Fundamentalism - Religion in Politics

Nov 2004

It struck many Canadians as odd that during the American election both candidates spoke openly and often about their religious beliefs, but on this side of the border also the question of religion in politics is getting renewed attention. The former leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, has been speaking and writing (most recently in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail) about what he calls the need to end the taboo against mixing faith and politics.

As a member of a minority religion, (Buddhism) I cannot help being ambivalent about this trend. Religion mixed up in politics is sure to be the religion of the majority, which would tend to further marginalize large segments of our pluralist society. On the other hand, when the attempt is made to deliberately exclude religion from the social discourse, the result is that decisions are made on non-spiritual values. This has the result of making secular humanism, and its attendant materialist metaphysic, the de facto state religion.

This is not always a comfortable position either, especially when critical issues involving the values of life are made. We are facing many such issues now in the area of the new biological sciences, as well as in many old questions such as euthanasia and abortion.

There are no easy answers, but I would like to start by suggesting a distinction be made between fundamentalism and traditionalism. By a traditionalist, I mean someone who holds a strong personal belief in the core values of his faith tradition. In all religions, there is tension between those who maintain the purity of the original teachings and ethical standards, and those who want to modernize, compromise and rationalize those values.

The traditionalist position is often called "fundamentalist" but I would reserve that word for those who take a further step and wish to impose their values on others, most often by using the power of the state. We are seeing this kind of political fundamentalism all over the world right now, most notably in the evangelical wing of the US republicans, and in Iran, but there are also Jewish, Hindu and other forms. Buddhism has a strong internal bias towards tolerance but as the rise of the National Heritage Party of Sri Lanka demonstrates, under provocation it is also not immune to the fundamentalist urge.

I would argue that it is not the holding of strong religious beliefs that is the problem, but the will to impose them on those who do not share them. This distinction is important, but it does not entirely resolve the problem for the legislator who has deeply held spiritual values. How can she make decisions for a broad society while being true to her own faith?

To point out the difficulty, consider a hypothetical example somewhat removed from the usual hot button issues raised in the present context. Buddhism teaches that the deliberate taking of life is always ethically wrong; therefore hunting and fishing are not condoned. What if a devout Buddhist were a provincial minister of natural resources? How could he make regulations governing wild-life management and not be untrue to either the socially accepted norms or his own beliefs?

The same dilemma applies in many policy areas. It would be a healthy development if we could bring these questions out on the table for discussion, as Mr. Manning suggests. Canada is, as I have already observed, a very diverse society where people may hold any or all religions, or none of the above. This should not be seen as a problem, but as a strength. It means that any starting point must be the broadest possible toleration for different viewpoints. Perhaps it will allow us to find a way to incorporate broad spiritual values without falling into the narrow trap of fundamentalism, or defaulting to an equally narrow materialism.

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