Faith is no stranger in the political realm

By  Michael Higgins
  • December 14, 2007

All of England appears to be waiting for confirmation that its former prime minister has at last crossed the Tiber. Given that if the average Brit had a choice between going to Westminster Abbey for Evensong or dropping by Leicester Square for a bit of celebrity gazing there would be no choice, the pending conversion of Tony Blair as a news item of national interest does appear at first blush to be surprising.

But, in fact, the British have always taken the role of religion in the public square seriously and that is a good thing. Marginalizing or trivializing faith when it comes to the public life of the nation is a threat to genuine freedom and peaceful governance. This runs counter to the prevailing view that the further we keep faith from the marketplace of ideas, the structures of government and the policies of the land, the happier we will all be.

But it isn’t just Britain that takes an interest in the religious convictions of its leaders past and present. The United States has an unquenchable passion for the admixture of faith and politics — sometimes dangerous and indiscriminate — and never more so than during the grand lead-up to a presidential election. Candidates do not apologize for their faith; they trumpet it. This can be disconcerting for Canadians who generally prefer their political leaders to keep their faith nicely tucked under their lapels rather than boldly worn on their sleeves.

In the last couple of weeks alone the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has delivered a major address on the role of his faith in political life; the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister of unabashed religious views, is gaining considerable momentum as a Republican candidate; Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama employ every opportunity to let their constituencies know that faith sits comfortably in their lives as elected politicians; and the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, continues shamelessly to orchestrate a strategy of evasion and persiflage on matters of his Catholicism that is staggering in its scope and ignorance.

All the more revealing then to discover in the Dec. 3 issue of Maclean’s that their second annual Parliamentarian of the Year Award uncovered some interesting facts. This contest — jointly sponsored with the Dominion Institute of Canada — involves an anonymous survey of the MPs designed by Ipsos Canada, culminating in several awards: Hardest Working MP; Best Orator; Most Knowledgeable; Best Constituency Representative; Most Collegial; and, of course, the piece de resistance, the Parliamentarian of the Year. What the editors unearthed included the following gem: “It’s intriguing to note that a majority of the winners and runners-up are deeply and publicly religious. ‘You can’t come to your politics without some kind of view about what’s ultimately real,’ said Bill Blaikie (MP from Winnipeg and this year’s award winner).”

Why should it surprise Canadians that many members of their government — local, provincial and federal — have religious convictions that motivate them and define who they are as individuals with a vocation to public service? What should call us to account is our collective discomfort with having this fact known and publicly valued.

Faith and fanaticism are not the same thing; political integrity is not compromised by religious fidelity; public leadership need not and should not demand the jettisoning of one’s spiritual life; and faith and public life do not lead inexorably to theocracy.

Why even the new president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been known to muse aloud about his “religious” roots, Vladimir Putin is keen on rapprochement with Russian Orthodoxy, and the prime minister of Turkey exudes moderation coupled with deep religious conviction.

Not everything need be defined by Osama Bin Laden and his ilk or the legion of U.S. televangelists who exhort their nation to lust for Armageddon.

Thank God.

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