Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The End of an Era in the Culture Wars?

Re-blogged from a piece I wrote for the Broadbent Institute (December 21st, 2015)

The 2015 Election

The Canadian federal election that took place on October 19th was historic in ways that go beyond the popular account . Forgoing the wisdom of avoiding  sweeping statements about history, something my church history professor warned me against forty years ago, it seems to me that the election marked the end of at least one era in Canadian politics, an era in what is sometimes called the culture wars.

 The beginning of the era in the culture wars that I am referring to, in so far as it has a legislative beginning , can be traced  back to Bill C150,  the omnibus bill of amendments to the Canadian criminal code that was passed in May of 1969,  when John Turner was Minister of Justice in the new government of the recently elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But the omnibus bill had its origins in the previous Parliament when Trudeau presented a similar bill in 1967 as Prime Minister Pearson’s Minister of Justice. True to its omnibus nature, Bill C150 contained many amendments. Two areas where it made substantial changes were with regard to the laws pertaining to abortion and homosexuality.

Bill C150  decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults. Indeed it was in the context of the debate around this amendment that Trudeau made his famous statement about the there being  ”no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”.  Thus began a long and successful fight, but nevertheless short by some expectations, against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was a fight that took place step by step in the legislatures and Parliament of Canada, and in the courts.  It was a fight that ultimately culminated in Parliament formally recognizing same-sex marriage in 2005,  after it had been progressively legalized on a province by province basis through provincial court judgements, and the decision of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to not appeal  an Ontario court judgement in 2003.

 What  Pierre Trudeau had started in 1969 with Bill-C150 was finished years later, but not without a continuing indirect contribution by Trudeau to the extent that though many of the relevant legislative and judicial events took place after Trudeau’s time in office, they were nonetheless influenced by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is strongly associated with him. This is particularly true of the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to read Section 15 of the Charter in a way that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Bill C150 also decriminalized abortion, or “therapeutic abortions” that could be approved by a committee of three physicians at a hospital on the basis that the life or health of the mother was endangered. At the same time, a separate bill was introduced and passed, also having to do with reproductive issues, that decriminalized the sale of contraceptives in Canada .  In both cases, the main opposition to the changes at that time came from the Roman Catholic Church, whose teachings on abortion and contraception were at odds with the government’s view. The evangelical Christian community would become more involved in the abortion debate some years later as the focus on abortion by the evangelical religious and political right in the United States that started in the late 1970’eventually influenced the Canadian debate.

The 1969 law on abortion,was regarded by many as too liberal, and in need of repeal. Others regarded it as not having gone far enough in decriminalizing abortion.  The debate was transformed in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the 1969 law was unconstitutional , and invited Parliament to craft a law that complied with the Charter. The government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to bring in a law that met the Court’s assessment of the proper balance between the rights of women and the rights of the fetus, but it was attacked from both the pro-choice and pro-life sides of the debate, and ultimately failed because not enough pro-life parliamentarians could be persuaded that a compromise was in order.  Ironically, this led to a pro-choice policy by default, because of a persistent and understandable reluctance on the part of any future governments to try to legislate again , a reluctance based not just on difficult past experience but also ongoing evidence that the Canadian public tended to support the status quo. The result is that Canada is one of very few countries without any law pertaining to abortions. 

In terms of partisan political participation in the debates about homosexuality and abortion, it is fair to say that for a long time a diversity of opinion was tolerated within all the established political parties, with each party having its own unique brand of diversity.  Opposition to or ambiguity about the advancement of gay rights and choice for women was strongest on the political right, and weakest on the political left, with the Liberal Party of Canada maintaining for many years a big tent on these issues, particularly with respect to abortion.  As time wore, and the paradigm shift continued on both issues,  diversity and ambiguity became less acceptable as a strategy, and people and parties were more pressured  to take sides.

 On the political right, some elements within the old Progressive Conservative Party would run hard at the constituency level on an anti-abortion platform, but there was no national effort to make it an issue, because too many prominent Progressive Conservatives took a different view. This would change as the alliance between the political and the Christian right in the United States over abortion developed in the late seventies and eighties, and spilled over into Canada into the bosom of the Reform Party of Canada formed in 1987, and its successor the Canadian Alliance Party.

The creation of the Conservative Party of Canada through the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties in 2004 might be seen as the end of an era in the culture wars, but only in retrospect. In spite of the fact that the new Conservative Party continued to seek votes in 2004 and 2006 on the basis of opposition to same sex marriage and abortion, it’s time in government from 2006 to 2015 would prove disappointing to those who cast their ballots on that basis.

