Canada Takes Its Own Tack in Mixing Religion and Politics ; the Role of Religion in Public Life Is Evolving Rapidly, as Churchesreact to Cutbacks in the Welfare State

Article excerpt

What got Preston Manning into such trouble recently in the Canadian Parliament was, arguably, that he behaved like an American.

Shortly after the Canadian Thanksgiving last month, the opposition leader expressed gratitude for "the religious liberty which allows each of us to turn toward God, or away from him." He voiced thanks for marriage and family, both rather broadly defined. He made reference to defining "the rights of the unborn."

And he drew a firestorm of criticism.

Accusing him of being homophobic and intolerant, critics interpreted his language as code for a divisive social agenda. His "values" rhetoric, which would be unremarkable south of the border, was roundly condemned in this country as "an address redolent of the values of the American religious right," as columnist Susan Riley put it.

That was not meant as a compliment.

If religion in public life has a different role in Canada from the United States, it is nonetheless complex - and evolving rapidly. Church people here, who tend to lean to the political left rather than the right, are alarmed about cutbacks in the welfare state and are looking for new ways to engage government. Mainline denominations are having to find a new footing as vestiges of their past roles as "established" churches erode. And court decisions, made in the light of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms from 1982, are raising questions about the appropriate role of religion in a secular society.

"There's been a greater polarization in the US, where the religious right is more active," says Marguerite Van Die, a historian at Queen's University at Kingston. She has just chaired a conference here, entitled "Faith and Public Life: Challenges, Choices, and Opportunities."

The US often serves as a negative role model for Canadians. Conservative denominations here, particularly, "have been consciously concerned to present a gentler image," Professor Van Die says.

At the institutional level, churches are having to rethink their roles as Canada becomes more pluralistic. Until the 1960s, Canada had what Van Die calls "an informal establishment" of traditional churches - an establishment that has since broadened to include other faith groups, including non-Christians.

But the British North America Act, Canada's constitution, still includes special privileges for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Only very recently have separate school districts for Catholics and Protestants been abolished in Quebec and Newfoundland. …