• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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?