Politics in/and Church

No, this is not a post on church politics. It is, instead, a post on national politics as they enter/and become part of a church. I will also say in advance that this has nothing to do with my opinions on the political parties involved in what follows, nor on the individuals as politicians (i.e. this is not intended to speak to their leadership abilities, governmental policies, etc.) My focus is, rather, primarily on the church and on theology. 

Two incidents have precipitated these thoughts. 

Firstly, a long-standing member of our church is campaigning to be elected MP. A week or two ago, he was introduced to the congregation in this capacity. The church leadership was very careful and very clear about what was, and was not, going on: we are not encouraging our members to vote one way or another, we are not endorsing any political party of candidate (to the point that they never even mentioned what party he was running for); instead, we want to pray for and over the leadership, and potential leadership, of our country, as is our duty and privilege as the people of God. 

Politicians are politicians, and so we did hear, very briefly, about political stuff. But, I do not think we made a mistake in praying for our brother in Christ, lifting him and his family up to God in the midst of his campaign. 

Then, today, on Easter Sunday, our church received Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a guest of honor. It was during a brief, after services, limited space, meet-and-greet (or, as my dad called it, glad-handing). Once again, the church leadership was quite clear: this was not an endorsement, nor a command of the church's vote; it was a chance to pray with and over our nations current leader, as is our duty and privilege as the people of God. 

Still, politicians are politicians. Harper began his speech by claiming that this was not a campaign meeting. Instead, it was a break from such things to join with us on this special day. He then turned to words about Easter; how great and important a day it is, what we celebrate and why, and the hope this brings for our future. All good words and, I do not doubt, entirely sincere. However, the hope in Christ's resurrection transitioned very smoothly into the hope Canadians have in our recovering economy. There are still dangers though, and to continue moving forward we need to steady hand and good planning of inspired leadership such as our country has been enjoying... insert more political jargon here (things like a word of praise to immigrants and the energy they bring, and so on). 

Though Harper came after services, instead of during, and though he spoke from behind a lectern, while standing in front of Canadian flags, instead of behind a pulpit while standing in front of a cross, I again felt that our church had been co-opted. More than that, I felt that our faith had been co-opted. 

I don't know if you noticed or not, but in Harper's speech our hope in the resurrection became the backdrop for our hope in a recovering economy and, more importantly, our hope in a government which could see to it that our economy continues to recover. This is entirely backwards. 

I expect that, for a politician, every opportunity to speak before a group will become an opportunity to campaign. Especially during an actual election campaign. This may occur in a more or less ham-fisted manner, but it will occur in one way or another. My objection is not that Harper used his speech time to promote himself, though it would have been much more impressive had he not. My objection is to the subordination of Christian truth to political expediency. I object to the hope of the resurrection being used as platform. I object to the disarming introduction ('this is not a campaign event') followed by the disarming use of Christian sign and symbol (talk about Easter) when those things are superseded by a blatantly political speech which connects Christian sign and symbol to party lines. 

It would have been so easy for Harper to have said otherwise. He could have begun by thanking our church for its support, mentioning the energy of immigrants and our recovering economy, he could have even gone on to mention the need for leadership, such as his, to support these things. Then, from there he could have turned and said something like this: "but more important than our hope that the economy is recovering, or that we can continue to lead you into a better future, is our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That we can say to one another today 'He is risen' gives us all hope in a greater future in God, a hope I share with you. So thank you for welcoming me, and thank you for praying for me." Or something like that. 

I think that is my preacher's voice speaking though; I will always subjugate self-promotion to theology, campaigning to faith, and politics to the truth of Jesus Christ. 

IMPORTANT END NOTE:  I want to end by being as clear as I can be that I do not intend this post to influence your voting, one way or another. I do not intend it as a criticism of our church; I am glad we could pray for our leaders in these ways. I do not intend it as a criticism of Harper's politics, leadership, or of him as an individual. I have no doubt as to the sincerity of his faith, nor would I claim to question his relationship with God. This is only intended as a criticism of the way in which politics often uses the church, our faith, and the signs and symbols of these things. I am of the opinion that we could have hosted any political leader and they would have done much the same thing. It is this way of doing politics, and that it has probably gone unnoticed by most of those who were there today, that causes me to post this. 


Anonymous said...

I was there during the Prime Minister's visit and I offer the following perspective:

0. I expected politicking despite whatever may be said at the beginning. In fact, as soon as Mr. Harper said that it was not a campaign meeting my ears perked up.

1. If there had been a chance for questions and I got to ask a question, I would not have thrown just any old softball. I had a "high hard one" prepared.

2. The visit has motivated me to get more involved in the current election. I will attend at least one all-candidates meeting and throw my "high hard one" there.

3. Judging from the large number of young people present and judging by their reactions, I would say that they may now be motivated to show more interest in our political process. I think that is a good thing. (I understand that that is not a normal role of the church.)

4. The Bible does record instances of Jesus' interactions with "centurions", "teachers of the law", and other leaders more in the political realm. Are these relevant to the current situation?

Roger Hui

Anonymous said...

Moreover, didn't you get a hint of what was to come when you saw all those TV cameras? I suppose it is possible for there to be TV coverage and for Mr. Harper to make a speech along the lines you described, but that presupposes a degree of subtlety not often found in politicking.

BTW, this is not the first time that the said longstanding member ran for political office, nor the first time that he was introduced to the congregation in this way.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

Of course I saw it coming. But expecting something and enjoying it are not the same, nor will expecting something stop me from commenting on it or making note of what I think are important points to talk about.

I didn't know that the this member had run before. I had the impression, totally unfounded upon reflection, that this was his first time going for the MP position (though I heard he had run for something else before?).

Anonymous said...

The member ran for Vancouver City Council before, getting 45,000 votes (according to his current campaign website), just short of getting a seat. He also ran in the last federal election in the same riding and came within 798 votes of winning, according to the Wikipedia and the
Burnaby NewsLeader newspaper.

Roger Hui

eddiefong said...

Interesting post.

There is no hiding that Harper came to court the ethnic vote in the swing ridings of Burnaby-Douglas, and Burnaby-New West. But to actually see the "large number of young people" swept up in the euphoria and excitement of his visit caught me by surprise. (At least with Trudeaumania in the 70s,I could see the appeal of the young Pierre Trudeau)

Ariella said...

While I fully support the need to pray for our government and elected leaders, particularly members of our own congregation, we can't deny or change what this visit was about. Even if Harper had intended to celebrate Easter, his visit and ultimately his speech was part of a campaign to appeal to potential voters and rally support particularly among ethnic swing votes (as per Eddie's observation). Interestingly, the Burnaby riding was where the Conservatives lost by less than one thousand votes in 2008.

Moreover, the chanting, the extensive media coverage and the excitement that brewed at BAC took away from what should have been a celebration of what Easter really is about - the resurrection of Jesus Christ.