Originally published at Convivium.ca on July 22, 2019.
Convivium contributor Don Hutchinson finds dishonourable fear-mongering at the core of columnist Michael Coren’s recent anti-faith attacks on Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
We get it. Michael Coren has shifted religious and political stripes. The former dark blue Conservative Catholic is now a dyed-in-the-wool, redder than red Liberal Anglican who has taken to writing opinion editorials that oppose those with whom he once shared religious and political beliefs.
But Coren’s recent attack pieces targeting Andrew Scheer for his religious beliefs are dishonourable, including Does Andrew Scheer have a religion problem? and Calling out Andrew Scheer’s religious extremism. Lamentably for Canadian politics, Coren’s words align with similar comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a number of Liberal MPs and staff.
A candidate’s religious beliefs are fair game, but accuracy is the standard in any depiction of them.
The preferred approach to comments on how a politician’s religion might influence his or her public policy aligns with the position taken by the Supreme Court of Canada on personal religious beliefs in its decision in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem.
“[R]espect for and tolerance of the rights and practices of religious minorities is one of the hallmarks of an enlightened democracy.” In Canada, every religious community is a minority. The 2011 National Household Survey denotes Canada’s largest religious community is Catholicism, declared by 39 per cent of the population. Catholics, two of whom are Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau, hold varying positions on public policy issues.
In the same decision, the Court wrote:
[…] Freedom of religion consists of the freedom to undertake practices and harbour beliefs, having a nexus with religion, in which an individual demonstrates he or she sincerely believes or is sincerely undertaking in order to connect with the divine or as a function of his or her spiritual faith.
Which, being interpreted, means you get to decide what you believe. You get to decide how you practice those beliefs. Be genuine about your religion. Be sincere. Canadians have differences of opinion about religious beliefs and practices. Respecting those differences, as the Court said, is one of the hallmarks of an enlightened democracy.
Until recently, Scheer, Trudeau and Coren all identified as Roman Catholics. Today, they hold differing perspectives on Catholicism and politics. The Supreme Court of Canada – and I suspect, you, I and most other Canadians – would say that’s fine. But Coren and Trudeau’s team take umbrage with that understanding when it comes to Andrew Scheer.
Scheer affirms he is a lifelong Catholic, who holds to the traditional teachings of his religious community. Trudeau self-identifies as a Catholic who experienced doubts before re-embracing his faith, one who publicly disagrees with a selection of Catholic teachings. Coren set aside previously held religious beliefs to become Catholic, then after a few years, disagreed with the teachings of the Catholic church so left to join another.
In Canada, all three men are validly expressing our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. None is disqualified from participation in public life as a result.
The anti-religious onslaught against Andrew Scheer is a form of ad hominem attack, a strategy designed to impugn Scheer’s motives and question his character by criticizing aspects of his religion rather than honourably addressing issues of policy or conduct.
Coren acknowledges Scheer is a “genuinely decent man,” then suggests a hidden agenda resulting from Scheer, in Coren’s words, “trying to disguise his personal and theological opposition,” i.e. his religious beliefs, in regards to abortion, LGBTQ+ equality and conversion therapy. Trying to disguise, but not succeeding according to Coren, who is unwilling to accept the sincerity of the genuinely decent man’s public statements on the issues.
It is difficult to confront the trope of a hidden agenda because of the very assertion that the agenda is hidden. But let’s consider Coren’s assertions.
In his determination to augment the allegation of a hidden agenda, Coren overreaches when he remarks that 15 per cent of Conservative Party members are similarly – and dangerously – religious. Coren’s math equally suggests that 85 per cent of those in the big blue tent are not comparably treacherous. The views of the 15 per cent are exaggerated by Coren because they are out of step with his current opinions, which Coren asserts to be the position of enlightened Church and society as well as the prime minister.
As reported in mainstream media and on social media, here are Scheer’s public statements on Coren’s litmus test issues:
- A government led by Scheer will not legislate on abortion.
- A Scheer-led Conservative government will not re-visit the now-14-year-old legalization of same-sex marriage. Neither will a Scheer government annul other LGBTQ+ rights.
- Asked for comment on the prime minister’s recent suggestion about legislating on conversion therapy, Scheer said the Conservative Party opposes forced conversion therapy. Trudeau having stated just months ago that a Liberal government would not legislate on the issue, Scheer said he would not comment on a Liberal Party legislative proposal until one exists.
For Coren, Scheer cannot be taken at face value simply because Scheer is “a devout and orthodox Roman Catholic.” The spectre of Andrew Scheer’s religious beliefs is introduced solely in an effort to demonize both man and religion.
Candid consideration of the influence Scheer’s religious beliefs have had on his political life reveals something different. Not a man with a hidden agenda, but, as Coren started his discourse before veering off course, a genuinely decent man.
Raised in Ottawa and functionally bilingual, Scheer moved to Regina, his wife Jill’s hometown. They have five children. Since 2004, Andrew Scheer has served as the member of Parliament for Regina–Qu’Apelle in a manner consistent with his religious beliefs.
MPs expressed their confidence in Scheer, electing him the youngest speaker of the House of Commons in Canadian history. Before that, Deputy Speaker. Andrew Scheer’s peers considered him an MP who would be fair with them in the refereeing responsibilities of the Speaker’s chair.
Coren also describes Scheer as “considered by many to be far too timid for the cut and thrust of party politics,” although he has done particularly well as a parliamentarian for 15 years, even before becoming leader of the Official Opposition. Scheer was not, however, even by opponents, described in terms that would hint he was untrustworthy, unreliable, or a liar with a hidden religious agenda until the Liberal Party fell behind in the polls to the Andrew Scheer led-Conservatives that had taken the lead.
Like your religion, you get to decide whether a genuinely decent man, who garnered support from Parliamentary peers of all parties to hold the Speaker’s chair, is the kind of person you want as Prime Minister.
By all means, reflect on the religious beliefs of Andrew Scheer, Justin Trudeau and others. Consider those beliefs as they themselves describe them and evaluate the evidence of how those beliefs have influenced their lives and their politics. Also take a look at their public statements, policy proposals and track records.
And be wary of fabricated accusations manufactured to cultivate fear.