Social commentator and editorial journalist Rex Murphy has been one of Canada's most influential and respected opinion leaders for decades.

Born in Carbonear, N.L., Murphy graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1968 and then went to the United Kingdom to pursue his studies as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Returning to Newfoundland and Labrador, he soon established a reputation as an accomplished teacher, writer and broadcaster.

Murphy gained political experience as executive assistant to the leader of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland, and twice ran for provincial office. “It's not a felony,” he has stated, “but it operates on the same plane of social esteem as throwing rocks at a convent.”

Most importantly, he has gained national prominence as a newspaper columnist, most recently in the National Post, on CBC TV's The National and on his weekly CBC radio show, Cross Country Checkup, the only open-line radio program that broadcasts live across the nation every Sunday afternoon. It has been said that “he has a unique ability to examine a topic of national interest or importance and articulate it in the most profound yet digestible way, so that his audiences become so engaged, they don't even realize it's happening.”

Salvationist recently interviewed Murphy in Toronto.

Q. What was your experience of The Salvation Army growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador?

The Salvation Army has always been a strong and constant presence there. I grew up in a rough place in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we did some things that I don't think I could even tell a priest—I'd be too embarrassed, you know! But if someone had ever said, “Let's steal from a Salvation Army kettle,” it would have been considered vulgar, cheap, mean and utterly without honour. A crime against The Salvation Army carries with it a brocade of deep shame, a lack of integrity, manliness, maturity. And that's because of the reputation of the institution.

I remember back in Newfoundland and Labrador 50 years ago, if denominations were being discussed other than your own, The Salvation Army was out of bounds. When the members of a touring Salvation Army band needed to be quartered, there'd be a rush among the townsfolk. When asked why, the response would simply be, “They're good people.”

You won't find on bronze or plaque a better testimony to the worth of an organization than the spontaneous utterance: “They're good people.”

Q. Newfoundland and Labrador has always been a hotbed of Salvation Army activity. What do you think accounts for that?

It's hard to generalize, but in a sense it's not surprising. It mirrors the Army's own kind of self-identification. There's a tradition of hospitality in Newfoundland and Labrador. Living in isolated areas, remote from everybody else, the instinct to assist and help is fairly strong. People who are pretty hard off—it's been noted before—are usually the most generous. You saw it on 9/11, in Gander, Gambo and in other towns. So down home, the ethos of The Salvation Army would fit very well with that kind of background.

Q. What do you feel are the strengths of The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda?

I think it's keeping to the basics: doing the basic things and avoiding secondary messages. The Salvation Army isn't into some political thing, leaving the core of what they do and branching out into some sort of semi-political organization. A lot of churches forget what's at the centre of their message and become, instead, imitations of social organizations. All of which is fine, if you want to do it, but I think the Army has been more consistent. If you're going to help the poor, if you're going to be there in distress, if you're around in emergency and disaster, keep it at that and don't be too self-congratulatory about it. That's what gives The Salvation Army the reputation that it has.

Q. Should The Salvation Army's faith factor enter into any political discussion of an organization with such a social ministry component?

People who pick on it because they don't agree with the core beliefs of the Army, I just think are nuisances, if you want to be really blunt about it. The Army does its own good work and doesn't have any discrimination. People who try to loop The Salvation Army into current trendy political discussions are either mischievous or ill-informed.

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