Struggle for religious freedom dominates Conservative worldview

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Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

Andrew Scheer's first response to the terrorist murder of Muslims while they worshipped in Christchurch, New Zealand was immediately criticized for the lack of any mention that it was Muslims who had been targeted and murdered. The reaction was so swift and overwhelming that several hours later, he felt compelled to issue a second statement, which did acknowledge that Muslims had been the victims of the attack.

Analysis of Scheer's first statement tended to focus on what he had not said rather than on what he had actually said. The quote of what he did say the first time was:

"Freedom has come under attack in New Zealand as peaceful worshippers were targeted in a despicable act of evil. All people must be able to practice their faith freely and without fear."

A variety of motives or beliefs have been attributed to Scheer for his glaring omission of any reference to the Muslim victims. I want to suggest that however true or not these may be, there is an important insight into Scheer's worldview contained in what he did say.

In emphasizing the word "freedom" and the need for "all people to be able to practice their faith freely and without fear," Scheer revealed that his default position on this -- and, I would argue, on other issues as well -- is the perspective of those Canadian Christians who feel that they are under siege by the dominant culture and that freedom of religion, as they understand it, is under attack. The conscious or unconscious attempt by Scheer to cram the Christchurch attack into one of the favourite narratives of his religious and political universe should not go unnoticed, and tells us just how important this perspective is to how he interprets the world around him.

When I was a theology student in Toronto 45 years ago, I recall a remark made at a lecture I attended by the late Gregory Baum, a prominent Roman-Catholic theologian. He told us then that the dividing line between Christians no longer ran between the denominations. Instead, it ran between those Christians who saw the demise of Christendom and welcomed it, or at least accepted it, as an opportunity for new forms of faithfulness to emerge, and those who saw the demise of Christendom and were determined to resist that demise, or indeed, restore Christendom to its former glories. This would have been just a few years before the full-scale emergence of the religious right in America, which certainly conformed, either genuinely or in some cases for purely tactical political reasons, to Baum's analysis.

In Canada, the political resistance to the demise of Christendom was first made explicitly manifest by the emergence of the Reform Party of Canada and its ongoing reincarnations as the Canadian Alliance and now the Conservative Party of Canada. Its first three leaders, Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, and Stephen Harper, were all evangelical Christians. Andrew Scheer, somewhat differently, is a profoundly conservative Catholic whose perspective belongs to a generation of Catholics strongly influenced by the teachings of Pope John Paul II on issues like abortion and homosexuality, although his teachings and that of his successor Benedict on the value of strong trade unions and the perils of corporate globalization seem to go unheeded, not to mention the current Pope Francis's teachings on climate change. Some who previously championed papal infallibility now believe in selective infallibility.

Having lost the culture wars on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, there is now a counter-insurgency going on in the name of religious freedom. The debate is in part about the limits to dissent when the culturally victorious view takes the form of rights and not just contingent policy decisions. And sometimes the culturally victorious complicate matters by clumsy actions such as the "values attestation" demanded by the Liberals last year for religious groups who wished to be eligible for grants from the Summer Jobs Program. The requirement has been modified for this year. One is tempted to argue that a more appropriate test would be asking Loblaws to sign an attestation about the importance of raising the minimum wage before giving the company $12 million for new fridges.

In any event, it is clear that the Conservatives under Scheer have yet to reconcile their lament for the demise of Christendom with the reality of a secular, pluralistic, multicultural and diverse Canada. In the struggle for resolution to their problem, Canadians of other faith traditions are sometimes allies on some questions of religious freedom, and sometimes problematic insofar as they contribute to the threatening diversity. The real danger, already realized, is that to their shame, the Conservatives have yielded to the temptation to attract and even court unsavoury elements within Canadian society who hear dog whistles, intended or otherwise, in what they have to say.

Ultimately, Canada will have to decide whether or not to practice the inclusive secularism recommended by philosopher Charles Taylor or the exclusive secularism on offer in Quebec at the moment. The former creates space for the religious, which Conservatives presumably like. The latter is an attack on diversity in the name of secularism, but contains elements of a previous Conservative policy on religious apparel. A return to Christendom is not one of the choices. The Conservatives have yet to choose.

Having said this, it also needs to be said that the Conservatives are not alone in wondering just how to navigate the post-Christendom waters, even as they bring their own particular and uniquely conflicted perspective to the table.

Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties, and Parliament.

Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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