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November/December 2006 Issue

COVER STORY: 
Called Into The House
 
By Karen Stiller

Christians in Parliament talk about their calling into politics

It may not sound like it, but “Briefing Notes for New MPs” in the Ottawa magazine Parliamentary Government is a juicy read. And quite possibly an alarming one for newly elected members of Parliament.

The role of an MP is described as "a job unlike any other you have ever done" carried out in an arena with "procedures and traditions . . . encountered in no previous job." Then there is the higher than average divorce rate and the on-site blood pressure clinic, presumably to help MPs not keel over from the stress, which is described as "extreme and unremitting."

Even the Speaker of the House does not mince words when he explains the role of an MP. In a recent presentation, the Hon. Peter Milliken described the tasks of an MP as "bewildering" and "lonely."

Throw in public opinion polls that rank MPs either just above or just below used car salesmen and you have one doozy of a job. But read on.

"It’s the best job in the world," says John McKay, Liberal MP for Ontario’s Scarborough East riding since 1997. "You are faced with more political and moral conflict than you can possibly imagine. It’s so stimulating. It keeps you engaged in local, national and international affairs and, occasionally, just occasionally, you might influence the course of the decision-making process."

McKay, a Christian, is in the process of watching his latest private member's bill, Bill C-293, wind its way through the labyrinthine procedures of the House of Commons. It's a known fact that very few such bills – defined as private because they are introduced by MPs who are not members of the Cabinet – become law in Canada.

This one is close to his heart though. If it survives, poverty reduction will become the raison d'être of Canada's international development assistance. Asked why he is pursuing this significant change in how Canada spends aid money, McKay refers to the prophet Micah's challenge to seek justice. "If you’re not in politics to try and make the lives of other people better, then what are you there for?"

Grace Under Pressure
Wes McLeod is the executive director of the Faith Political Interface Program with the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. He is an ordained pastor who has been on Parliament Hill since '93 working in various capacities with MPs including Deborah Grey and Chuck Strahl.

Part of the mandate of the Manning Centre is to train Christians and people of other faiths who choose to be involved in politics to walk the balance beam of being "a credit to their faith and a credit to the democratic process" at the same time.

"Religious values," he says, "are often held more deeply than political affiliation with any one party. Separation of church and state is a good idea [and traditionally an American one] but separation of belief and practice is not a good idea."

McLeod says politicians sometimes make some serious mistakes, and the cameras are always rolling, ready to capture it for the late news.

It doesn't take long, flipping through Canadian newspapers and magazines from the past few years, to find examples of what some Christians might feel is media bias against them. Part of what seems to fuel the fire is the fear that Christians with power will use it to impose their beliefs on others.

"Our faith says we can’t and shouldn’t do that," says McLeod. "We can try to persuade. But in the process of persuading you have to respect the democratic process. Stand up and say what you believe, but do it in a way that is full of grace. Ultimately that is the best way to live in a fallen world."

It's probably the best way to be a parliamentarian too.

Even the "Briefing Notes for New MPs" encourages the practice of grace and forgiveness – because life on the Hill is definitely not for the faint of heart.

David Anderson is a Conservative MP for Cypress Hills-Grasslands, Sask. He is a farmer, a Bible school graduate and owner of a plaque hanging on his office wall that says "No unwholesome word."

It's there for a reason.

"It is so intense and high speed here," says Anderson. "It's an atmosphere of confrontation. I look at that plaque on my wall and realize I probably violate it. But as Christians we’re told we can begin again. And I do."

Anderson says there is more camaraderie and respect on the Hill than one would believe from popping into the visitors gallery on a given day, even between MPs who are openly, actively Christian and those who are openly, actively not.

"People aren’t so opposed to faith on the Hill. It's just not an issue that comes up. The challenge to us [Christians] is that our lives are supposed to be different and to live in a way that others see something in ours. Our calling is to figure out what love is and display it with God’s assistance." Anderson says his hope for MPs who are Christian is that "it changes our way of doing business – that we present ourselves as people who are open and able to talk. It’s my prayer, as it should be with all Christians, that my life would reflect something different – and that people would want to know why."

