Politicians and religious identity

A reporter talked with me today about a poll he tried to take of Canadian Members of Parliament, on behalf of the major print medium for which he works (and which discretion forbids me to identify).

He noted that about half of the MPs’ offices failed to return his calls, and of those that did, more than half of them refused to participate. Of the minority, then, that did participate, a majority said they were religious. He asked me what I thought of these numbers. And so I’ll tell you what I told him:

I don’t know how these statistics of (non-)response stack up to other journalistic inquiries of this sort from a major medium such as this one. Maybe they are typical, and therefore not significant. Maybe, that is, MPs don’t generally respond to surveys of any kind, because they encounter them so often.

But my guess is that the numbers are lower than for other subjects, because there is too much to lose and not much to be gained by MPs declaring their religious beliefs. They can remain much more broadly acceptable to constituents if they remain religiously anonymous–unless they are in unusual parts of the country in which it would help to have a particular religious label, such as “Mennonite” in parts of southwestern Ontario, southern Manitoba, and the Fraser Valley, or “New Age/spiritual” in parts of B.C., or “Anglican” in parts of Toronto (e.g., Rosedale). Until the electorate decide that religious identity and religious observance/fervor matter, why would politicians mark themselves off from potential voters?

(Readers of this blog in other countries, and obviously those in the U.S., are hereby invited to comment about what happens where they live.)

A further thesis is that people of particularly traditional and devoted faith generally will find (Canadian) politics a difficult place in which to work. Party discipline for strategic reasons (rather than for the sake of the bill itself), fund-raising from all sorts of sources, trade-offs of various kinds, tactical silences and half-truths–all of this is the stock-in-trade of the successful politician and decidedly not the typical activity of a conservative Protestant or Catholic, nor of a conservative Jew, Muslim, Sikh, or Buddhist, for that matter.

People of traditional and devoted faith are trying hard to learn to tell the truth better, to compromise less, and to live in fuller conformity with their faith, as a rule. So the world of politics can be negotiated by such people only with considerable strain, even if they have a sophisticated approach to it–and I’m not sure how many of them do possess such an understanding.

That’s what I told him. And now a P.S.: Some admirable Christian thinkers in the “Christian realist” tradition–among whom I number myself, as I will show in the book I’m finishing now–actually suggest that really strong and committed Christians simply avoid seeking electoral office because of these strains! I think that’s pretty strange advice, and I would rather see committed Christians seek office or otherwise try to participate in electoral politics with a theology sufficient to guide them in the world of compromise that politics intrinsically is. But maybe I’m naive about real politics, dwelling nicely in the ivory tower as I do?

0 Responses to “Politicians and religious identity”

  1. Kate Power

    It would astonish me if the journalist didn’t already know that MPs have a lot to lose by committing themselves on the religion question. Surely that’s why s/he posed the question?

    As to Christians avoiding politics, perhaps it’s because many are not taught/trained/encouraged/whatever to understand and value the political realm as a field of fruitful endeavour (doctors, teachers, missionaries representing for many the Great Chain of Being)?

  2. Terry Tiessen

    Well said, John. For similar reasons, I favour Christians in the police force and the military despite the difficulties entailed in being authorized to use lethal force. Having lived and travelled in countries where police officers were not attempting to follow Jesus in the practice of their profession, I have seen the dangers of abandoning such roles to the ungodly.

  3. Zoe Yee Lai Leung

    I find it quite difficult to practice Christianity in politics, but I am quite sure we should not give up. We need better examples, training, teaching and mentors to be fruitful in the present political realm. Sometime in churches, we find difficulties to discuss God’s worldview and plans in this world.

  4. Brian E.

    “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)
    In my community we often say that a Christian politician could only be in office for one term. The ideal of representing your community’s values and opinions is noble and valuable. If only that was all one needed to succeed as a politician!

  5. Josef Bengtson

    Being a christian involved in politics I have found some valuable insights in the report
    “Doing God: A Future For Faith in the Public Square”, published by the Brittish think tank Theos (http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/mainnav/reports.aspx)

    But where do one find “a theology sufficient to guide christians in the world of compromise that politics intrinsically is”? Can anyone recommend a good read?

  6. Bene Diction

    As a reporter, I wouldn’t expect an MP to respond to be honest.

    There is too much too lose in the poltical arena and religious adherence doesn’t always make good politicans.

    Do we really want to measure an MP by her/his religious affiliation or lack thereof?

    If we do, we’ve joined Charles McVety and his friends, and I’m not too sure in a party system and in such a regionally diverse country that is where many of us want to go.

    Welcome to blogging Dr. Stackhouse.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Bene Diction asks whether we want to measure an MP by religious affiliation, and then says that if we do, we’re like Charles McVety (a fundamentalist leader in Ontario).

    I agree with BD that the religion of an individual ought not to be the only test, unless that religion is egregiously antithetical to my politics: I’m not going to vote for a Wahhabi Muslim, for example. (The Wahabbis are the puritanical Islamist group from which Osama bin Laden hails.)

    But, as Martin Luther is supposed to have said, it’s better to be ruled by a just Turk than an unjust Christian. I’d even settle for a competent Turk over an incompetent Christian.

    In the real world, of course, our political choices are simultaneously complex and simple. They’re complex, in that lots of policy questions matter to the thoughtful Christian: policies regarding the poor, children, immigrants, pollution, city planning, energy consumption, reproductive technologies, and on and on.

    They’re also simple, however, in that one’s choices are always among a handful of candidates, and sometimes only two. Then the question is simply, “Who’s better, overall?” Waiting for the candidate who will be “just right” means waiting forever–or until Jesus wins by acclamation, so to speak.

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