Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, has been much in the news lately — both for making controversial statements, and for her relationship with the Liberal Party. She addressed these and various other issues — including matters of faith — in an interview conducted May 2 by CC.com associate editor Jim Coggins.
CC.com: You have been identified as a Christian politician. You go to church, you preach sermons, and so on.
May: I guess some people think that is a bad thing, but I am a practicing Christian, I am an Anglican. That has been a really central part of my life since I was a child. I have been a Sunday school teacher since I was confirmed. It is important to me to contribute time to my church community, and my faith is very important to me.
Of course, the Green Party is not a party that takes any particular religious view, and I recognize that as a practicing politician it is critical that I communicate in ways that are embracing and all-inclusive of a multicultural society. I am not trying to turn the Green Party into an aspect of my religious faith. I just think that people are entitled to know what are the moral underpinnings of the people that they may elect; so I am not hesitant to answer questions about faith.
CC.com: What are the most important Christian influences in your life?
May: I think that it is probably a personal experience of faith, of drawing strength from faith. I am very influenced by C.S. Lewis and Fr. Thomas Berry, who originated the notion of Creation Theology.
In the 1960s, it became fashionable to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition and the early chapters of Genesis contributed to some kind of disrespectful relationship between humanity and the natural world. Some very prominent theologians, in particular Berry, made the point that no, that is a misinterpretation of scripture. Our role as humanity was clearly set out to be stewards of creation.
Creation was pronounced by God as good and as therefore worth protecting, and it is entirely our responsibility as Christians to respect the natural world. So those readings are certainly significant in my developing faith. But really, there is nothing more significant than the actual words of scripture.
CC.com: Do you want to say more about your approach to scripture?
May: The lessons from the New Testament, I find enormously inspiring. When you live in one of the world’s most wealthy nations and you look around the world and you realize the inequities, it certainly comes to me quite often that Jesus Christ invoked us: “That which you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me.”
It makes me wonder how we can live our comfortable lives and ignore the suffering of children orphaned by HIV and AIDS in Africa. Or forget that we have an obligation to future generations by turning away from a lifestyle that is overly focused on the accumulation of stuff.
One of the few political people who wrote in religious terms in Canada, and who was a great inspiration to me, was Dalton Camp. He wrote a column in the Toronto Star once that really stayed with me. He said: “We are a nation that claims to believe in God, but worships Mammon.”
CC.com: How does your Christian faith influence your policies?
May: Our policies in the Green Party, of course, aren’t influenced by my particular views. The policies are passed through our grassroots, all the policies come through our members. The platform is developed through our shadow cabinet. We have a wide range of views there. But the notions of moral responsibility that the Greens believe in, they believe in for all kinds of reasons.
CC.com: How do you relate to other politicians? Does being a Christian make a difference?
May: It does. I try to find something in everybody I meet that I can love, that I can relate to, which we will have in common. I will fight very hard, and I will put forward views very clearly and unequivocally around issues, but I will not let it degenerate into personal attacks. If I am attacked personally, which I have been, my attempt will be — and let’s see how well I live up to this — to turn the other cheek. I will not respond in kind. That is a tough thing to do, but that is what we have to do in all parts of our lives.
CC.com: Prime Minister Harper is also known as a committed Christian. How do you relate to him?
May: When I have met with him, what we have found in common is that we are both very dedicated parents. In personal discussions, we have managed to stick to that pretty well. I have tried to link for him the legacy for future generations around issues like climate. In terms of personal rapport, his wife Laureen is lovely and really easy to talk to. I have run into her more often than you would imagine in Ottawa.
I get on very well with John Baird, the current Minister of the Environment. I’ve got to be one of the toughest critics there, since it is a complete abdication of responsibility around the Kyoto Protocol; but that doesn’t mean that I have to be unpleasant or rude or even uncomplimentary about who John Baird is as a person. He is someone who takes his politics seriously; I just don’t think that he takes the environment seriously — but I am certainly not going to be unkind to him on a personal level.
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CC.com: You have recently been in the news because of a statement you made about Stephen Harper’s environment policy being a worse appeasement than Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis. How does that fit in with what you just said about trying not to use personal attacks?
