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Religion and politics mix, so get used to it: author

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Faith and politics was in the news earlier this month when Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro questioned the sincerity of Liberal MP Justin Trudeau's Catholic beliefs.

"For someone to start questioning my own faith and accusing me of being a bad Catholic is something that I really take issue with," Trudeau stated. "My own personal faith is an extremely important part of who I am and the values that I try to lead with."

Trudeau was reacting to a post on Del Mastro's Facebook page that said it was "outrageous" for him to be invited to speak at a Catholic school.

Questioned by reporters, Del Mastro said he stood by his comments, adding that Trudeau's public positions "are often not in any accordance with the Catholic faith." He specifically referenced an interview where Trudeau encouraged young people to "connect with their world, to go out and occupy something, you know, to get involved in creating a community group, get involved in creating a protest group."

"I don't encourage people to go out and occupy things," he went on to say. "I encourage them to follow through on their education and support them. I don't think that's something that most parents in the Catholic system would appreciate being presented to their kids."

Whether or not that is the sentiment of most Catholic parents, the exchange itself was unusual for politics in Canada. It may be normal for politicians to question each other's motives, convictions and character, but they rarely, if ever, talk about or attack one another's religious beliefs -- it's just not the Canadian way.

But maybe we should start getting used to it. That's one of the messages of Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, a new book by Dennis Gruending.

According to Gruending, a former NDP MP who writes about religion and public life, religion plays an important role in Canadian politics -- not that you would know it by following the media.

"This is not merely a topic of casual interest," he says of the way people of faith try to influence government policy.

"Religious faith informs political decisions about the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, immigration, respect for democracy, foreign policy and environmental issues, to name just a few."

It's not like this is anything new, he notes; people of faith have brought their religion to the House of Commons for many years. He points to people like Tommy Douglas, a Baptist preacher, who helped introduce universal health care, and movements like the social gospel, which grew out of mainline Protestantism and had a big impact on political life in this country.

But things have shifted today, he says. Where once it was mainline liberal Protestantism that was the most dominant religious force in Canadian politics, today it's religious conservatives -- evangelicals of all stripes, Catholics, Jews and others -- who are currently holding sway.

"If you look at who has the most influence politically in Canada now, it is the religious conservatives," he says. "They have their people in power... what you are seeing are religious conservatives who have a good relationship with the Harper government and have the ear of the government."

Gruending, who was raised Catholic but now attends a Mennonite church, isn't against religious conservatives or any other religious group trying to use their faith to influence Canadian politics.

"Faith should inform public policy," he states, adding that "people of faith have something to bring to the debate. They're not the only ones, but they should be part of it."

The role faith plays in shaping public policy should be a wake-up call for the media, he maintains.

"All I'm saying is... let's cover it as writers and journalists, because the decisions have potential impact," he says, listing issues as prisons, the military, foreign policy and climate change. "These are important issues for the country. People come down on all these issues based on what they think their religious values tell them."

As for the book itself, he hopes it will fill a gap about the role of religion in Canadian public life.

"There is a fine body of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about the importance of understanding the motivation and tactics of religious groups involved in public life," he says. "Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit and Politics will help to fill this gap."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 J13

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