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Rethinking the role of faith in Canada's progressive movement


The recent death of Fred Phelps, the infamous anti-gay activist and leader for many years of the independent Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, is perhaps an appropriate occasion to reflect on the damaging way the media reinforced and amplified an already misleading stereotype of what Christians in the public square are like. He provided a certain shock value for those who couldn’t resist the temptation to exploit him as a caricature of a relationship between faith and politics that they objected to. The fact that all kinds of Christians belong to churches that take progressive stands on many issues just does not seem to be as interesting.

In the Canadian context, it is instructive to recall the fuss made some years ago about Stockwell Day’s faith and fitness to govern. In contrast, the Rev. Lorne Calvert, a United Church Minister, became the NDP Premier of Saskatchewan without any such fuss being made about his religious proclivities. Yet the fact remains that the dominant stereotype of what it means to be political and religious is that one is inevitably right-wing.  This narrow misconception has not only been frustrating for the religious left, it has been damaging to the political left, leaving it less sensitive to, and less likely to try and mobilize a potential base of support among religious communities.

The damage derives from the way that the stereotype comes to inform the perspective of even those  who should know better. Canadians on the left generally know that in the past  there was a strong association between left-wing politics and the faith community, as a result of leaders from the social gospel movement like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. But the dominant stereotype of the last thirty-five years, ever since the rise of American Jerry Falwell’s "Moral Majority" in the late 70s, has tended to obscure not just the past, but the present reality of there continuing to be a huge constituency on and for the left among Canadians who see their politics as being informed by their spiritual and/or religious commitments.

At the recent Broadbent Institute Progress Summit in Ottawa, those in attendance heard a keynote speech from Anastasia Khoo, Marketing Director of Human Rights Campaign, and the one responsible for their very successful marriage equality initiative. Discussions with Khoo would reveal that her organization devotes a significant amount of energy to identifying and connecting with progressive faith communities and individuals, and making sure that politicians know such people exist, and are therefore less intimidated by the dominant stereotype. There is similar work waiting to be done on the Canadian left, with respect to many important issues.

In the context of the recent report of the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, where it seems that surviving climate change is now as much a worry as stopping it, there is no time to waste in mustering all available avenues of support against those who would place the priorities of the oil and gas industry above the very well-being of the planet. The Canadian Interfaith Call for Action on Climate Change is not a bad place to start.