Religious perspective missing from political sphere: Manning

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • October 24, 2006
Preston ManningWINDSOR, Ont.  - Former Reform Party and federal Opposition Leader Preston Manning says people of faith need, as Jesus said, to be as “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” in bringing religious perspectives to the political arena.

Speaking at Assumption University Oct. 15, Manning, who has long embraced evangelical Christian traditions, said that in contemporary Canadian political culture, the discussion of religious beliefs has long been "considered taboo" in parliamentary debate and during political campaigning, indeed even on "solemn" occasions to mark tragedies such as the crash of Swissair Flight 111 where "explicit" directions were given not to mention Christ's name at the memorial service.

This, he said, despite the iconic role of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its safeguarding of the free expression of religious beliefs, and despite the fact that the majority of Canadians practise one faith or another or say they are spiritually inclined.

He said that in the Calgary constituency he represented, where, buoyed by the oil economy "you'll not find a more materialist riding," in a poll eight out of 10 residents said they believed in God, two-thirds believed in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, 50 per cent said they read religious literature and one-third prayed daily.

With such numbers, Manning said, a significant number of people must be motivated to some extent by religion in their approach to political issues, and it only makes sense for politicians to acknowledge it.

"If you're a democratic representative you better understand this element," he said.

Manning agreed that the reason for religious suppression has to do with traditional principles of the separation of church and state – which he upholds but which he thinks Canadians interpret too "rigidly" – the doctrine of multiculturalism which states that all faiths are equal while conveniently endorsing none of their values, and the feeling that religious people "would impose their values" on others, a "legitimate fear."

Nevertheless, he added, while politicians fear religious fundamentalists there is no fear of "secular fundamentalists" such as feminists or environmentalists or free-market advocates imposing their views.

Manning said the only time religion might be allowed into the political realm is in discussion of landmark historical issues, such as the American civil rights movement fuelled as it was partly by the spiritual convictions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Manning, who today is president and CEO of the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy – the goal of which is "the creation of a democratic society in Canada whose governments are guided by conservative ideas and principles" – said institutes such as his, and the proposed Chair in Religion and Public Life at Assumption University, can assist both politicians and the public in bringing religious views into public discourse.

But he said this has to be done with a fresh perspective and in a way that breaks stereotypical notions about people who express religious beliefs. And he said no larger a source than Christ can be the inspiration. He said Jesus' reference to serpents and doves was really a way of addressing public issues without alienating opponents at the same time as delivering a message that doesn't seem overtly religious.

Manning said Christ's teaching embodied in proverbs such as "Render unto Caesar" and "He who is without sin" are astute  examples of not falling into opponents' verbal traps while driving home the spiritual message.

And while Manning criticized the political culture for not being more open to religion he also said people of faith must re-evaluate how they bring their views forward.

"I think the adjustments have to be made on both sides," he said, adding that religious adherents should "conduct ourselves prudently so that we don't discredit our faith communities." He said some of the "most vicious" letters politicians get are from those with strong religious beliefs.

Manning said those wishing to express their views should tackle an issue not from the religious perspective first but by addressing the societal problem.

"It is wise to begin your initiative not by moralizing," he said. "If you identify the suffering that the problem is causing you'll get a much better hearing."

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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