Pulpit and Politics by Dennis Gruending

Following is a guest post written by J. Michael Fay – a review of Dennis Gruending’s new book, Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, published by Kingsley Publishing 978-1-926832-07-4

What’s Behind the Smirk?

Jason Kenney had a telling smirk on his face when he appeared on CBC and CTV to discuss his latest “ruling.” Kenney had travelled to Montreal to tell the nation that women must discard their veils when swearing the public oath in Citizenship ceremonies. Unlike the pushy French or the frightened Dutch, he wasn’t suggesting that veils be banned; no, this was a simple request to respect Canadian values, to uncover the face so that everyone could be satisfied that the oath, in fact, had been recited.

But wait a minute. I was in one of those ceremonies many years ago, along with over a hundred people from around the world, gathered in a large hall, facing a Citizenship judge away up there in the front of the room, carefully reciting the words from the small piece of paper in my hand. Looking around at the others? Looking at the judge? Nope. But, believe me, I did say the words and, in a few moments, collected the already prepared certificate declaring that I was a Canadian citizen, a procedure that took months of paperwork and personal interviews, as well as mastering more than most native-born Canadians know about their home and native land.

So then what was the big deal that put the self-satisfied smirk on the Minister’s face that afternoon in Montreal?

Dennis Gruending provides a wise and thorough answer to that question in Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, published beautifully by Kingsley Publishing in Alberta.

Gruending comes well prepared to answer the question. He’s spent a lifetime at the intersection of religion and politics. Born in Saskatchewan, he was raised in a rural community as a devout Roman Catholic. Benedictine monks and brothers at St. Peter’s College educated him during the time of Vatican II, the Council that attempted to move the church into the modern world, with an eye on social justice. After completing his undergraduate degree, Gruending became a print journalist and began to cover and write about the social movements swirling around the prairies.

The late sixties and early seventies were a time when the mainline churches in Canada made significant commitments to the struggle for social justice. I saw this first hand as Director of Community Development at the Woodgreen Community Centre in the Riverdale area of Toronto. A church coalition, led by progressive ministers and priests, brought Alinsky-style community organizing to the neighborhood, while others were organizing social assistance recipients into the National Anti-Poverty Association.

Through his early journalism career, Gruending had the immense good fortune to be able to document the movement of progressive ideas from Saskatchewan to the national scene. The New Democratic Party, led by Alan Blakeney from 1971 to 1982, led the way.

The NDP emerged from the depression-era Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which, in turn, had grown from a populist strain of religion, best captured in the career of Tommy Douglas, one of the original figures who migrated from “pulpit to politics.” Douglas was the CCF premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961 and led the battle to bring medicare to the province and eventually see it sweep the nation.

Gruending covered the Blakeney era as a reporter and later as the on-air host of CBC Saskatoon. He began his own intense “pulpit to politics” kind of shift near the end of that time. He took a break from journalism to travel for ten months in Latin America, observing first hand the work of the new missionaries who were bringing “liberation theology” to the barrios and villages across the continent. On returning to Canada, he became director of information for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa and served there in the early nineties. Then in 1997, Gruending ran for election to the House of Commons in a Saskatchewan riding. He was defeated by a candidate from the newly emerging Reform Party, but ran later in another riding and was elected a Member of Parliament. After losing his seat, he went to work for the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa. He remains an active member of the social justice community in the nation’s capitol. He is also the author of six books, including a biography of Alan Blakeney.

Gruending began to break the code behind Jason Kenney’s smirk in 2007 when he initiated a blog called Pulpit and Politics, a precursor to his recently published book. He began to explore the recent history of religion and political parties, especially in North America. And he uncovered the secret to the code.

The long history of religion in Canada concerns the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian, Lutheran, United, and Anglican churches, dominated Canadian life until very recently. A drive through any of the older neighborhoods of Canadian towns and cities reveals the stone presence of those denominations in prominent locations. The Roman Catholic Church grew alongside the Protestant denominations in Quebec. In the late sixties and early seventies, the mainline churches began to collaborate on social justice issues, capturing the tenor of the times. PLURA—named after the first letters of all the mainline churches—was a formal coalition that operated in the seventies, funding grass roots community activities across Canada. The impulse for social justice grew from the prairie soil and took to the pavement of our cities and towns. Gruending played a significant role throughout his career in the movement for social justice and, as a writer and broadcaster, shared his observations with the world.