 Early on in its first mandate, the Conservative government brought forward a motion to test Parliament’s will to revisit the issue of same sex marriage. The idea of revisiting the issue was defeated, and the idea of revisiting whether the issue should be revisited never came up again, even after the Conservatives obtained a majority in 2011. This, despite fears in certain quarters that a Conservative majority would activate a hidden agenda to do so.  Likewise with abortion, Prime Minister Harper made it clear that there would be no revisiting of the issue on his watch, and there wasn’t, despite numerous government backbench efforts to make it happen.  The story of just why this was so remains to be told.

 In the meantime the long held big tent strategy of the Liberals when it came to abortion came to an end when Justin Trudeau, after having been elected Liberal leader, made it clear that in the future Liberal MPs would be expected to support the pro-choice position. This was either a bold move on his part, or a recognition that a big tent is only necessary when issues are not settled and there is no desire to lead or advocate on such issues. For its part, the NDP did lead on these issues, and in conjunction with policies adopted at national conventions, created an ethos in which its candidates were expected to be supportive of both choice and, later, same-sex marriage.  

In any event, Justin Trudeau is now Prime Minister and the issues his father addressed  as Prime Minister in 1969 appear to be settled for the most part, although debate about abortion will no doubt continue in one form or another, as well as debate about equal access to abortion in all parts of Canada. And legislative battles remain to be concluded with respect to discrimination against trans-gendered Canadians.  There will also be other fronts in the culture wars, but perhaps none that will so easily assign roles to the left and right of the political spectrum as the era now passing.  

 The political right may have benefited from the culture wars for a time in gathering votes from Canadians who might not have supported their economic policies, but in the end they have nothing to show for it, either to their temporary supporters or to their base. This reality, in combination with other factors such as the expanding political consciousness of many young evangelicals to include issues like climate change and poverty reduction, and Pope Francis encouraging Catholics to do likewise, constitute s the beginning of a new era in Canadian  politics that has yet to fully reveal itself.    





“ The Pope, the Planet, and Politics – Francis and Faith-Full Green Transformation”

The  6th Annual Knowles-Woodsworth Lecture took place on October 29th at the University of Winnipeg in Eckardt – Grammatte  Hall. The lecture, entitled “ The Pope, the Planet, and Politics – Francis and Faith-Full Green Transformation” was given by Dr. Chris Hrynkow,  Professor of Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College,   University of Saskatchewan., who specializes in Catholic social and political teaching.

 Laudato Si, the most recent encyclical of Pope Francis, is best known for the teachings within it that are relevant to the climate change challenges facing humanity. While paying appropriate attention to this element of the encyclical the lecture also highlighted the comprehensive,  the ecumenical and the invitational nature of the encyclical, as well as highlighting the Pope’s role as peacemaker, particularly with respect to Cuban-American relations.

Dr Hrynkow emphasized that  Laudato Si was not just about the environment, but reflected an integrated approach on the part of Pope Francis that situates the solution to the climate change challenge within a larger framework of Catholic social teaching in which  social justice, ecological health , substantive peace, and participatory democracy are brought together to enhance creation care and proper relationships. The interconnectedness of our own lives and our relationship with nature, according to Pope Francis, is inseparable from “ fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others.”

The invitational style of the encyclical was noted,  and particularly the way in which it is intended to address all people, not just the faithful, and address them in a way that is non-ideological and open for discussion. The Pope wants a conversation, or an opportunity to persuade, rather than another opportunity to proclaim.  A similar spirit informs the ecumenical flavour of the document, from a quote from Patriarch Bartholomew  in the introduction, to quotes from a Sufi mystic later on. Unprecedented quoting from United Nations documents was cited as evidence of a new ecumenism with respect to secular sources of information and analysis. 

Pope Francis invites us all in his teaching to turn what is happening to the world into our personal suffering and then to discover what we each of us can do about it. He points the way in his critique of overconsumption  as a key factor in a broken relationship  with nature and the poor, and in his cry for global governance, to be distinguished from world government, that can meet the challenges faced by humanity and creation. 


Monday, March 2, 2015

Can Pope Francis make ecology critical to the identity of the faithful?

I recently wrote a blog for the Broadbent Institute on the current state of the debate within the Christian community surrounding the issue of climate change, in anticipation of an encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis this year.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Scottish Referendum


At first thought the September 18th referendum in Scotland on whether Scotland should no longer be a part of the United Kingdom, and become an independent country, may seem an unlikely subject for a reflection on faith and politics.  However, even a cursory look at the pre-referendum debate , courtesy of the internet, reveals that there was a lively debate within the Christian community, even if the official church positions were neutral, and process oriented in terms of encouraging dialogue and respect for opposing views.  the risk of simplifying things, it seems that there were at least two camps.

One camp was concerned about the future of the church in an independent Scotland. The concern was that Scotland would become more secular, and that the special place of the “Kirk” in Scottish life would be further and faster eroded in the context of such a secular and increasingly pluralistic Scotland. These folk came down on the NO side.

