I had the amazing opportunity to organize and moderate a panel this year titled: The Armageddon Factor and the Changing Role of Christianity in Canadian Politics.The title comes from Marci McDonald's alarmist report on the rise of what she has called Christian Nationalism in Canadian politics. McDonald's book was quite hard to read, not that it was difficult, but rather that she has a bit ugly brush which she uses to paint people that I actually know quite well. Some of her comments are good and important, but often she just does not get the culture or really the people she is vilifying. Apart from that, McDonald does highlight an area of study that has been neglected by proper scholars - the changing roles of and relationships between religion and politics in Canada. McDonald is not the only one to recognize this deficiency, Dennis Gruending has a similar, and more irenic, report called Pulpit and Politics (I will review this book sometime soon) - but even he does not go as deep as we need to in understanding the intersection of religious and political currents in our country. What we know is that our country is changing and those changes will have wide ranging effects for many aspects of Canadian life, this panel happened to focus on how such changes will impact theological education in Canada.
The panel opened up with Catholic scholar Lee Cormie calling for a wider conversation. McDonald's book focused on a troubling Americanization of some Canadian evangelical groups - really this is nothing new, but what is new is how visible these groups are in the life of the Hill. But these are not the only religiously motivated groups active in Canadian politics. The other reality Cormie brought to our attention was that theological education in Canada is already undergoing a huge shift - a shift that another panelist, Jeff McPherson, will elaborate on in terms of evangelical culture. But Cormie sets up the conversation brilliantly setting the tone for a rich conversation.
Next up we had King's University College professor Margie Patrick engage directly with McDonald's book. Patrick has written specifically on this book and her current academic research is on the political engagement of Canadian evangelicals. Patrick outlined some of the problem areas of this text and even highlighted a few EFC articles that show a more inclusive form of evangelicalism politically engaged in Canada. While we probably should find the grand standing actions of the Faytene Grasseschi's troubling, they are not the same thing as say Preston Manning's efforts to help evangelicals become politically savvy enough to engage in public discourse. Often it is easy to get swept up by ideas we just might not agree with.
Jeff McPherson brought us up to speed with the changing role of theological education in Canada. He detailed the shift from confessional bible colleges to Christian liberal arts schools and where this shift was struggling to remain relevant to the parents of this present generation. These are important shifts and are not limited to evangelical confessions. One of the fears that comes out of McDonald's book is that no one is paying attention to the changes she finds so troubling - McPherson highlights another area we are blind to the changes in, but employing a grace and eloquence that McDonald lacks.
Liberal MP John McKay ushered us into the religious influences of the current House of Commons. An obviously sharp mind, McKay talked about the religious roots and realities of all the sitting parties - from Elisabeth May to Stephen Harper. McKay talked about where the NDPs and his own Liberal party were failing to connect with their historic religious bases. If McDonald is convinced that evangelicals are paying too much attention to politics - McKay helped us see that politicians, many of them at least, are paying too little attention to religion.
The panel was completed by the dynamic and witty director of the Chester Ronning Centre David Goa. If you have never heard Goa speak you are missing out. He exhorted evangelicals and other Christians to get their acts together and stop messing with his church (he is Orthodox)! That sounds harsh, it was said sort of tongue in cheek, but he did outline the realities of the evangelical gravitation to the Orthodox church. This underscored the importance of this conversation for all religions in Canada. Goa brought together the insights of the whole panel while at the same time calling for us to attend to this dimension of our public life as Canadians.
The panel was opened to questions from the floor and lively discussion ensued. I was so caught up in the whole thing that I forgot to take a picture for this post. It was really that good.
One final note about this panel, the fact that it was jointly sponsored by both the CTS and CETA is important to recognize. This collaboration speaks of a recognition from both societies that more dialogue needs to happen. These are not evangelical issues, or even Christian issues - but they are Canadian issues that affect all Canadians. We need the diversity of voices to grow so that we can not only understand, but properly respond to the changes in religion and politics in Canada.