Called from the Right and Called from the Left
Many MPs who are Christian refer to their work as a "calling," and some of them know calling well, having served in the ministry before hitting Ottawa.

Maurice Vellacott is a Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Wanuskewin. "In pastoral ministry, and now in the political realm, if I didn’t have the sense from God that it’s where I should be... I would bail out quickly when the going gets tough."

MP Maurice Vellacott
MP Maurice Vellacott

The going got really tough for Vellacott earlier this year when he resigned from the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Committee. He was under pressure because of comments he made (in an interview with the CBC) implying that Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin believed she had "god-like powers." He apologized to her one day later and resigned his position two days after that.

In his resignation letter, Vellacott could not be clearer about his faith and how it was helping him cope with the incident: "... ultimately I long to hear, 'Well done!' from the One who is over all at the time when it matters most of all!" is how he wraps it up.

Vellacott describes himself as a "full-orbed conservative," an unabashedly pro-life, fiscally conservative family man who delights in "defending the weak and not-so-powerful."

And that last bit would probably be one of the few things he has in common with Bill Blaikie, 25-year veteran NDP MP for Elmwood-Transcona, Man.

Besides their faith, that is.

Blaikie is a Christian who devours Sojourners magazine, is pro-choice, felt a calling to ministry and politics, supports same-sex marriage, prays and says his "faith sustains" him. Blaikie’s faith has helped him deal with the frustrations of social change in Canada not happening as quickly as he might have hoped when he first made it to the Hill. "You end up with a much stronger doctrine of sin, that we are captive to doing things in a way that I don’t think God likes." But, he says, "We’re called to be faithful, not successful."

Blaikie routinely opens hate mail from “conservative Christians” who say he’s going to hell in a hand basket. “I choose to take their faith seriously and I just write to them and tell them I have come to a different conclusion.”

And he bristles at the current Canadian controversy about mixing politics and religion. “What am I? Chopped liver? We’ve been mixing politics and religion on the left for a long time. Then along comes Stockwell Day and there’s this big discussion,” says Blaikie.

"I’m very much into combating the notion that the only religious people are on the right. But it’s an interesting question as to why there is all this attention when it’s mixed on the right."

It is an interesting question.

When Christians Disagree
To oversimplify a pretty complicated political point: there is an old debate about whether MPs are merely the mouthpiece of their constituents or party, put into office to poll and then reflect the opinions of constituents, or if MPs are elected for who and what they are – and are then therefore free to act on their own views, usually but not always within the parameters of their party.

Occasionally, the fear resurfaces that the positions taken by politicians, perhaps fuelled by their religious beliefs — whatever they are — may be different from the average voting Canadian.

Liberal MP Paul Steckle, a self-described “born-again Christian,” has worked this out in the Ontario riding of Huron-Bruce. “I clearly stated to my constituency, way back in ’93 when I first ran, that I will always support the majority view of my constituents, but where it becomes a moral matter I reserve the right to make a decision based on my own worldview.” This hasn’t created a problem for Steckle, yet, thanks to the riding he is in. “I have a pretty good handle of what goes on in my riding. I do polls. If my people had told me to vote for same-sex marriage, I would have voted otherwise. I’ve never avoided taking on a challenge,” says Steckle. “It’s my duty as a Christian.”

Steckle may have one of the biggest challenges of his career ahead of him in the form of Bill C-338, his private member’s bill to restrict abortion in Canada after 20 weeks of gestation. Noting that even Henry Morgantaler has difficulty with late-term abortions, Steckle thinks this bill may have a shot at success. It’s his faith that has fuelled it. “If we believe we can separate our faith from our work, then what motivates us? It comes pretty natural. I believe that life is sacred, we read that in the Scriptures,” explains Steckle. “Before we were born, we are known by our Creator.” Steckle recognizes that, for some Christians, anything short of an all out ban on abortion is just not good enough. “It will never happen,” says Steckle. “There are people who don’t agree with my incremental approach. But it’s better to save some lives than none. Perhaps someday someone will find the courage to take it further.”

