Religion

Out of the pulpits and into the fire

Julianne Labreche May 21 1979
Religion

Out of the pulpits and into the fire

Julianne Labreche May 21 1979

Out of the pulpits and into the fire

Religion

Father Bob Ogle believes his credibility as a New Democratic Party candidate in this federal election came the day he removed his clerical collar and donned a two-piece suit. Until then, he suspected, the 50,000 voters in the Saskatoon East riding weren’t convinced he was serious. But the Roman Catholic priest had made up his mind to run. He had sought the advice of local parishioners, fellow priests, and even cabinet minister Otto Lang—an occasional visitor at his Sunday mass and then his rival in the riding. Soon after, not short on political savvy, Ogle’s size-44-tall wardrobe began to increase substantially. “I started borrowing suits from my friends, just to keep Liberals off guard,” he confides.

Ogle’s switch from preaching to politics is a relatively new trend in Canadian politics, as clergymen decide in increasing numbers to run for Parliament. In 1974, for instance, only five clergymen ran in the federal election. This time around, 17 are candidates. Even more are expected to run in the future, theologians predict, since Christian churches in the past decade have been addressing themselves more and more to national and international concerns. As Robert Wright, a minister for 20 years at All Peoples’ United Church in Welland, Ontario, says, justifying his own decision to run as an NDP candidate in Welland riding: “When I read the teachings of Jesus, I didn’t read of someone who hid himself away in nice, cavernous churches.”

Another of these political preachers is Father Andy Hogan, whom Prime Minister Trudeau poked fun at a few weeks ago while campaigning in Hogan’s Nova Scotia home riding of Cape Breton-East Richmond. Referring to the Liberals’ own candidate,

Dan Munroe, Trudeau quipped,

“By the time Dan is done with the election, Father Hogan will have discovered God is a Liberal.” Hogan points out that it has long been customary for clergymen of all faiths to join the ranks of the NDP. This trao

dition dates back to the party’s founder, Rev. James Shaver Woodsworth, whose political roots were formed during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, during which he was arrested for editing the strike paper. Back then, just as today, more doctrinaire clergymen opposed his move from the pulpit to politics. Several of them even sent a telegram to his jail cell which read, “Congratulations on your martyrdom. Hope you deserved it.” But as Stanley Knowles, a veteran NDP member for 36 years, and a United

Church minister who remembers those days in Winnipeg between the strike and the Depression, says: “Many of us back then, felt preaching of a better world in the life beyond was not enough.”

Some of the same feelings reside in a clergyman’s decision to run for office today. James Herman, an ordained minister with the Universal Church of Christ and an NDP candidate in Kitchener, decided to run when he became distressed with the plight of senior citizens, unemployed youth and others in the constituency. “When I hear housewives tell me they can’t even afford to buy hamburger for their families anymore, I want to do something about it,” he says. In the Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding, Ken Moffatt, a 53-year-old United Church minister, is running for the Conservatives on a anti-Trudeau campaign. He recollects with some irony that in his Thunder Bay church, back in 1935, another minister, Dan Mclver, ran and won in the riding as a Liberal. Moffatt explains he is running partially because he believes “there has been flagrant disregard for morals in many instances” in the Liberal government, citing specifically the resignation of former solicitor-general Francis Fox who stepped down after announcing he had forged a signature on an abortion document.

Many Canadian clergymen running in this federal election are believers in “liberation theology,” a philosophy which grew out of the church’s involvement with civil rights in Latin America and Third World countries. It asserts that the church’s role is not just to save souls, but society too, wherever oppression exists. Because of these teachings, explains Richard Allen, history professor at McMaster University and author of several books on the rela5

tionship between church and society in Canada, “There has been an increasing degree of radicalism, especially among the younger clergy since the 1960s.” This theology, he adds, is being taught in seminaries and colleges across Canada, and is influencing clergymen to expand their interests beyond organized religion and into politics.

Whatever their reasons for running, these clergymen are adding a new respectability to the tarnished image of a typical politician. A frequent reaction that David MacDonald, a Tory MP and United Church minister says he gets is: “What’s a nice person like you doing in something as shabby as politics.” The Prince Edward Island member finds being a minister doesn’t make much difference. “Down here people take their politics almost more seriously than their religion. In this province, when people talk of a mixed marriage, they mean one between a Liberal and a Conservative.” Most of the political preachers, however, admit they don’t have strong alliances with their party. As Bruce McLeod, former moderator of the United Church of Canada, and a promising candidate who backed out of the running before the election call, says: “One of the distasteful things about politics is the notion that all truth is contained in one party—kind of a cowboys and Indians mentality. Instead you must pick your imperfect instrument and work within it.”

Which is just what two clergymen candidates running in Waterloo, in southern Ontario, have done. Frank Epp, the local Liberal candidate, was ordained as a Mennonite minister. Walter McLean, the Conservative candidate, has served for the past eight years as clergyman at Knox Presbyterian Church. Rivals, they are both battling hard to win. “I’m amused by the whole thing,” says McLean. “At least voters can’t dismiss me because I’m a minister. Their alternative is a minister too.” Besides, he adds, “A few people have looked at me and said, ‘Well, thank God you’re not another lawyer.’ ”

Julianne Labreche