Private faith in the public sector

Justin Trudeau's leadership candidacy for the Liberal party gives us a chance to reflect on the Trudeau family and their contribution to Canadian public life, including its spiritual dimensions.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau had a strong Roman Catholic faith, a fact that some may not know. A few years after his death in 2000, a book called The Hidden Pierre Trudeau examined this side of Canada's fifteenth prime minister. Pierre Trudeau's faith was very private, in a way that some might say was hiding his light under a bushel. Though he wrestled with doubt after the death of his son Michel in 1998, Trudeau's faith was very real to him throughout his life.

His commitment to strong individual rights and justice came from his Christian belief in the equality and dignity of all. His intellectual writings often refer, indirectly or directly, to his Catholic intellectual upbringing, and he attended church regularly as prime minister. But Trudeau also believed in a strong separation between personal faith and public life, which is why his beliefs remained largely hidden—as they have for other observant Catholics like John Turner and Paul Martin. He wrestled at times with this separation, most notably for abortion, which he opposed personally even as he oversaw its legalization.

Justin Trudeau's mother Margaret presents her own compelling story, which has been lived out in public in Canada for four decades. In her recent memoir Changing My Mind, Margaret Trudeau speaks frankly about her struggle with bipolar depression and its effects on her behaviour over the years.

Margaret's faith journey is less straightforward; raised a nominal Anglican, she converted to Roman Catholicism after marrying, but had none of Pierre's deep roots or intellectual commitments to faith. More recently, Margaret Trudeau appears to follow many Canadians with a do-it-yourself sense of spirituality, rooted in Christian traditions but including Buddhist meditation, for example. Still, her candour and openness about her personal struggles and crises are inspiring.

This brings us to Justin Trudeau. While we know that Pierre Trudeau read from the Bible nightly to his young sons, we know little about Justin's adult faith. Last year, a Catholic Conservative MP attacked a Catholic school board for inviting Justin Trudeau to speak, saying that his views "are often not in any accordance with the Catholic faith," such as his support of same-sex marriage.

Trudeau fought back saying "my own personal faith is an extremely important part of who I am and the values that I try to lead with." Almost exactly like his father, he mentions abortion as an issue that he is personally opposed to, but supports as a public right.

I'm not aware of any statements where Justin actually describes his faith at length. Whatever it is, it remains largely private, much like his father's, and may be a mix of different traditions, like his mother's. We may learn more about Justin Trudeau's faith in the months to come, but regardless, the Trudeau family remains a very interesting part of Canada's public and spiritual life.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.