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Do religion and politics ever mix well? Does the current civil war within the Ontario PC Party, between social conservatives and everyone else, not demonstrate that faith should be checked at the door before entering the political arena?

There certainly seems a lot of evidence to support that view.

On the one side, you have arch social-conservative MPPs, such as  the newly elected 19-year-old Sam Oosterhoff and the evolution-denying Rick Nicholls. Spurred on by their Christian beliefs and supported by a collection of evangelical Christians and right wing Catholics, they seem intent on keeping hot-button social issues burning. As Nicholls told a group of Christian activists at Queen’s Park last December: “Social issues are very, very important. We need to form government, then watch us go …”

On the other side, you have Patrick Brown, desperate to bring his party into the mainstream by severing ties with the same conservative Christian groups that he used to court so enthusiastically. Not only did he make Nicholls recant his comments, but he sent a clear message to his caucus before Christmas: “Your private religious views … [have] no bearing at Queen’s Park. And frankly, it’s none of the party’s interest, it’s none of the government’s interest.”

Hold on a minute.

I think that there are many politicians at Queen’s Park who might disagree with this characterization of faith as an irrelevant private matter — politicians who see their faith as the foundation of their political life.

I think of Kathleen Wynne, who has spoken publicly about the motivating factor her faith plays in her role as Premier. And of Cheri DiNovo, a former United Church of Canada minister who has written passionately about the way her Christian faith inspires her causes, commenting that she “is shaken daily by how much the gift of faith is a gift.”

Every year I bring a class of university students to Queen’s Park to discuss religion and politics and I am always surprised by the number of MPPs willing to speak about the role of faith in their political lives.

Faith and faith communities should be welcome voices in public debate. For centuries they have been at the forefront of progressive movements, advocating for the end of slavery, civil rights and the eradication of poverty. And they tend to be different from business, labour or other interest groups. Instead of talking about what is best for their “group,” they tend to focus on the poor, the marginalized and the fate of our planet.

People of faith are unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. Just when the political class thinks that everyone has forgotten a particular controversial policy or has begrudgingly accepted it, along comes a faith group to call us out, provide a different perspective and make us admit that we haven’t yet found Nirvana.

And it is usually a perspective worth considering. The solutions faith communities offer tend to be about self-sacrifice, collective responsibility and putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Although not politically popular values these days, the only way we can succeed as a society on so many fronts — from climate change to poverty, through to reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples — is for all of us to start thinking more about the common good and less about how much it might cost us.

I welcome more people of faith into politics. The chaos of political life can be overwhelming and quickly degenerate into a “win at all costs” situation. Faith reminds us of a greater purpose and can provide an important anchor during political storms. I am still unsure why the anti-religious crowd is so opposed to electing someone simply because they believe in something greater than themselves.

Accepting a role for faith in politics does not mean accepting every viewpoint put forward. But it does involve looking at its substance and not simply dismissing it out of hand because it was motivated by faith. And who knows, although you might not accept the proposition being put forward, if you truly listen, it might cause you to think.

For example, I believe in evolution. But I also think it’s worthwhile being reminded about humanity’s hubris in believing that through science we can understand and even control every aspect of the miracle of creation. Yes, I support Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum but am concerned that the word marriage (of any description) never appears in the text. I also agree that many of our society’s views toward sex and sexuality are quite dysfunctional – if you don’t believe me, just watch a few hours of prime-time television.

I realize that Patrick Brown’s comments were more about internal PC Party politics than anything else. I just hope, however, that the recognition of the important role that faith can play in our political life and discourse is not one of the casualties of the current civil war.

John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program.  John can be reached at jmilloy@wlu.ca or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. This column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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