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June 17, 2011

It's a myth that religion and politics don't mix

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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When asked the question, "should politicians allow their religious beliefs to affect political decisions?" the overwhelming majority of Canadians these days are likely to answer in the negative.

But history tells us that religion and politics do mix and have always mixed.

In ancient Egypt -- one of the super-powers of its time – the ruling Pharaoh always claimed divinity. Three centuries after Jesus Christ, the emperor of Rome converted to Christianity and then proclaimed his realm to be Holy.

A young American politician, seeking his first election to Congress in the state of Virginia, knew that the "swing vote" in his district rested with fundamentalist Christians, so he wisely met with them to discuss his reform manifesto. When they asked him to make a minor change, he did so reluctantly, but that was enough to capture their votes and ensure his election victory.

This story happened back in 1788. The young politician? None other than James Madison. His reform plan? The first American Constitution. And the concession he made to his Christian voters was the addition of a clause guaranteeing religious freedom for all citizens of the United States -- part of the historic First Amendment. The lobbyists who succeeded in drawing Madison's attention to the importance of religious freedom were southern Baptists; at that time, they were forbidden to preach their brand of Protestant Christianity without first obtaining a government license.

Thus, in both the U.S. and Canada, it is a myth that religion and politics don't mix, not only today, but all during the early history of each nation. Religion, however, has traditionally been a more vital ingredient in American than in Canadian politics.

In both traditions, the separation of Church and State was meant to be just that -- not the separation of religion and politics. Separating Church and State means that the state is forbidden to establish its own religion, or advance and favour a specific religious doctrine in preference to all others (as is done in Scandinavian countries where the state collects and distributes funding to national Lutheran churches).

George Washington said in 1776: "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principles."

But the new debate about the role of religion in politics should be about issues, not personalities.

So if Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was elected as Vice-president of the U.S., his specific religion does not concern me as a Muslim. In politics, we need religious people who live, speak and act according to the principles of their faith.

Therefore, if Lieberman was to promote peace in the Middle East without ignoring the critical issue of justice toward Palestinians, he would have my blessing. And if his Judaism motivates him to speak up in support and defense of the oppressed, the poor, the very young, the elderly, the sick, the unemployed, and the uneducated, he would have been promoting not only the ethics of his religion, but also of mine.

Similarly, if Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, now retired, a Christian evangelical pastor, were to become Prime Minister and came out in support of funding for all the religious schools in this country, he would have at least my conditional blessing -- provided that public schools were not neglected as a result.

But any Canadian politician including our current PM Harper, another Christian evangelical implementing an across-the-board 17% flat tax that would favour the rich and deprive our federal government of up to $100 billion of revenue in only five years (money that could go toward debt-reduction, health care, and/or increased investment in research), would not get my vote or my blessing, even if he or she were Muslim.

Clearly, the role of religion in contemporary politics is not an issue that affects only distant countries such as Iran (Islam), Israel (Judaism) or India (Hinduism); it is just as relevant in North America.

Only a generation ago, liberal activists in Canada and the U.S. were motivated by religious principles to fight for civil rights, equality for women, an end to the arms race, and for the social services of an enlightened welfare state.

Religion and politics can and do mix comfortably, but it becomes alarming when the political agenda swings toward liberal or conservative extremes that are strongly anti- or pro-religion, any religion.

In today's society, religious principles must play a prominent role in the areas of abortion, homosexual rights, doctor-assisted suicide, genetic engineering, and cloning. All major faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example -- have declared euthanasia (assisted suicide) to be morally abhorrent, so their adherents do not want to vest the state with powers they believe should remain exclusively with God.

The implications of genetic mapping and cloning are even more difficult to ponder and simply cannot be debated without reference to religious teachings. Once science becomes more precise, individuals will be able to learn whether they have a genetic predisposition to certain diseases. But would insurance companies, for example, be allowed to possess such information? And would this knowledge be given to the mothers of unborn babies? Cloning could one day make it possible for individuals to copy themselves: would this make cloning a human right? Will it even be possible to make cloning illegal?

These and similar questions cannot be debated or resolved without a thorough consideration of what our world religions teach about the value of human life. Religion will not give us all the answers, but it must be part of the political process of finding them. As long as the debate about religion and politics is not about religion alone, but about issues, we have nothing to fear.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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