Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Faith relevant in political arena, Blaikie says

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Just weeks after retiring from elected office, Bill Blaikie is ready to jump back into the public spotlight to express his belief that faith is relevant in the political arena.

 

"Religion isn't going away and you can't build a society with everyone pretending people don't have foundational beliefs," says Blaikie, a United Church of Canada minister who until last month's Manitoba election was also the provincial conservation minister.

"We do have to find a way to talk about it, because if we don't, we have a problem."

Blaikie explains the convergence -- and the tension -- between politics and faith in his new memoir, The Blaikie Report: An Insider's Look at Faith and Politics, which launches at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9.

Blaikie began the book just after he left Parliament Hill in 2008 after 29 years as a New Democrat MP. He completed the anecdote-packed book at night while serving as cabinet minister in the provincial NDP government for the past two years.

His message as a clergyman-turned-politician is that there's room for people across the political spectrum in Ottawa, and the time is long past where only one religious view will prevail.

"The religious left and the religious right both have an overlapping challenge of trying to find the proper place for participation in the public square," explains the 60-year-old former politician, voted Parliamentarian of the Year in 2007.

As a left-wing politician standing in the tradition of the social gospel, Blaikie defends the right of evangelical Christians to speak out for their beliefs, even when they differ from his.

"I want to disagree with them, but I don't want them not to express themselves," says Blaikie, who lectures on the future of the social gospel at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, at St. Margaret's Anglican Church.

Blaikie would prefer a serious discussion about how religious beliefs inspire and motivate Canadians in an increasingly pluralistic society.

"The relationship between the religions is the challenge of the next while," he says.

"We're in an era where all kinds of religions are active in the public square. Getting that right will be a major accomplishment."

Unlike Americans, who discuss publicly the religious backgrounds of possible presidential candidates, Canadian voters are more hesitant about an overt display of religion in the political realm, says a retired University of Manitoba political scientist.

"If someone was more explicit that religion mattered in how they led the country, I don't think Canadians would find that acceptable," says Paul Thomas.

"I think there is a thirst or yearning for politicians professing there's an ethical foundation for what they do."

Blaikie's ethical foundation was shaped by his working-class background in Transcona and his two years at the United Church's North End Community Ministry, once headed by J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister who went on to become a member of Parliament.

Ordained to the ministry in 1978, Blaikie first ran for office a year later, convinced he could combine his calling to the church with his passion for politics.

"I learned a long time ago from our faith perspective that we should care for each other," he says of his motivation to work for the betterment of all Canadians.

He makes the point in his book that many left-leaning politicians, including Woodsworth, came to politics because of their religious convictions, and faith-based politics are not exclusively the realm of the religious right.

While in Ottawa, Blaikie helped form the faith and justice caucus of the NDP, which brought together MPs regularly to talk about their faith and politics.

"In a way, it became my ministry, part of my vocation, not just being a member of Parliament, but to engage members of Parliament and the community in issues of faith and politics. That's the way I integrated the two callings," says Blaikie, now adjunct professor of theology at the University of Winnipeg.

Although he has considerably more experience sitting in the House of Commons than serving in a house of God, Blaikie says there were moments when his professional training as a Christian minister came in handy in Ottawa.

He officiated at the funerals of prominent New Democrats Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles and also found himself relying on his pastoral skills when dealing with constituents.

"There was a dimension to that in being a politician. You are the call of last resort," says Blaikie.

"When people have problems, they call their MP, and you sit and listen."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2011 J12

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