Has faith become a dirty word in the campaign for the Oct. 21 federal election?
For many people of faith, it might seem that way. They’ve raised concerns about threats to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Pro-life politicians have been ousted for expressing their views. And the banning of religious symbols in Quebec has become the hot-button issue that the major party leaders are reluctant to address.
Faith-related issues have become so sensitive that few candidates are willing to go on record. Grandin Media reached out to candidates from the three main parties to discuss the topic of religion and politics, but received no response from Liberals or New Democrats. Garnett Genuis, a Catholic and Conservative candidate for the Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan riding east of Edmonton, maintains nonetheless that the debate about secularism in a pluralistic society is growing.
“There are now many different examples of secularity coming up against the desires of people of faith to live according to their conscience,” he said. “It has thrust the interplay between faith and politics into the conversation a little bit more.”
Quebec’s Bill 21, passed in June of this year, calls for a total ban on religious wear such as hijabs and crucifixes for people working in the public sector. It has been criticized by a variety of faith groups.
“As long it’s not being imposed on other people, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives every Canadian the right to practise religion as they see fit and have the ability to dress and present themselves as they may choose,” said Adil Hassan, spokesperson with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council. The council is a non-profit organization that focuses on issues around Islamophobia and religious liberty.
“Whether you’re Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever you are, you should be able to express your faith in whatever way makes you most comfortable. When government steps in and dictates that, it sets a very dangerous precedent.”
Hassan is troubled by how the issue has been addressed in the leaders’ election debates. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau refused to call the bill discriminatory. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stated he would not intervene on the legislation, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said only that he might intervene if the bill were challenged at the Supreme Court.
On this issue, Hassan believes the desire to win votes has replaced the conscience of candidates.
“Whoever is seeking elected office needs to be true to themselves and what they believe,” he said. “Oftentimes, especially in politics, we see people trying to be everything to everyone without being true to who they are. We’ve seen that with the issue of Bill 21 in Quebec, where a lot of federal leaders are skirting around the issue because they know there’s votes to be had in Quebec so they don’t want to say what is right.
“Obviously this is a law that goes against what our Canadian Charter stands for. They use the excuse of secularism, but there’s no secularism in treating people as second-class citizens.”
The right for candidates to hold pro-life views has been challenged as well.
Trudeau stated in a 2011 interview that he was personally pro-life but has barred any Liberal candidates from taking the pro-life position on issues like abortion or euthanasia. Scheer would not reopen the abortion debate if elected, but he has allowed pro-life candidates the opportunity to express their beliefs publicly. The Conservative leader has been criticized by his opponents for that stance.
On the campaign trail in September, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told a CBC interviewer that Jesus Christ was her personal hero, only to apologize immediately for mentioning his name. Recently former B.C. premier Christy Clark, who is personally pro-choice, spoke out against the call to forbid MPs from expressing pro-life views.
Edmonton voter Barb Brownwell believes politicians should be able to speak openly of their views on issues like abortion, but any change in the law should be made through popular vote rather than religious grounds.
“I’m personally against abortion and I think that debate should be opened up,” Brownwell said. “But any change in our laws should be decided by vote, not by religion.”
While it is not an issue this election, Alberta has faced its own religious liberty battles. Covenant Health, the country’s second-largest Catholic health-care provider, has faced challenges around requests for Medical Assistance In Dying, a practice that violates Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life. Covenant Health does not offer MAID in its facilities.
Father Deacon Andrew Bennett sees this election as particularly challenging for Catholics. Bennett, who was Canada’s first and only Ambassador for Religious Freedom, says the Catholic position that defends life at all stages is now being viewed as unacceptable in polite society.
“This prompts Catholics to consider two paths to follow: living fully as Catholics in every aspect of our lives, or opting for a path in which we depart from Catholic teachings we consider to be, shall we say, inconvenient truths,” Bennett said in an Oct. 10 column.
“Truth must guide our lives and determine our public and private actions. We must strengthen our public lives of faith so we might live authentically as Catholics alongside our fellow citizens in pursuit of the common good.”
Genuis agrees that an inclusive pluralism is what’s needed, where all people have the right to express the fullness of their convictions and beliefs.
“The social benefit of that is other people have access to ideas and can participate in dialogue with those complete visions,” he said. “If our perception of secularism becomes a way of saying you have to think exactly like me to be in the public square, well that is precisely what the original secularists would have opposed.”
However, among many voters, religion and politics ought to be as far apart as possible.
Brad Hardstaff spent many years as a Christian missionary, but now his views have changed. The Edmonton man believes religion should not play any role in the decisions that govern society.
“I think that faith and politics should not mix. It can be a very dangerous combination,” said Hardstaff. “If you just look south of the border, people call themselves Christian and Republican in the same breath. But if you know a little about the two things, they are mutually exclusive.”
The extent that religious belief should have an impact on a person’s political outlook should be limited to two basic principles, in Hardstaff’s view.
“I’ve got the Gospel measured down to two points – judge not and you’ll be judged with the measure you’re using, and forgive and you’ll be forgiven. That’s the only religious view I’d say politicians should try.”
The first fundamental freedom listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the freedom of conscience and religion. Because of this, Genuis thinks issues around religious liberty should be a concern to all people, even those who have no religious affiliation.
“Freedom of conscience is much broader than just freedom of religion; it’s not just an issue for faith communities,” he said. “We’re talking about basic protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The protection of conscience is about what you believe, not the spiritual origin of those beliefs.
“People are always influenced by their basic presumptions about the world, whether those are religious or not.”
For Ahmed Abdi, an Edmonton resident and practising Muslim, it cannot be ignored that many people’s views are shaped by their faith. But Abdi also notes that pluralism is a fundamental pillar of Canadian society.
“This is a country with the rule of law. There needs to be that inherent respect for people as human beings, regardless of colour or creed,” he said. “Everyone should be treated fairly and with open communication; that’s ultimately what I stand for.
“But there’s no doubt, in whatever you do, your conscience will guide you. If what someone stands for is in conflict with your beliefs, you have to use your conscience and vote wisely. That is why we have the freedom to choose.”
There are efforts to ensure people of faith are not discounted in the electoral process. An election debate with a Catholic perspective was hosted by the Archdiocese of Toronto on Oct. 3 and livestreamed across the country. The debaters included Genuis, the sole representative from Western Canada. Candidates in Ontario ridings for the Liberals, NDP, Green Party and People’s Party also participated.
Hassan sees opportunities like this as one of the best ways people of faith can ensure they have a role in the public discussion. Working with other faith groups is a key component to ensuring that happens, as was demonstrated earlier this year in a meeting between Archbishop Richard Smith and Edmonton’s Muslim community.
“We’re seeing more and more interfaith work across the board, not only in politics. I think that’s extremely important,” he said. “There’s so much commonality between faith groups that it’s important we work together on issues that affect all of us.”