Thursday, November 7, 2013

Can one be both a Christian and a politician at the same time?

There are many Christians, but few are politicians. There are also many politicians, but few are Christians. Is it possible to be both a Christian and a politician at the same time? Does one have to sacrifice one's faith when they are combined? The answer to the first question is easy: an emphatic, yes! The answer to the other is more difficult, especially in the confines of this blog.

Rather than making a survey of Christian politicians from the beginning of the Christian era until now and doing so worldwide, which would require a series of books, in this post I want to do a very brief case study by looking at one politician in Canada who is currently very much in the news and is widely acknowledged as a Christian: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper is regarded by many as a consummate politician, yet in a country where politicians prefer not to identify themselves openly with a denomination, much less to be seen attending church regularly, he stands out. This is part of his appeal to his conservative base, which includes many evangelical Christians.

Harper is a member of the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination and attends East Gate Alliance Church in Ottawa. He married Laureen Teskey in 1993, and they have two children, Benjamin and Rachel. His home life to all appearances is impeccable.

His lifestyle stands in striking contrast to that of Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, whose drunken behavior and admitted drug use have brought shame not only on himself but also the city and the entire country. That is something thing that Harper would never do, although lately he has seriously damaged his own brand as well as that of the Conservative Party though the way he has handled the Senate scandal.

For those of you who are not familiar with Canadian politics, this is the biggest scandal in decades, involving several senators who have made false expense claims. The scandal has blown up to become a major political event because of the way the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has handled it.

Harper is reputed to be a control freak, and thus it is extremely unlikely that he was totally unaware of what the PMO did, as he claims. Without going into all the sordid details, he has blamed the senators involved and some of his office staff, especially his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, for the sordid mess. Instead, Harper shoved his chief of staff "under the bus." Rob Ford, to his credit, albeit foolishly, did not want to do that. He has said that he does shove his friends "under the bus."

What Harper has not done is accept any responsibility, much less any blame for the Senate scandal. He is, to put as mildly as I can, "truth challenged." He appointed the three senators, who have now been suspended from the Senate, with a loss of salary. He also appointed the staff in his office. Unlike Harry S. Truman, he does not say, "The buck stops here," especially now that the PMO is being investigated by the RCMP for possible criminal wrongdoing. That is a basic principle of good leadership. Harper has failed in this respect.

In Parliament he has been accused repeatedly of lying. That is a serious charge to bring against any politician, even if the words politician and liar are sometimes considered synonyms. It is more serious for someone who professes to be a Christian. Harper is a politician who wants to save his political life, but that does not excuse behavior which goes beyond lying; he also displays a ruthless that is unbecoming a Christian.

Interestingly, the accusations of lying and ruthlessness that have been brought against him have not mentioned his faith at all. That speaks volumes about how he downplays that part of his life, at least in public. Although not afraid to mention his denominational affiliation, I have not been able to find a photo of him leaving a regular Sunday church service, as is common with US presidents.

These charges are not even the most serious ones that I would bring against Harper. Although I do not like Harper and the way he operates, I am most disappointed by his refusal to display his Christian principles in the policies his government has introduced. It is bad enough that he is ruthless and vindictive -- that can characterized as a serious character flaw, although one would hope that he behaved in a more loving way in political life and not only in his home life.

Harper's stand on many political issues is seemingly motivated more by a conservative worldview than by Christian principles. For example, on the environment his government has been blamed for eviscerating environmental regulations in order to promote extraction industries, especially in Alberta, the province he considers home, although he was born in Toronto.

Alberta has the third largest oil reserves in the world

Harper is an economist by training. His economic policies are very conservative. Early in his political career he called for reform of health care and replacement of the federal pension plan with a provincial one. He has pushed strongly for austerity measures in order to curb growing deficits, yet the Conservatives have managed to amass the largest deficit in Canadian history. In spite of this huge deficit, Canada has still managed to have the lowest debt-to-GDP ration in the G7 economies.