Another camp was more concerned about Scottish society, and felt that an independent Scotland  had the promise of more fully living up to the biblical demand  for more justice and equality. They felt that though it might be true that some symbols of Christian dominance might be threatened, it was only a symbolic and ceremonial dominance in any case, and that in any event, the United Kingdom was also a place that was increasingly secular and plural . If this was the case, then the real difference was whether to opt for the promise of a Scotland that could be more just than the UK as a whole.  These folk tended to argue for the YES side.

Yet even among Christians whose first concern was God’s passion for justice, there were divisions, just as there was on the political left.  Some were more enamoured of the prospect of an independent Scotland building a model socially democratic  post-industrial society.  Others worried about the future prospects for justice and equality in the UK, if the egalitarian Scottish leaven was removed from the British parliamentary loaf, leaving the legacy of Margaret Thatcher even more unchallenged than it already was.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Pluralism and the Challenge of a Prophetic Gospel - The United Church of Canada

The 5th Annual Knowles-Woodsworth Lecture will be given in 2014 by Dr. Phyllis Airhart, Professor of Church History at Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology. Dr. Airhart is the author of the recently published book Church With the Soul of a Nation - The Making and Remaking of the United Church of Canada.

Her lecture, entitled " Pluralism and the Challenge of a Prophetic Gospel - The United Church Experience" will be given on Octoner 23rd, 2014 , at 7pm in Eckhart-Gramatte Hall on the 3rd floor of Centennial Hall at the University of Winnipeg.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Remembering Dan Heap

Given the now long established habit of associating Christians in public life with the political right, the recent death of Dan Heap[1925-2014] is another occasion to remember that this was not, and is not, always so.
Dan Heap was Toronto City Councillor from 1972 to 1981, and the NDP MP from the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina from 1981 to 1993. Dan was a socialist, a trade unionist, a fervent supporter of the peace movement, and a worker Anglican priest who worked for 18 years in a box factory as a form of solidarity with working Canadians.
I knew of Dan Heap in the mid 1970's when I was a student at Emmanuel College in Toronto, but I had the welcome opportunity to be a colleague of his in the House of Commons from 1981 until he retired in 1993. I still remember the joy that was taken in his 1981 victory, a joy made sweeter by the way the media had painted the by-election as a contest only between the Liberals and the |Conservatives. Dan the unmentionable New Democrat won anyway..
Dan was a fearless speaker of truth to power, and a fearless friend of the marginalized and oppressed. His righteous anger neither sought, nor needed, any form of approval from those associated with the policies that attracted his prophetic attention. He was not one to be charmed.
Dan Heap was one of five other Christian clergy that were my NDP colleagues in the early years of my time in Parliament. The others were United Church ministers, Stanley Knowles from Winnipeg and Jim Manly from BC, and Roman Catholic priests Andy Hogan from Cape Breton and Bob Ogle from Sakatoon.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Growing To One World - The Life of J. King Gordon

Canadians interested in the history of the social gospel and the Christian left in Canada have been given a great gift with the publishing of Growing To One World - The Life of J. King Gordon, written by Eileen R. Janzen, and published by McGill-Queens University Press.  King Gordon, born in Winnipeg in 1900, and ordained a United Church Minister in 1927. was one of four who helped draft the Regina Manifesto that was adopted at the founding convention of the Co-operatve Commonwelth Federation{CCF}, forerunner of the NDP, in Regina in 1933.

King Gordon was the son of the Rev. Charles Gordon, who came to Winnipeg in the late 1890's as a Presbyterian Minister. He was also well known by his pen name, Ralph Connor, author of Glengarry Days and other popular books of the time. The first half of biography of his son, King, whose name comes from the last name of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. J.M. King, first principal of Manitoba College, traces King Gordon's life from his early days in Winnipeg, to Oxford University, to ministries in Giscome B.C. and Pine Falls, Manitoba, to graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, to a teaching position at United Theological College at McGill in Montreal.

 The latter duties at McGill University were taken up in 1931, but terminated in 1934  as he fell into more and more disfavour  with the university establishment over his activities and advocacy of the ideas and policies espoused by the League for Social Reconstruction{LSR], formed in 1932, and the CCF.

I found the chapter on Gordon's time at Union Seminary particularly interesting in so far as it was about his interaction with theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, and even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the varying ways these great souls, Gordon included, struggled with how to integrate their faith with the prophetic and radical politics that the economic reality of the time demanded.

King Gordon spent the last half of his life doing exemplary work for the United Nations. The bio also deals with these decades, but for those on the Christian left today, the early decades of Gordon's life will be the most interesting.

I met King Gordon twice, oince when he arranged to meet me for lunch at the Parliamentary Restaurant in the early 1980's, shortly after I was elected to the House of Commons, and in February 1986 when he and I, at Tommy's request, co-officiated at the funeral of Tommy Douglas at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Ottawa.