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Banksy, Artistic Activist, Engaged in the Public Square

When it comes to faith communities speaking into the public square during an election, there has been angry push back against ethics informed by Christian faith. Michael Den Tandt of the National Post wrote, “The state has no place in the pews of the nation,” (for the sake of younger readers – this is a play on the famous paraphrase of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”):

Secularism, it seems, has finally hit ground zero: The churches, all churches – whether liberal, evangelical, left or right, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Mormon, Jain, Zoroastrian or Jedi – no longer have any business speaking up about public policy or political issues, apparently. If they do they risk being lumped in with other quasi-political charities and think tanks now fallen under the gimlet eye of the Conservative government…

In the January/February 2006 issue of Faith Today, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Stephen Harper wrote this: “In recent years, some politicians and commentators have asserted that in order to maintain the separation of church and state, legislators should not be influenced by religious belief… the notion of separation refers to the state not interfering in religious practice and treating all faith communities impartially. It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or in the public square.”

Indeed. Not only does faith have a role in the public square today, whether it is overt or quiet – a number of Conservative MPs are devout Christians, including the prime minister himself – but it always has. One could argue, in fact, that both the Conservative Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party have Christian DNA…

It is interesting to see how others have been responding to the pressure for people of faith to keep it to themselves. In Australia, Peter Kurti wrote, “The Forgotten Freedom: Threats to Religious liberty in Australia.” Sounding very much like the Canadian experience, Kurti writes, “Secularists are privatizing all religions except their own, which they have privileged above all others… Religious believers are now more likely to find themselves clashing with the coercive values of the aggressively secular liberal state and facing accusations of equality denial, hate speech, and homophobia.”

Closer to home at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, there was the 2010 Ronning Centre Forum: “Living Together with Disagreement: Pluralism, the Secular, and the Fair Treatment of Beliefs in Canada Today” (Iain T. Benson, Extraordinary Professor of Constitutional Law and Philosophy of Law University of the Free State in Bloemfontein). He spoke to the dynamics of the rights and responsibilities of people informed by faith to speak into our pluralistic society.

Benson noted that in the first decision of the Supreme Court of Canada dealing with the definition of the Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Section 2(a) of the Charter, then Chief Justice Dickson stated:

The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.

As an exercise of the freedom of Conscience and Religion, Myron Rogal encourages discernment in “Catholic social teaching political but not partisan:”

“It is prudent to make a distinction between political and being partisan. This distinction is not always clear to those around us. Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said, ‘When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they’re poor they call me a communist.’

A call for justice is a call for political action, but not a call for support of one party or ideology. It is not ultimately important which party or parties makes good decisions, it is important that good decisions are made. The best way to test whether an action is political or partisan is to ask whether the action is about issues and outcomes or about who will get elected.

Advocating, for example, for adequate available health care may require conversations with various political leaders. Aligning oneself with the position of one or the other does not mean identifying with that party, it simply means supporting their stance on a particular issue.”

During this election, consider how your faith intersects the pluralism of the political parties, and your community. You are not off the hook from praying for whatever government forms, and you have some responsibility to be engaged in positive action for the life of the world.

May you be wise and gracious as you live in the mystery of how God reigns through, or in spite of, the government. From the very beginnings of Christian faith, Jesus’ mother knew this in her humility, and she worshipped God who leverages power by weakness:

… He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty…

May you exercise your vote with humble wisdom and grace.