures “Beyond Fate” and produced a program exploring the cultural significance of icons.

If cabinet ministers and the editorial board of The Globe and Mail no longer pay much attention to church submissions to parliamentary subcommittees, that’s no real worry, according to Bell.

“The trouble is that the mainline churches have lapsed into a triumphalism of social place, elitism and status — and that’s a hard thing to give up. It’s an addiction,” he said.

United Church minister and former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Walter McLean argued churches should not accept a lesser role in political life. Where churches were once listened to because of their expertise on subjects such as poverty in Canada and in the former mission countries of the global south, churches are now “managed as another public interest group,” said McLean of Waterloo, Ont.

While non-traditional, fundamentalist Christians have narrowly defined the political interests of churchgoers, sticking to abortion and same-sex marriage, the broader interests of the majority of Canadian Christians are poorly represented on Parliament Hill, said McLean, who now makes his living as a consultant to lobbyists.

“We haven’t figured out how to influence decision makers,” he said.

He decried the petition and postcard campaigns of KAIROS, the ecumenical social justice coalition, as empty theatrics which belie a lack of follow-up or real engagement with the political process.

Former Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops general secretary Fr. Bill Ryan chimed in on the futility of church-sponsored letter-writing campaigns.

“Just the mechanical thing of generating letters, that’s not democracy,” said the Ottawa-based Jesuit economist.

{sidebar id=2}If the churches want real influence in public policy they have to engage senior bureaucrats and cabinet ministers face-to-face, said Ryan. Petitions and church leaders’ letters without follow-up or engagement aren’t taken seriously.

For real engagement in the political process, the Canadian Council of Churches needs two things, said McLean. It needs a cadre of committed public intellectuals who do not necessarily speak in an official capacity for the churches, but who can engage debates in the media on the side of Christian values. This corps of essayists and academics would be charged with writing opinion articles for newspapers and contributing to online forums.

The second thing it needs is an office in Ottawa with a staff of qualified people who can meet politicians and policy experts on their own turf.

As a sitting MP who has represented Elmwood-Strathcona, Manitoba, for 28 years, United Church minister Bill Blaikie confirmed that he doesn’t see much influence by non-fundamentalist Christians on Parliament Hill. Most of the letters he receives from Christians are from social conservatives, Blaikie said.

As a Christian politician, Blaikie is puzzled by the “deafening silence of the non-Evangelical churches in Canada.”

Ultimately, the churches’ influence is tied to their ability to convince their own people of the importance and the rightness of their causes, said Ryan.

“It’s with our own members, that’s where we break down,” he said. “We didn’t sow the seed deep enough in our own faiths.”

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