March 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 03
Faith in the fight for an NDP leader
By Jonathan Malloy | ChristianWeek Columnist
Tommy Douglas, first Federal leader of the NDP, c. 1971. Photo Wikimedia Commons.
By the time you are reading this, the federal NDP will be in the final stretch of its leadership race. I can't give up-to-the-minute commentary here, but I want to offer some thoughts about the past, present and future relationship between Christians and the New Democratic Party.
I'm aided by Bill Blaikie's new memoir, The Blaikie Report. The long-time Winnipeg MP and ordained United Church minister has written a thoughtful book on the relationship between Christian faith and politics as he sees it. (Another new book is Dennis Gruending's Pulpit and Politics, which isn't just about the NDP but looks at left-right struggles over religion and politics.)
The NDP has very Christian roots; key figures like J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles were ordained ministers who took seriously the biblical admonitions to care for the less fortunate, with Blaikie following in this tradition. But things have changed, both in Christianity and in politics. The social gospellers were often fighting Christian establishments that seemed not to care at all; thankfully, churches are (somewhat) less willfully blind to the needs around them. Meanwhile, the welfare state has ballooned enormously in ways the social gospellers might not even have dreamed of. While there are still great needs in our society, the context is different.
The NDP has also changed. Blaikie says he sometimes feels caught between criticisms from some Christians that he is insufficiently orthodox, and criticisms from other New Democrats that he is too Christian! Indeed, the NDP often seems ignorant of its own origins, accusing others of mixing religion and politics when it has the greatest history of doing so among any current party.
Manynot allNew Democrats are uneasy about religion because they see it as elitist and divisive, separating people into categories and implying some are better than others; if people must be religious, they should keep it private. On the other hand, the party has a loosely organized Faith and Justice Commission, which describes itself as "a group of activists whose vision of political and social justice is, at least in part, rooted in their faith."
But in turn, many conservative Christians avoid the NDP, the deal-breaker usually being the NDP's widespread (though not universal) support for abortion, and to a somewhat lesser extent, same-sex marriage and other gay rights. (And this works in reverse for many secular New Democrats who are automatically suspicious of social conservatives.)
Current leadership candidate Martin Singh is president of the Faith and Justice Commission; another candidate, Paul Dewar, has spoken about how his Catholic faith influences him. I may have missed brief items about other candidates, but generally religion has largely been absent from the leadership race, as it was in past Liberal and Conservative races (though not the Canadian Alliance).
The challenge for whoever does win the NDP leadership is to try and navigate the party's historic but now uneasy relationship with religious faith and specifically Christianity. It will be interesting to watch.
Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.