The mainline churches began to decline in the eighties and nineties, however, shrinking to tiny, older congregations right across Canada.

In the recent past, a new development began to emerge, bringing—once again from prairie soil—religion closer to centre stage. And this time it was evangelical. Alberta was the early breeding ground for this development. William Aberhart became premier of Alberta in the 30’s but, just as important, he became the first media evangelist in Canada, speaking to his congregation each and every week. He passed the “pulpit and politics” mantle to Ernest Manning, who continued as premier and media evangelist from 1943 to 1968. The seeds of evangelical expression were spread broadly through that long period of time and, in the contemporary era, spread even wider through Ernest’s son, Preston Manning, who created the Reform Party from a base in Calgary.

And it’s at this point that the story takes on a North American resonance. The evangelical movement in the United States had started to push out from their base in the churches, first to television and then to the political arena. The move into politics was centered on family value issues, and led to building broad coalitions that extended far beyond the walls of the churches. The coalitions focused especially on two issues that began to build a bridge to conservative Roman Catholics: abortion and same sex marriage. The issues quickly became instrumental political wedges, splitting the population and consolidating a firm base. But it didn’t stop there. The coalition building began to take on a strongly patriotic note, bordering on xenophobia, including support for military interventions around the world after 9/11. And, in a remarkable development, evangelicals began to support Israel as a manifestation of Biblical prophesies. These developments heralded a huge shift in political dynamics.

These trends began to play out on the Canadian political scene with the transformation of the Reform Party into the Conservative Party over the last two decades. Along the way, the key operatives began to understand how to play religious wedge issues in the political arena, largely through the clever use of metaphoric suggestion.

Gruending tells that story, in a clear and convincing way.

This leads us back to Jason Kenney, by far the most masterful user of this metaphoric magic. His deft delivery always brings a swift smirk to his lips. He knows when he makes a good move! The announcement banning the veil in the Citizenship ceremony was really a metaphoric suggestion. It unleashed a firestorm of rage in blogs, radio talk shows, and comments sections of newspapers and magazines. This kind of rage both solidifies and builds the “base.” The occasional incantation of metaphoric magic keeps the rage alive.

Gruending tells this story with many examples in a deliberate, thoughtful way. He’s a clear thinker with an easy style, turning complicated patterns into easily understood truths. Along the way, he visits all of the relevant interacting elements of this massive change in our political scene.

The May 2, 2011 election confirmed the sad result—a strong, stable Conservative majority government. For those of us, like Dennis Gruending, who long for fair politics and seek social justice, the result is shattering. And, far more disturbing, it may be deep and long lasting.

The Ipsos Reid exit poll confirmed that church-going evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and Jews elected that strong, stable, majority Conservative government. And the alliance was built through wedging, base building, and rousing fire through metaphoric discourse. Their brothers and sisters to the south can only hope for such a convincing outcome.

Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the tectonic shifts in Canadian religion and politics and how those changes blur the distinction between the two. I’ve become more adept at reading political moves and interpreting political discourse because of this book. It took me only a minute to figure out why Jason Kenney had that cynical smirk on his face in Montreal. I had read the codebook.

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2 responses

  1. Enjoyed the book review-very thoughtful piece.

  2. Terrific book review. Note to self: must order this book to better understand fear-based political power-mongering, which the right-wingers have manipulated key parts of our Canadian voting public with (which is why it is especially relevant to getting out voters to counter these tactics in this country). We have the example of the babble-rabble from south of the border egging the locals onward…or rather, downward. When I think of Canada, I think of selfless people and humane policies, people like Dennis Gruending, Tommy Douglas, Alan Blakeney and of Medicare, co-operative housing and other progressive endeavours.

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