May: What I did was quote George Monbiot, a British journalist who authored the book Heat and who was speaking in Toronto. There is no question what Mr. Harper has done. It is not a question of personal ethics or his behaviour or who he is as a person, but what he has done as the prime minister of a country that has signed and ratified a legally binding commitment which is the only treaty in existence that will act to protect us from a quite dangerous future for our children and their children due to the climate crisis.
I found what Mr. Monbiot said to be significant. I shared that quote that he had said about Mr. Harper’s policies and Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Howard’s of Australia, as a collection of politicians who have chosen to ignore the clear and present danger of the climate crisis. In his view, this was an appeasement that was more culpable than that of Neville Chamberlain. I cited it, and I have no apologies for citing it, for pointing out to Canadians how much disrepute our country will be in, how deeply our friends around the world will regret that Canada has shifted from being a country that exhibited moral leadership to one that is in a category of having reckless disregard for our future. That is not a personal attack, but that is a reality of Mr. Harper’s policy.
CC.com: You have also talked quite warmly about Stephane Dion being a man of integrity. But Mr. Dion was environment minister after the signing of Kyoto, and the perception is that while the Liberals signed the Kyoto accord, they really didn’t do very much to implement it.
May: From 1989 until 2006, I was executive director of Sierra Club of Canada and was frequently extremely critical of the Chretien government for its failure to act. Stephane Dion was environment minister for slightly more than a year in the minority Paul Martin government and in that time we had the only meaningful action to reach our Kyoto targets. I have seen him work in extremely stressful circumstances [at the United Nations], with the Bush administration walking out of the room at midnight, and Stephane Dion having to find a way to pull together more than 180 nations into a consensus agreement under two different treaties — basically through 36 hours of nonstop negotiations. I can’t criticize Stephane Dion as a person without feeling that I am being dishonest.
CC.com: A number of Canadian Christians are concerned about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. What are your policies in those areas?
May: The number one difference with the Green Party is that we really do believe that these issues — as difficult and emotional and divisive as they may be — should be treated with respect. I think that it is wrong to be less than respectful when someone says they have a problem with abortion because they recognize from their point of view that life is sacred at all points from conception forward.
The Green Party, at the same time, absolutely supports that we need a legal right to abortion in this country. In the same way, same-sex marriage, as a secular legal issue, is a rights issue and a Charter issue. Still, any church community must be able to make its own decisions and its own determinations about whatever forms of marriage are recognized within that religious community. So, to keep it separate between secular and church is really quite critical. I am not unhappy with the policy of the Green Party in these areas, but I think abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.
CC.com: You have in some cases been accused of believing in “earthism” — that you worship the earth rather than the Creator.
May: Oh no, that is silly. If people want to accuse me of paganism, they can, but it is completely off base. As I have mentioned, I have been a practicing Christian, and I am pretty clear in my theology. In fact, I have studied theology as a part-time effort. I am interested, in the long term, in becoming ordained as an Anglican priest, so I am certainly not a pagan.
But if you want to talk about what is sacred, this is a world created by our Creator, and if you as a Christian embrace Genesis, then you are aware of course that at every stage in the creation story God pauses at the end of the day to say that it is good. That is an affirmation, and we have no right as human beings to destroy that with which we have been entrusted. And that is a message that many, many people have shared.
CC.com: You talk of creation. What impact does the doctrine of the Fall have?
May: But we were redeemed after the Fall, through the covenant. People get hung up on the earth being cursed, but they never get past chapter 3 of Genesis. You have to get to chapter 9, and then you find that God has restored the covenant with humanity through the action of the flood, through the action of Noah. The very clear signal that Noah was told to take two of everything is something which many Christians have embraced as a sign that we oppose the extinction of species.
CC.com: I was also thinking in terms of the sinfulness of humanity. What impact does that have?
May: It brings with it tremendous responsibility. We’re the only species capable of designing our own demise, and we’re the only species capable of accepting our responsibility of behaving appropriately and ensuring that life continues on this planet for us and the 10 million other species with whom we share this sacred orb.