His social policies are not as conservative. There he displays his strong political skills by avoiding contentious issues such as abortion and euthanasia as much as possible, even though his conservative base and some of his members of Parliament support such legislation. This was illustrated again at the most recent Conservative convention where delegates approved these measures in spite of Harper's strong objections. This shows he may be losing some of control he has had of his party. This is part of the fallout of the Senate scandal.

In Parliament, when one of his MPs introduced a motion to initiate debate when life begins, the otherwise tyrannical prime minister allowed his caucus to vote as they wished, although he personally voted against it. He knew it would be defeated.

Harper's own personal views on abortion do not play a role for him. His stand was determined by politics. Political considerations are also the reason why he does not want to reopen the euthanasia debate. Yet the media do not want to leave this issue alone. Politicians cannot control everything, as even Harper has learned.

Harper's foreign policy is characterized by a strong pro-Israel stand. This stand, which was clearly politically motivated by his desire to attract the Jewish vote, cost Canada an opportunity to get a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2010. How much Harper's evangelical faith may also have played a role in this I have not been able to determine, but it is a stand that is popular with parts of the evangelical Christian portion of his base.

Central to Harper's agenda is his longstanding desire to destroy the Liberal legacy that he inherited from previous governments. His intention is to replace it with a Conservative stance, much as Reagan and Bush achieved in the US, so that when Harper retires he will leave his own legacy, one that will be difficult to undo.

For Harper, his brand of Conservatism trumps any evangelical Christian views he may hold. This is a harsh judgment, perhaps, but that is my perception. I am willing to be corrected, but politics is what drives the man.

East Gate Alliance Church in Ottawa

I wish that biblical principles would be more operative in his politics, but that does not seem to be the case. This does not make Harper less a Christian. I am not questioning his faith, but rather the way Harper allows his faith to operate in the political arena. I want to see a man who is on fire for justice for all Canadians, not just the rich and influential people who fund the political apparatus in Canada.

I am not a politician, and I would make a poor one, since I am too blunt for my own good. If I were involved in politics I might find it difficult to bring my own faith to the table. After all, politics is the art of the possible. It requires compromises. Harper is a politician.

Harper may not be able to exercise his faith more fully within the political context where he finds himself. But that context is to a large degree one that he has helped to shape. On the other hand, if he had allowed his faith to be operative to a larger degree that is currently the case, he might not have been able to accomplish what he did. He may never have become prime minister.

The political alliance he formed in order to be elected and to achieve his position demonstrates a man of great political acumen. He parlayed his role as an outsider from Alberta and someone who did not belong to the elite into the highest political position in the land. He is now the consummate insider. He and the people around him constitute the new Canadian political elite.

The three suspended senators: Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin

How long that will continue, only time will tell. The Senate scandal may yet prove Harper's undoing. He has handled that crisis poorly, and it may yet destroy him. He has been a consummate politician for a long time, but during that time I, and many Canadians with me, wish we could have seen more of his faith not only in his policies, where it is urgently needed but also in his dealings with people.

Harper's character flaws are only too obvious. I wish he would demonstrate genuine love and concern for ordinary Canadians, especially the poor and downtrodden. That is not only a Christian thing to do but it is above all human. Canadians want to see less of his machine-like nature and more of his humanity.

Can one be both a Christian and a politician at the same time? The answer is, yes! Unfortunately, I am not sure that Stephen Harper is the best example of someone who is able to accomplish both at the same time. That is sad, because he is a very capable politician. Like all of us, he has his flaws. The difference, however, is that he is prime minister and we are not. We cannot bring our faith to bear on public issues the way he can. The more the pity!

What I can do is pray for him and for all those who are actively engaged in politics, especially those who want to exercise their faith. They may not always be successful in demonstrating their faith openly, but I can rest assured that I have interceded on their behalf.

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