The Year of Religion in Politics

Article excerpt

Bob Chodos is chair of the ritual committee and a lay service leader at Temple Shalom, a Reform Jewish congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, and former editor of Compass: A Jesuit journal. His biography of Catholic social activist Bill Ryan Sl, written in collaboration with Jamie Swift, is scheduled for publication in the spring Of 2002.

2000, THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN religion and politics became a politically charged

question in election campaigns in both Canada and the United States, each of which featured a candidate for high office who made his religious faith an important part of his political persona: Stockwell Day and Joe Lieberman. Although neither Day nor Lieberman achieved the office he sought, both had a lasting effect on the terms of political debate in their respective countries. Starting from the position that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined, Bob Chodos examines the debate and proposes some guidelines for religious involvement in politics.

IT IS OCTOBER 3, 2000. THE HEAD OF CANADAS GOVERNMENT RISES TO ADDRESS a large and distinguished audience in one of the country's grandest buildings, while a much larger audience watches on television. He reaches the speaker's platform and he says,

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.... But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.1

The occasion for Prime Minister Jean Chretien's reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was, of course, the funeral of Pierre Elliott Trudeau - the state funeral, to be precise, complete with Canadian political dignitaries of all persuasions and foreign ambassadors and heads of state. But the grand building in which it was held was a church, Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, and it was presided over by one of Canada's highest-ranking religious leaders, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte. Inside the church, the imagery and content were almost entirely those of Trudeau's (and Chretien's) own Roman Catholic religion, with little evocation of the multicultural, multifaith, pluralistic Canada that so many commentators said Trudeau had helped create. Once the casket left the church, the prevailing symbolism reverted to that of state authority an RCMP honour guard and a military salute.

On this occasion, church and state were not only linked; they were inextricable from each other. And so, if we are trying to sort out some of the questions surrounding the relationship between religion and politics, the Trudeau funeral helps us understand what the issue is not. It is not a question of whether religion should be involved in politics. Religion is involved in politics, and we would be fooling ourselves to think that the two could be separated.

Fast-forward a few months, to another church in another city, the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto. Like most ministers of religion, the pastor of the church, Rev. Brent Hawkes, has the authority, granted to him by the state, to unite two people legally in marriage. Acting under a controversial but defensible interpretation of the law, he chooses to use this power to perform the weddings of two same-sex couples: Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, and Elaine and Anne Vautour.

By its nature, the capacity of religious officials to perform legally binding wedding ceremonies represents an intertwining of religion and the state. In my own Jewish tradition, the requirement that a rabbi be present at a wedding ceremony is purely a legal one. Essentially, in a Jewish ceremony two people marry each other, and the rabbi (or someone else) acts as a facilitator. …