MP James Lunney
MP James Lunney

James Lunney is another MP who doesn’t shrink from identifying himself as pro-life. He represents the Conservatives in Nanaimo-Alberni, B.C. “I’m a pro-lifer and that is known in my riding,” he explains. “I’ve been elected three times. But I also have to articulate what my party position is. There are limits to how far we can go. Ultimately, politicians do have to respond to the demands of the public.” But as he points out: “The Church is part of that public. It’s a challenge.”

It’s a challenge with explosive consequences, especially every four years when you find out what your constituents really think – about you.

"There are competing desires here [in Ottawa]," says Lunney. "All sorts of things get in our way. Ambition. Trying to give attention to all the files from our ridings [files that can number in the thousands]. Trying to appease people and meet their needs." One thing Lunney won’t do is vote against his conscience. "I won’t do it. I think it is actually a charter right to protect our freedom of conscience and religion. I’m disappointed we have party leaders in Ottawa who overrule that and require MPs vote with their party on certain issues."

Lunney is honest about the toll it takes to be an MP. “My faith has sure been tested in this place. There are days when I struggle to hold onto it. My spirit life has needed some care and attention.”

Like the other Christian MPs interviewed for this article, Lunney struggles to find the time for disciplines like prayer and Bible study amid a schedule that would leave most people, if they could find five minutes, dashing daily to that blood pressure clinic on Parliament Hill. They all acknowledge the importance of spending time reading the Bible and express gratitude for the Christians who they know are praying for them and their families.

After all, the job of an MP is not really “a life,” says Jim Abbott, Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia, B.C. “The biggest challenge is being in the public fishbowl and making sure you don’t lose sight of the people who are the most important in your life: your spouse, family and friends. It can be like a kid in a candy store, there’s so much to be involved with. You can lose sight. A person of high principle has to work on that all the time.”

MP Jim Abbott
MP Jim Abbott

Abbott says his faith helps him do that by reminding him that it’s not all about him. It’s about God. “If God is the basis for who and what you are, you can turn all this over to God. My job,” he says, “is to show up. And let God do the rest.”

For retired Alberta MP Deborah Grey, a defining moment in the twilight of her 15 years as an MP came when her father-in-law lay dying at home and she was on a plane for Ottawa, summoned back to vote on the Kyoto Accord. She still cries when she talks about it. “That had a profound impact on me. Being away from home when life happens. Those are the kinds of pressures these kids [current MPs] are dealing with.”

“The workload is all-consuming. The travel is staggering. I have a lot of people calling me up and telling me they are thinking of running for office. I tell them to ‘brace up’ because I’m going to ask them some tough questions.”

Grey kept her sanity by having people pray with her and for her. She listened to Christian music whenever and wherever she could. That helped feed her spirit, even when jetting from one end of the country to another.

But not to be involved is just not an option for Grey and for current MPs who are Christian – despite the sacrifice of time, family and sometimes reputation. “If Christians don’t live out the gospel,” asks Grey, “then how are we going to be salt and light? I am not cloistered. I cannot separate myself from the world. I cannot.”

For these and other Christian MPs, their faith leads them to Parliament Hill as surely as their plane from Winnipeg or their taxi-ride up Wellington Street in Ottawa.

The challenges may be taller than the Peace Tower, the stress may be off the map completely, but they still seem to love it. Clearly they’re not perfect. As Deb Grey puts it, they aren’t “the Christians’ MP”; they are Christians who are MPs.

And they appear to be dealing with that just fine.

Karen Stiller of Port Perry, ON, regularly writes feature articles for Faith Today, where she is also associate editor.

Other articles
Nov/Dec 2006 Issue

Cover Story
Called Into The House

Featured Articles
Native Suicide: A Challenge to the Church

One Youth's Life or Death Struggle

From the Editor
Called to Respond

Kingdom Matters
Affair Ministry Emerged from Brokenness

Family's Story Tied to Mercy Ships

Phone Ministry 24/7 

Splat! Paintball with Christian Love

The Gathering Place
Responding to Distortions

God at Work in Denominations
God Uses Willingness to Serve

A Church You Should Know
Eglise Nouvelle Vie

Ask a Theologian:
What DNA Matter Did the Baby Jesus Have?

   
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