Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:
“A politician, an art gallery curator, a newspaper publisher, and a Jewish activist walk into a think tank office ...”
What sounds like the start of a formulaic joke is actually the beginning of a powerful affirmation that the public expression of religious faith has a place in the common life of Canadians. Four people who matched the above description actually did enter the Ottawa office of Cardus last week – Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May, Studio Sixty-Six Curator Rose Ekins, Hill Times Publisher Jim Creskey, and Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs advisor Richard Marceau.
They gathered at Convivium’s invitation to share their views – unhindered and in public – of where and how faith fits into our common life. The discussion started in a difficult and ugly place: the horrific loss of six lives less than two weeks earlier in a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
“This was a violation of people at their most deeply personal and … holy human existence, when we have bowed our heads in prayer,” said Elizabeth May.
Far from undermining the public place of faith, May notes the shooting spurred hundreds of people of various faiths – and likely of no faith as well – to gather at a vigil in the bitter winter cold to express “extraordinary compassion and humanity” for Canadian Muslims.
Jim Creskey suggests the public response after the shooting indicated “a sense of solidarity we probably didn’t have nearly 30 years ago” following the l'École polytechnique massacre in 1989.
Still, outside of shocking mass murders, there is a sense that religion and faith aren’t easy to grapple with outside of our private lives.
“Conversations of religion can become quite complex and can become uncomfortable in some circles and in some instances,” noted Rose Ekins.
For Richard Marceau – who converted to Judaism from Catholicism – there is a need for freedom to exchange views and to debate from a faith perspective even as society hurtles toward increased secularism.
He fears that without the ability to hold a civil discussion, our ever more fragmented society will lose the ability to communicate at all.
“People who have some background, even only a cultural background, in faith and people who were raised with no faith at all don’t have a framework to talk to each other,” said Marceau. “We have to find a common language [with which] we all will feel respected, despite very deep differences of opinion.”
Perhaps part of the answer is in the connection between art and faith.
“Art, as we know it, is a direct result of being used to propagate [religion] and to pray,” said Ekins, a self-described agnostic who acknowledges her family’s deeply Catholic roots. “It has also been used as a vessel to critique and subvert religious ideology, but it can also be used to explore or share one’s religion or spirituality, often where that belief system is at odds with another.”
What of faith and politics, though? Can they safely inhabit the same space?
Conventional wisdom in Canada holds that never the twain shall meet.
May recognizes the prevailing ethos on the subject.
“It used to be the case that you could not get elected in the United States of America to anything if you did not proclaim your faith in Jesus Christ loudly all the time, whether you really believed it or not,” she says. “On the other hand, in Canada, to do that was to make you more marginal and less electable.”
However, she also rejects that thinking and happily speaks about her own liberal Anglican faith “to be a voice of the Christian left.”
News organizations play their role in mediating just how that expression of faith reaches Canadian voters. The values and judgements that journalists bring to such questions vary and are worth more research, perhaps by picking up on the themes of the book Hidden Agendas.
Creskey, who through the Hill Times newspaper regularly reports on politics, notes that faith is “exceedingly important” in news coverage.
“I’ve always seen the faith life of pretty much anybody, and particularly politicians, as how much of what they do conforms to the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount,” he says.
The implication in Creskey’s comment is that the beatitudes – blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, etc. – are a universally applicable standard, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. (The theologian could wonder in response, perhaps, whether the rest of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount regarding adultery, divorce, false prophets, and other matters might have equal applicability.)
For his part, Marceau suggests media (and society in general) do not know how to deal with faith, though he also remarks on what he believes is a notable exception.
“I don’t know how many stories we saw of synagogues and churches sponsoring refugees,” he says. “I think if there’s one story in the last two years where the media got it right in terms of people of faith putting their money where their mouth is … it’s the story of Syrian refugees.”
By the end of the night, the spirit that emerged from four different perspectives and backgrounds was that faith did indeed have a place in the common life of Canadians. The diverse panel assembled by Convivium may sound like fodder for a joke if taken flippantly, but together, they produced a thoughtful, polite, and natural affirmation that faith belongs in the spheres of politics, the arts, media, and social activism.