A Secure Border; in Canada, Religion & Politics Don't Mix

By Higgins, Michael W. | Commonweal, November 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Secure Border; in Canada, Religion & Politics Don't Mix


Higgins, Michael W., Commonweal


As the United States was nearing the end of one of the most engaging and fraught national election campaigns in recent history, we Canadians conducted a national election of our own on October 14. There were few surprises and even less excitement over the contest. As expected, the Conservative Party, the Tories, were sent back to govern the nation. The good news for the Tories was that they increased their numbers in Parliament; the bad news is that even with an additional 19 members (bringing their total to 142) the party still has to lead a minority government. The Liberals, the Grits, fell to a new low with 76; the social democrats, the New Democratic Party, impressively increased their representation from 29 to 37; the Green Party managed to engage the country's interest but not enough to elect even one MP; and the separatists, the Bloc Quebecois, defied expectations and not only survived but managed to muster a safe complement of 50 members to threaten national unity on another day.

The parties warred over the economy, funding for the arts, troop deployment in Afghanistan, the environment, and why we are not Americans. The one thing they did not fight about, at least explicitly, is religion. That would have been very un-Canadian.

This is not to say that religion didn't show its contentious side occasionally during the six-week election period (Canadians like to keep their political campaigns brief), only that it never made it to the national agenda. Canadians are fanatical about keeping the spheres of religion and politics separate. Although there is no constitutional separation of church and state, the two realms interpenetrate at their peril.

Canadian politicians are not as faith-averse as some of their European counterparts, but they are collectively nervous about introducing religious issues in the political arena. They tend to get burned when they do, and they remember their history, a history of sometimes violent religious conflicts. Once it was commonplace for Catholics to be exhorted by politics-meddling priests, scheming bishops, and fiery apologists for the Ultramontane perspective to vote for the "right" candidate. Their Protestant adversaries were equally fervent. Of course, the heady days of Protestant-Catholic conflict that characterised nineteenth-century Canadian politics, and the seismic changes ushered in by the mid-twentieth-century secularization of clerical (and strongly Jansenist) Quebec, are over. But politicians are still jittery when it comes to invoking God, making the sign of the cross in public, and alluding to the transcendent in anything but the most innocuous terms.

Consequently, a generally welcome feature of the Canadian sensibility is that leaders of the five major political parties are careful not to wear their religion on their sleeves. For voters, journalists, commentators, and citizens with a mild interest in the religious leanings of a potential prime minister, it is close to impossible to get information on a candidate's creedal or spiritual perspectives. It is not that politicians are particularly irreligious--indeed, the reelected Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a professed intellectual attachment to religion--it is rather that they are uniformly uncomfortable talking about questions of faith. And that seems strange when you consider that the current speaker of the Senate holds two doctoral degrees from pontifical universities, that several MPs are Protestant ministers, that the annual prayer breakfast on Parliament Hill is a sold-out event, that a large percentage of federal politicians identify their call to public service as an expression of their Christian vocation, and that avowedly Catholic politicians are not subject to the same kind of censorious scrutiny experienced by some of their U.S. coreligionists.

Still, religion, and Catholicism specifically, surfaced at various points during the election, around the editorial table, or in caucus.

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A Secure Border; in Canada, Religion & Politics Don't Mix
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