Fourth in a four-part series considering the idea of the politicization of the Charter right to freedom of religion.
What happens when Canadians with religious beliefs choose to engage the political sphere locally, provincially or federally?
Sometimes it goes well, because of a shared desire for the common good and human flourishing.
Sometimes, when you mix religion and politics, you get politics.
Among the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for all Canadian citizens are rights to vote and to seek elected office. Seeking office requires candidates to meet the qualifications for that office, which may go beyond citizenship alone (e.g. file authorized papers for candidacy, not convicted of an electoral violation or other disqualifying corrupt act).
Political office holders across the country have historically expressed a wide variety of personal beliefs, as well as beliefs shared in the communities they belong to, including religious. Candidates and office holders often seek the support of friends in their religious community, support that may freely be offered by individual supporters with constraints spelled out in election laws and regulations.
Decisions by political parties and leaders have resulted in people of faith feeling welcome or unwelcome in different parties at different times. However, if one looks at party policy instead of leader rhetoric, it is apparent there is potential for biblical alignment with or against policy in all political parties. The question becomes, what issues are most important for the individual voter/candidate to support and what issues are deal breakers that exclude?
Little more than half a century ago, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker sat across the House of Commons from NDP leader (and former Saskatchewan Premier) Tommy Douglas. Both men were Baptists. Searching the Scriptures, one can find support for human rights – something both men agreed on – as well as caring for those in need through use of government funded resources (medicare, social housing), supported by Douglas, or through the Church (religious hospitals, social housing as ministry), supported by Diefenbaker who held a different perspective on government fiscal accountability.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a Roman Catholic, legalized abortion in instances when a mother’s health was determined to be at medical risk. He also expressed a commitment to use of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause if a court was to find a general right to abortion. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down Trudeau’s law, acknowledging the state’s interest in a child before and after birth but finding the law as it was structured put certain women at risk. The Court found no right to abortion. Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) insists such a right exists, and will not endorse candidates for his party who would disagree with him on that point in Parliament. The caucus lists of Trudeau le père and Trudeau le fils both boast Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Mainline Christian presence. Is that just politics or an indication of other Scriptural priorities for some Liberal Party caucus members?
Less than a decade ago the NDP had about a dozen MPs in its faith and justice caucus. Last I heard, the caucus is gone.
The Conservative party has substantial numbers in caucus from a variety of faith communities, including several Christians of various expressions.
For Christians who believe the Scriptural injunctions to love our neighbours [Matthew 22:39] and seek the best for the city (and nation) in which we live [Jeremiah 29:7] compel participation in the political arena, it can be a challenge to not let politics overwhelm that Christian compulsion.
First, it is vital to guard one’s heart [Proverbs 4:23]. Life priorities must supersede political priorities.
Second, separate the issues from political parties. Policy advocacy, based on Scriptural principles, may or may not involve participation in a political party. One can engage on issues such as caring for the poor, seeking an end to human trafficking, adoption, or abortion without joining a political party.
Third, for Christians who join a political party, especially if desiring to influence its policies and/or candidates, it is important to realize that an equally zealous Christian might join another party with equal desire to prioritize the same or different policies that have captivated their interest.
The Church generally, and each Christian individually, courts trouble when partisan participation is placed ahead of Christian ethics and behaviour.
Warning bells should sound when a Christian leader seeks to draw a congregation or denomination to align with his or her preferred partisan expression rather than on points of policy. Christian identity does not equate with partisan identity. While statistics bear out that depictions of Christians as a voting bloc are generally false, advocating such a bloc within a congregation or denomination may serve to reinforce such mischaracterization. And, if the congregation or denomination is a registered charity, would be in violation of Canada Revenue Agency rules that allow only non-partisan political activity.
On another front, it is societally divisive when one religious community claims or appears to claim entitlement to special status in the political arena or elsewhere in Canadian life. The politicization of Islam in Canada has resulted in both exploitation of the undefined term Islamophobia and pushback against the term’s use. That pushback is from inside and outside Canada’s Muslim communities. A key component of that pushback is the sense of a claim to special status for a religious group, including exemption from critical evaluation and peaceful dialogue.
In Canada, all beliefs and practices, religious and those that might be considered non-religious, must be open to critical evaluation and peaceful dialogue, debate and dissension. In a nation with constitutional recognition of “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” as its second listed fundamental freedom, such peaceful public conversations must be considered hallmarks of our democracy.
Freedom of religion means that all religions are on equal footing. The same footing as those who claim to be non-religious. The expectation of special status for a religion, or the assertion to exclude religion, is not the language of freedom.
The role of government in a free society is to serve all citizens, including but not limited to those in the Church or any other religious group.
In Canada, governments are constitutionally required to be impartial in their treatment of citizens. As noted earlier in the series, the Supreme Court of Canada has referred to this as “state neutrality.”
Governments and the citizenry have historically benefited from the presence and work of religious organizations in a variety of ways. And, still do. Government has expressed support for that work through financial assistance for projects intended for the common good and by providing benefits in recognition of continuing public contribution (e.g. charitable registration gives donors a benefit for income tax purposes, distinct municipal property tax status, criminal prohibition against interference with a religious ceremony, etc.). Government support, however, commonly comes with limitation on the political activity in which religious organizations may participate. That limitation is to non-partisan participation in the political sphere by the organizations.
Policy advocacy that aligns with the charitable or other religious objectives of the organization is acceptable. It is also different in kind from political advocacy (or political collusion) that aligns the Church, or a congregation or denomination, with a political party.
Religion is politicized when it is aligned with political partisanship. That’s mixing religion and politics in a way that often begets politics alone as the result. Those who argue for such engagement on the basis of religious freedom may unintentionally be promoting the degradation of our religious freedom, the freedom to believe and practise religion, in favour of submission to political positioning. Certainly, Christianity is first concerned with freedom to worship. More than worship, however, it is also concerned with freedom to share the Gospel with others, including discipleship and public influence in the interest of the common good; i.e. various aspects of freedom of religion that merely begin with worship.
Religion engaged in the political sphere – encouraging government practices for the common good – may remain healthy as long as participants recognize politics has wins and losses, may require compromise, and sometimes requires acceptance of incremental advancement on policy goals. In Canada, governments are required to accept religiously based proposals as equal in value to non-religious in their consideration of practical policy wisdom.
Government is required to recognize, even promote, religious freedom, but government is not meant to advance religion. Christianity, however, is expected to advance good government. That’s an expression of love for all our neighbours.