Faith and Politicians

Deborah Gyapong, of Canadian Catholic News, has written an insightful and thought-provoking article about the spiritual side of Jack Layton. Though raised in the United Church, institutional religion did not play a major role in his life. He shared his desire to explore faith issues after experiencing “this incredible sense of joy” after his public disclosure of his battle with prostate cancer. The entire article can be found on The Catholic Register online,

Jack Laytons spiritual side revealed during battle with cancer – Canada – The Catholic Register.

Jack Layton and the NDP party presented the same conundrum to card carrying Catholics in Canada that Democrats do to our American sisters and brothers. On the one hand, they espouse and fight passionately for social justice issues. Their preferential option for the poor, environmental sensibilities, and desire for a more equitable and just economy are spot on with Catholic social justice teachings.  On the other hand, their pro-choice and gay marriage stance puts them squarely on the other side of our moral fence.

As the tributes, memories, and stories of Jack’s life keep pouring in, it’s hard to ignore that he was a man of moral conviction. A good man. This was acknowledged by Bishop Pierre Morissette, the President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. In an official statement of condolence, he described Jack Layton with the following words,

He was a dedicated politician who served his country with devotion and generosity, was concerned for the common good, and gave a wonderful example of courage and hope, especially during recent months when struggling against cancer.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with right-wing, fundamentalist Christian politicians on both sides of our border. On the one hand, we have a man who firmly believed in respectful dialogue. After the past election Jack vowed that his party would no longer participate in the childish heckling that had become part and parcel of parliamentary debate. Instead, they would commit themselves to challenging the government to work, together, for the good of the country. For him, the good of the country did not mean allowing the rich to get richer on the backs of the poor.

On the other hand, we have conservative, Christian politicians who are vociferously pro-life. They are anti-abortion and anti-gay rights, but have no problem with capital punishment. (George W. Bush presided over 152 executions during his six years as Governor of Texas – the most of any Governor at the time.) These same pro-life politicians support tax breaks for the rich and cutting social programs for the poor. They believe that it is their God-given duty to dig their heels in and convert the rest of society to their way of thinking.  Dialogue is not in their vocabulary. Sometimes they don’t even get the concept of debate. Have you seen the media clips of Michele Bachmann robotically repeating her beliefs without answering the questions given to her?

Which politician is the better person? Which one has the potential to make the most effective change in the world? The one who wears their religion and their righteousness on their sleeve? Or the one who quietly goes about trying to live basic gospel values?

canada mourns the loss of jack layton

Jack Layton with wife Olivia Chow - image found at http://www.macleans.ca/election/photo_gallery/

Canadian politics does not capture the same world-wide media frenzy as our friends to the south. Our political scene had a major shake-up in our last federal election that went largely unnoticed on the international stage. On May 2, 2011, Jack Layton led the NDP (New Democratic Party of Canada) to their best electoral showing in history. The party went from perennial third place contender to become the official opposition party. No longer the back-benchers, Layton was determined to use their new position to promote parliamentary dialogue and collaboration. Granted, in a majority government situation he did not have much of a choice. But, he had a caucus filled with young, neophyte MPs and a life-long passion of fighting for social justice across the country. It was widely agreed that much of the NDPs success was attributed to the person of Jack Layton. The future looked bright for the party.

In 2009, Jack Layton battled and fought prostate cancer. He campaigned in the recent federal election while recovering from a broken hip. Last month, he announced that he was stepping down temporarily from leadership to fight a new, undisclosed form of cancer. He died this morning, surrounded by his wife, Toronto MP Olivia Chow, and family.

Here in Canada, we aren`t afraid to use the `s` word.  While we might not agree on all issues associated with a socialist agenda, we generally believe that social programs for the needy and universal health care are a sign of a compassionate nation. Jack Layton spent his life promoting social justice issues on the local and national levels. While the Conservative and Liberal parties duked it out at the top, the NDP kept challenging the government on environmental issues, fair economic policies, and equal rights for all. With the past election they morphed from the nagging voice in the back of the parliamentary rows to the second most powerful party in the land.

Many are already wondering what will happen to the NDP party with Jack Layton gone. It crossed Jack`s mind too, and he was determined to leave the country a message of optimism and hope. On August 20th, he penned his last letter to the nation. Here are some excerpts…

  • To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer...
  • To young Canadians: … As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future…
  • Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world…
  • My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
The world needs more leaders with a heart and passion for social justice. Rest in peace, Jack. And peace to you, Olivia, and your family during these sad days.