A small but interesting item appeared in both Maclean’s and the Toronto Star in the past few days. It concerned the move of Kevin Chan, the executive assistant to Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch, to a senior advisor post for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
Lynch is, of course, the main link between the prime minister’s office (PMO) and the deputy ministers who run the many government departments. In that sense, he is viewed as the senior public servant, but not a political appointee. And Chan has been his right hand person, so he will take with him, into the opposition leader’s office, a pretty deep knowledge of how the top echelons of the current government function.
Things have gone the other way, before. Mark Cameron, who is planning, priorities and research director in the PMO was, for several years, a senior advisor to Stephane Dion, when he was environment minister. He joined Stephen Harper’s inner circle when the latter was still opposition leader.
In fact, a surprising number of aides, to both Harper and a number of his ministers, started out political life as Liberals. But that is a story for another day.
* * *
For faith-based readers of OttawaWatch, I have infobits on both Cameron and Ignatieff.
Cameron, on the record as being a devout Catholic, actually spent his teen and early adult years on the evangelical Protestant side of the spectrum before converting. He, along with his father, now-retired UBC medical professor Bert Cameron, was well-known around Regent College and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chapter at UBC. He carries that religiously-bilingual frame of reference helpfully around the PMO, so I am told, although he is very much the effective professional in his work, irrespective of his religious outlook.
And Ignatieff, while not a ‘churchy type,’ is known to have a healthy respect for the Orthodox form of Christianity, as well as being a periodic attender at churches in that stream. Of course, his religious lineage, as a descendant of a former Russian count, is Russian Orthodox.
* * *
The kind of cross-pollination exhibited by the above leaves me with the fond but perhaps only semi-realistic hope that Ignatieff and Harper will turn out to be leaders who will work well together.
Some pundits have noted that, at first glance, Ignatieff is exhibiting some ability to out-conservative the prime minister in his statements about what should be in the budget set for release on January 27. It could be, simply, that “the count” — as he is sometimes dubbed, because of that above-mentioned lineage — is preparing himself to publicly support the budget. After all, he could suggest, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty could not have come up with so many good budget proposals, if they had not allowed themselves to listen to him.
More hopefully, I would simply suggest that both leaders may well be quietly practicing the language of collaboration and testing the waters, only so carefully, in case the time ever comes that centre-right co-operation, rather than competition, might become the order of the day.
* * *
All of which leads me to a story which appeared in the Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, the last few days. Entitled ‘Most Americans pick and choose religious beliefs,’ the story reports on a Barna Group survey released January 12, that suggests a majority of American adults choose their beliefs to create, in essence, a “customized” religion, rather than adopting the set of beliefs taught by a particular church.
About 71 per cent of those polled admit to “customization.”
The Barna poll reflects what would tend to be an increasing trend. When I was doing research for my Stephen Harper book, I learned from a World Vision poll taken before the mid-2000s that slightly less than 50 per cent of both evangelicals and Catholics were customizers.
I concluded, at that time, that both Stephen Harper and his Liberal prime ministerial predecessor, Paul Martin, serious believers in, respectively, the evangelical and Catholic streams, were customizers.
On reflection, I can say personally, that I could well end up in the same column, were Barna’s people to ask me.
I have a strong respect for the Baptist/Brethren heritage and education that gave me comfort in the idea of the priesthood of all believers.
And, to me, “optimistic Calvinism” makes sense. I like to think that “irresistible grace” can outrun “total depravity.”
Further, I am intrigued by the conflict studies influences of the Anabaptist movement. So much so that I am taking a fair amount of time in my semi-retirement years to try to see how those concepts might assist in bringing conciliation or collaboration, at least, in an adversarial political setting.
And I am often — but admittedly not always — moved by both the old hymns of the church and the bapticostal influences that bring southern gospel and charismatic music and worship to so many faith-based settings.
* * *
And, then there is Irshad Manji, a Muslim feminist and activist from Toronto, who wrote, in the January 8 Globe and Mail, that “It’s time for all of us to embrace ijtihad.”
Manji is very media savvy. (Her critics, myself excepted, would call her a publicity hound. I only nod in respect to her effectiveness at keeping her message in front of the masses.)
In her Globe piece, she wrote of an interview she conducted several years ago with Mohammed al-Hindi, a political leader of Islamic Jihad.
She began by describing al-Hindi thusly: “With his finely trimmed beard and gracious manners, he symbolized the modern — and moderate — Muslim man.”
That impression changed quickly, she suggested. Her question was: “Where (in the Koran) does it say that you can kill yourself for a higher cause? As far as I know the Koran tells us that suicide is wrong.”
The rest of Manji’s story traces the convoluted process of al-Hindi trying, with apparently lack of success, to find a pro-suicide passage in the Koran.
Her point was her ongoing quest to get Muslims and others to embrace Islam’s tradition of independent thinking, termed ijtihad.
Not having achieved her quest for Koran endorsement of suicide, she ended the interview by asking the translator why al-Hindi would grant her an on-camera interview knowing he could not find a pro-suicide passage.
She claims the translator answered: “He assumed you were just another dumb Western journalist.” Apparently, she added, “Reporters from the West had never asked this veteran terrorist the most basic of questions — Where is the evidence for what you do in God’s name?”
* * *
Please keep in mind: the last few paragraphs are about what Manji wrote. She knows far more about Islam than I do. Whether she knows more that al-Hindi, it is not for me to call. It could be a matter of interpretation. But it does illustrate, for our purposes, the complexities of faith-based communication, particularly in the adversarial political world.
* * *
Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.