Before going on, I should apologize to my fellow recovering Catholics who, on reading these lines, want to know which church this sensible guy belongs to so they can finally attend mass again. I'm sorry to say those lines come from a great movie called Priest (on VHS only).
Indeed, it may only be in the movies that one can find proof these days that religious leaders have matters other than personal morality and sex on their minds. Whether it's the ongoing Vatican synod deciding whether to refuse communion to politicians supporting same-sex marriage or Muslim clerics furious that Dalton McGuinty turned thumbs down on sharia law, like it or not, God seems to be all over politics.
And not only is He very pissed off, but apparently He's also very right- wing.
While the right's takeover of religious discussion in the public realm is probably a drag for many Hindus, Jews, First Nations spiritualists, etc, it has a particular sting for the many left-wing Christian MPs in the federal New Democratic Party.
In the last year, three Catholic members of Parliament received varying degrees of censure from their local churches for voting for the same-sex marriage legislation. Feeling hemmed in by their churches and misunderstood by party members for whom any whiff of God talk smells like the opiate of the masses, religious members of the party are vying for some wiggle room.
At a recent caucus retreat, a motion was tabled to create a Faith and Social Justice Caucus within the party to provide some cover for those duking it out with their right-wing brethren in the pews and as a way to make the party more inviting to religious progressives of all faiths.
"The purpose of the motion is to make room for a faith perspective in the party," says co-author of the motion Christopher Duncanson-Hales, a PhD theology student and NDP riding association president for Carlton-Mississippi Mills in Ottawa. "Faith is becoming more important as an issue in public life, and I don't think we can ignore what's going on."
Sault Ste. Marie NDP MP Tony Martin agrees. He was relieved of all official duties at his local Catholic church for backing the same-sex legislation, despite the fact that he'd been active in the church for decades. Caucus colleagues Joe Comartin and Charlie Angus are also on the outs with their churches over the issue.
Martin says the left has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to attracting people in the faith communities. "We on the left who carry the social justice Christian agenda have failed to recognize the very significant shift in society and in our churches to move this agenda to the right," he says. "You'd think it would be a no-brainer that those who believe in fairness, justice and the Gospel would automatically come our way, but they don't."
I always thought it was a no-brainer, too. Going to a Catholic high school in Toronto during the last decade of the Cold War, I couldn't escape the overriding message of human rights and economic justice. Yep, there was the wild-eyed priest who would annually try to scare the shit out of us with pictures of aborted fetuses, and, yes, there was nary a word about feminism in my all-boys, male-staffed school.
But I left at the end of grade 12 assuming that the NDP was the party closest to the goals of what Catholics call the Kingdom of God. Christ, was I naive!
Today it's true that many, perhaps most, Catholics are appalled by the right-wing drift of the Church hierarchy. But the perception is that in the main, Christians have signed on to abortion law rollbacks, capital punishment, whopping tax cuts for the wealthy and social spending cuts for the poor (oh yeah, and none of that gay marriage crap).
It's a creed that seems to go like this: life is sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of birth. After that you're on your own, and if you really fuck up we're gonna kill ya.
So it's no surprise that the natural reflex for the rank and file of the NDP would be to discount out of hand any courting of the religious vote, the party's roots in the Social Gospel notwithstanding.
Tony Martin understands this. "The impact of the [Christian] right in the U.S. frightens people into not wanting to talk about faith-based groups' involvement in the party."
However, sociologists who for years have been tracking the way evangelicals, among other Christian groups, vote in Canada, say that they aren't like their southern neighbours. "This idea that evangelicals in Canada are just Americans with skates is wrong," says conservative Christian John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at University of British Columbia's Regent College. "What we know is that they vote right across the political spectrum."
The NDP member for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus, who was refused communion by his parish priest for supporting the same-sex bill, agrees that most Canadian Christians don't buy into the black-and-white moral world of the U.S. Christian right. However, the rhetoric from church leaders here is another story. "Moderate and reasonable voices are no longer being heard,' he says. "We are talking about a culture of mercy, inclusion and compassion rather than condemnation. The churches shoud love this, but there seems to be a perpetual witch hunt going on from the right.' In a disturbing development, Angus's local church has announced it will campaign against him in the next election.
I ask Stackhouse why so many evangelicals and conservative Catholics are organizing around same-sex rights and not truly mean-spirited things like cuts in welfare. He says cuts to social programs don't necessarily mean there's no protection at all for the poor. In that kind of issue, there is usually "political cover for everybody,' he says. "But same-sex is plain wrong. There is no cover. There is no in between.'
Ted Schmidt, editor of the Catholic New Times, an independent, progressive national Catholic biweekly, disagrees with Stackhouse. "Look, if you are a Bible-believing person, the Scriptures are full of sensitivity to the poor," he says. "It says very little about abortion, nothing about birth control, nothing about same-sex marriage. Why are we in the churches expending so much energy on this area, but not on the real issues around justice, on how we treat the weakest among us?"
According to Angus, the faith motion's supporters also include deputy leader Bill Blaikie, a United Church minister from Elmwood-Transcona, Burnaby MP Bill Siksay and Quebec party activist Pierre Ducasse.
The motion that will be debated at the NDP's next convention says the Faith and Social Justice Caucus will "provide a forum for people of faith interested in social justice who are committed to the social democratic values of the NDP."
That doesn't sound like a fifth column for Focus on the Family, and it's hard to imagine that future NDP conventions will be awash in strident Bible-thumping delegates. But I can see where some might fear it.
Long-time party activist Tarek Fatah, host of CTS-TV's Muslim Chronicle, is no fan of a spiritual presence in the NDP. Deeply involved in trying to modernize views in Toronto's Islamic community, he's opposed to opening a door to the merging of religion and politics. "To do this is a complete disaster," he says. "The place to engage (people of faith) is in their churches and mosques, not in political parties."
Indeed, while the intent behind the motion is not to reopen hard fought debates within the party around abortion rights, capital punishment and same-sex marriage, the slim spectre of that happening is scary to be sure.
However, opening up the social democratic spiritual floodgates will allow the party to expand its base and incorporate new immigrants with religious backgrounds. Already, the party has run Monia Mazigh, the wife of Maher Arar, as a federal candidate, and representation from Canada's newer communities is long overdue.
And making the party spiritually comfortable could pull the rug out from under right-wing theology of all kinds by emphasizing the economic justice aspects of the world's religions rather than the sexual and moral obsessions of religious leaders.
Says Martin, we ignore the growing conservative religious political activism at our peril. Admitting that it's a difficult conversation within the party, he nevertheless says it's time to "pull our heads out of the sand."