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A Dangerous Space for FaithA Dangerous Space for Faith

A Dangerous Space for Faith

Claims that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s Catholic beliefs disqualify him from becoming Canada’s Prime Minister are a dark turn away from tolerance and pluralism, writes Daniel Proussalidis.

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A Dangerous Space for Faith November 4, 2019  |  By Daniel Proussalidis
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The Canadian public square is an increasingly closed space—at least for voices of faith. The 2019 federal election campaign and its aftermath make it abundantly clear that there are new boundaries to what can and cannot be said publicly. Moreover, they’re now spilling in to what can and cannot be believed. This is dangerous.

During the campaign, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was harangued with media questions about his Catholic beliefs and whether he would “impose” them on Canada. No other party leader faced that kind of religious scrutiny. The implication was that Scheer’s religion is incompatible with public life. Could Scheer have answered the constant questions more effectively? Possibly. Some have suggested he wasn’t clear or believable enough to allay any concerns that he’d try to remake Canadian society. But even if we accept that Scheer’s answers were evasive, he would hardly be the first politician to answer questions that way. But he may, however, be the first in post-Second World War Canada to have endured a sustained, weeks long bombardment of similar questions about his religious beliefs.

What’s even more worrisome is that in the campaign’s wake, voices from the left and right have coalesced on the same point: Scheer’s Catholicism is a problem. 

“You cannot have Mr. Scheer’s beliefs and be the prime minister of Canada. It’s pretty clear,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told The Huffington Post.

The irony of Singh’s statement seems to be lost on him (and on the Huffington Post). Singh quite correctly opposes Quebec’s secularism law, which makes the NDP leader’s beliefs as a turban-wearing Sikh incompatible with being a teacher, police officer, or other public service worker. Yet now he turns around and suggests someone else’s beliefs don’t belong in the public square?

In a way, that position is not new on the political left. Former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair publicly slammed evangelicals for their “vision that goes completely against not only Canadian values, but Canadian law." NDP MP Megan Leslie doubled down, stating that Canadians’ beliefs could make them ineligible for government programs.

But the closing of the public square is happening on the political right as well.

Former Conservative minister Peter MacKay has labelled Scheer’s social beliefs an electoral problem. But Kory Teneycke, a former advisor to Prime Minister Harper and a supporter of Maxime Bernier’s Conservative leadership campaign, goes further. He publicly took Scheer to task over his beliefs recently, despite endorsing him in August as “a kind, intelligent and responsible person.”

Teneycke told CTV that Canadians won’t accept someone who has “a personal moral problem with gay marriage” and who continues to consider homosexual behaviour “a sin” because voters increasingly equate such beliefs with bigotry.

I know and respect Teneycke, having worked as a Sun Media reporter while he was head of the Sun News Network. I was surprised to see him take a position so similar to Singh’s.

It’s possible Singh and Teneycke are simply describing Canadians’ attitudes, not their own. If so, they should have said so. But if they’re actually taking the stance that Scheer’s beliefs make him genuinely unfit to be prime minister, it is a significant problem.

Firstly, Scheer’s beliefs are in line with the 2005 Civil Marriage Act, which opened marriage to two people of the same sex. The act acknowledges “the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs.” It also bluntly states, “it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.

The Civil Marriage Act is not an example of bigotry. Neither are Scheer’s views.

Secondly, where does this all stop?

Can someone hold beliefs like Scheer’s and be a cabinet minister, a member of parliament, a senator, a premier, a member of a provincial legislature, a mayor, a city councillor, a school trustee, or even a dog catcher? Will we start making religious beliefs (or their lack) a test of fitness for office?

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This matters to everyone, not just those who have traditional Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or other conservative religious beliefs. A religious test for fitness for public office would be a gross violation of religious freedom. And that would harm more than just religious Canadians.

Prof. Brett Scharffs at Brigham Young University has written that violating the freedom of religious speech or expression, religious assembly, or the religious press eventually endangers everyone’s fundamental freedoms.

“If we are unwilling to protect religious freedom, which lies at the core of human identity and meaning, then we should not expect our political, legal, and social institutions to protect other important civil and political rights,” Prof. Scharffs has written.

In other words, if religious expression isn’t allowed, which types of expression are next?

Instead of going down the path of a closed public square, let’s reimagine a public square that is open, vibrant, and truly tolerant of different voices. After all, faith is about much more than abortion and same-sex marriage. Former NDP MP Bill Blaikie recognized this fact in Convivium.

“It is not a good thing for the relationship between faith and politics to be so rigidly caricatured as something to be found only on the political right,” Blaikie wrote in 2011. “It is also not a good thing to have religion caricatured as being narrowly focused on only a few issues and therefore, by extension, to have faith or religious arguments seen as inadmissible in public discourse about other public policy questions. Questions of peace and war, of economic justice and environmental policy are also issues that can be informed by a faith perspective.”

A reimagined public square, therefore, might look something like this:

  • Political activists from the left and right being open to and in conversation with a variety of faith communities trying to engage public policy issues.
  • Journalists checking their own suspicions about faith to examine whether they’re encouraging social openness or marginalizing faith communities.
  • Leaders publicly recognizing that defending religious freedom strengthens the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly for everyone.

The 2019 federal campaign and its aftermath suggest Canada is taking a dark turn. But, as Blaikie argued eight years ago, that doesn’t mean we need to keep going in the same direction. 

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