AS THE Canadian election campaign gets underway, and the
U.S. presidential race steams toward its conclusion, observers have noted key
differences in the ways faith is presented publicly in the two countries.
In Canada, Green Party leader Elizabeth May was the subject of a photo in the
September 9 Ottawa Citizen showing her donating some organically-grown
pumpkins to The Mission -- an Ottawa
inner-city ministry to street people, sited virtually within the shadow of the
The gesture was one of a series of occasional Canadian forays into the world
of relating faith and politics. All federal political parties attempt to engage
at this level. But to many observers, they appear to do so much more subtly than
do their American counterparts.
'Universal' vs. 'Religious'
David Kilgour, recently retired
federal cabinet minister and a serious advocate for spiritual input on public
policy issues, suggests some reasons for the Canadian subtlety. Kilgour
co-authored Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, an exploration of contrasts between
Canada and the U.S. He says Canada's lower religious commitment profile causes
politicians to use "universal" terminology, rather than "religious" language,
when dealing with potentially contentious values-based issues.
The sense with many politicians is that "if you are open to one faith, you
will draw hostility from other faiths who feel they are being left out," Kilgour
explains, adding that elected representatives "don't want to [be seen to]
represent only some of the people."
But American politicians, too, can be cautious on such expressions, Kilgour
adds, noting that such caution goes back to president Abraham Lincoln, who
"really understood different religious motivations and nuances and was never
exclusionary. He was able to have a resonance with many faith communities."
However, Kilgour allows that, in Lincoln's day, religious diversity was
limited basically to Protestant and Catholic Christianity; whereas present day
Canada's populace includes increasing numbers of non-Christian religious groups.
And he points out, as well, that "a politician might be more at ease in using
specifically religious language in, say, Abbotsford, than in mid-town Toronto."
Elizabeth May -- who hopes one day to be
ordained as an Anglican minister -- likes to make the point that many Christians
are prepared to give a nod to issues that aren't necessarily perceived as
'socially conservative,' such as the need to save the planet.
She makes the point because mainstream media coverage often leaves the clear
impression, in both the United States and Canada, that there is a symbiosis
which ties the political and religious right together.
The Palin factor
That perception has been heightened in the U.S. by the addition of Alaska
governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket, as John McCain's vice
presidential running mate. Palin
represents many things which seemed to be needed on that ticket, not the
least of which was the rounding up of evangelical support for the Republicans.
The possible downside of that support is the logical desire of mainstream
media to dig into Palin's church background, which some of her critics decided
exhibited a theocratic bent.
Throughout her life, Palin has been associated with Pentecostal or
charismatic churches that help to shape the culture and politics of life in
small town Alaska. It was not hard to find clips showing clergy friends of the
Palin family who reference a biblical quote about "the ends of the earth" and
portray it as a prophetic portrayal of God's future blessing on Alaska.
Some Christians are inclined to dramatize biblical or historically religious
references to encourage the involvement of people of faith in the political
In Canada, the particular text they draw upon is the psalm declaring that God
"shall have dominion
from sea to sea." Christian leaders bringing tour groups to the Peace Tower
often pray that God will soon fulfill prophecy, bring his dominion to Canada and
publicly anoint the leader of his choosing.
A wide range of serious Canadian Christians take encouragement from the
"dominion" reference. But most see the kingdom of God as being established in
people's hearts, more than in the legislative chambers. They would suggest that
when people pray and fellowship together, they draw strength. And they believe
that those who are politically active among them will allow their faith to shape
the influences they bring to bear on public policy issues.
To that end, a September 6 analysis in the National Post is
instructive. The piece deals with new approaches being taken to one of the
issues considered most crucial to socially conservative Christians; it was
written by David Frum -- a Canadian conservative analyst who works with an
American think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
Entitled 'The new
(softer) face of pro-life,' the article pointed out that when Palin made her
acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, she "welcomed her
family onto the stage: her husband, her five children and the fiance of Bristol,
her visibly pregnant 17-year-old daughter."
Noted Frum: "That moment confirmed a dramatic evolution in American politics:
the transformation of the pro-life movement from an unambiguously conservative
force into something more complex."
Frum made the following points to defend that thesis:
- The pro-life movement is finding new allies in unlikely places.
- It has made cause with the rights of the disabled.
- It has accepted gender equality and leadership roles for women.
- And "most fascinating of all, it has come to terms with the sexual
Religious groups, he said, have opened some 2,200 crisis pregnancy centres
across the United States in recent years. Frum also cited the development of
in-school nurseries, so unmarried teenagers who have given birth can keep their
children and still attend high school.
The point of Frum's piece is that this broadened approach on the part of the
pro-life movement has worked. His proof? Statistics show that "in 1981, 29.3
abortions were carried out for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the
United States. By 2005, that rate has tumbled to 19.1 per 1,000 women."
In other words, abortion, he says, "has been made more rare; unwed motherhood
has been normalized. However you feel about that outcome, it is not
well-described as either left-wing or right wing."