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Beyond “Beyond Secularism”: NDP MP Bill Blaikie discusses the crossroads of politics and faith

Until his decision to leave Parliament in 2008, Bill Blaikie was the longest serving with 29 consecutive years under the NDP. He was also a 2003 leadership opponent to Jack Layton, and is a United Church ordained minister. In early December, Chilliwack-Hope MLA Gwen O’Mahony hosted Beyond Secularism, an event designed to bring religion and politics to the forefront of discussion. Bill Blaikie was part of the expert panel at that event.

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By Joe Johnson (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: January 9, 2013

Until his decision to leave Parliament in 2008, Bill Blaikie was the longest serving with 29 consecutive years under the NDP. He was also a 2003 leadership opponent to Jack Layton, and is a United Church ordained minister. In early December, Chilliwack-Hope MLA Gwen O’Mahony hosted Beyond Secularism, an event designed to bring religion and politics to the forefront of discussion. Bill Blaikie was part of the expert panel at that event.

Last night you were on the panel for the Beyond Secularism Q&A event in Chilliwack. Can you give me a brief rundown of how you thought the event went?

I thought it was good – it was very well-attended, and there were a lot of people lined up to make comments and ask questions afterwards. As I found out at other kinds of events across the country, people are interested in the relationship between faith and politics, the place of each, and the practice of each within the secular, pluralist, multicultural context that we all live in. Just how to get that diversity right in a way that’s constructive and helpful – I think that’s something people know we have to work on. It was obvious last night that was a concern people had.

As a religious person yourself, are you against or for greater advancement of religious beliefs into policy?

I think everyone brings the things that they believe are fundamentally true about human life or about the universe to any debate. But do I think that policy should be specifically framed in a religious way? No. I’ve been a politician for a long time in the House of Commons and in the legislature. Public policy has to be formed and expressed in a philosophically-neutral way—I say philosophically in order to include atheists, and agnostics, and everything—so policy itself when you arrive at it is neutral, whether you support a particular policy or not. Your own perspective on that policy may well be informed by your faith perspective, no matter who you are.

Do you feel Canada is similar to the United States in terms of where they stand on religion within politics?

No, I think we’ve had a different tradition here, quite a different tradition. That’s in part because we had one part of Canada—Quebec—predominately Catholic, and the rest of the country predominately Protestant.

Our history has been defined in that way. I think it’s one of the reasons why, with the exception of third parties – some of them now major parties – have had a particularly religious strain within them. But the Liberal and the Conservative parties traditionally have understood [and] have been parties that didn’t identify outwardly with any particular religion.

Take, for example, in the United States when John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, it was a controversy that he was a Roman Catholic. Well, by 1960 Canada had probably two or three Roman Catholic Prime Ministers and it hadn’t been controversial at all because they had been from Quebec. That’s just one of the differences. Also in the United States . . . the Evangelical Christian community is a much larger percentage of the population there, and you have a large Afro-American Christian community. Their faith and politics mix is much different than ours.

Pluralism: is that what’s beyond secularism?

Well, that was one of the impressions that was created by some of the analysis last night, but secularism and pluralism have actually gone together for a long time. It’s almost in the nature of secularism, or of a secular society, that it’s pluralist with respect to religion unless it’s thrown out altogether. So in my mind it’s not so much that we’re moving from secularism to pluralism. Pluralism is a part of, and has always been a part of, the historically best forms of secularism to begin with. Having a separation of church and state and the state being neutral with respect to religion . . . that permits a sort of a religious pluralism to exist, and that’s been there for a long time. But are we getting more pluralistic? Well, we are if plural means many. Our diversity is becoming greater and more diverse.

Where there ever any instances where your constituency’s general consensus was different than your beliefs?

There were certainly many times where there were constituents within particular faith communities, within my constituency, that were very much opposed to positions that I was taking as an NDP MP. Issues primarily maybe having to do with sexual orientation, human rights legislation, ultimately same sex marriage, abortion, issues like that – and they made their views known to me. But there were other people in other churches in the riding that had other views. Even though they would write in and say, “This is the Christian view . . . and if you don’t agree with me you’re not a Christian,” I would have to remind them, “You’re right that there are a lot of people within your faith community that see it that way, but there are other people within the same faith community, broadly speaking, who see it differently. So let’s not judge each other so harshly on these kinds of questions.”

Should economies be designed to achieve the greatest wealth for a nation or should they be designed so that they distribute equitably?

I think that the wealth of a nation is in the quality of the kind of community that it creates. A community in which there are vast and increasing levels of inequality is not a form of wealth – it’s a form of spiritual and social poverty, if you ask me.

And we live in a Canada now that’s vastly more unequal than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The average CEO back in the ‘80s might have made 40 times what the average worker makes. Now they might make 800 [times] . . . as a result of this sort of market fundamentalism that kind of took hold of Canada, and the United States and Britain. You know, the Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney years in the early ‘80s. Free trade agreements, deregulation, privatization – a lot of the social equality that we had achieved in the post-World War II era is being systematically eroded. That might make some people more wealthy, and in fact it has – but whether it means we’re a wealthier society as a result, that depends on how you measure wealth. And I would say that we’re poorer for it.

What do you find to be some of the common misunderstandings of religion and politics?

In recent years I think the most common misunderstanding—the one I found the most bothersome and the one that I speak out most often against—is this sort of conventional wisdom that if you’re religious and you’re political then you must be on the political right, like you’re some kind of right-winger. I want to remind people that’s not necessarily so. There is, in my view anyway, an older tradition that goes right back to the biblical prophets where, you might say . . . there was no right or left. Biblical prophets were people who were challenging the rulers of their day to have a more just society.

So this perception that you’re religious and you’re political then you must be a right-winger – well, that’s not the case. Certainly in Canada the CCF and the NDP and a lot of people in Canada were motivated to do a lot of centre-left and left wing things in Canadian history, and they were motivated by their faith perspective. That’s still the case, but the media’s come to focus, largely because of events in the United States on the religious right, that you get the perception that the only kind of religious folks around in the public realm are right-wingers. And that’s not true.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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