Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith

Since she won’t apologize for remarks made by one of her candidates during the recent election campaign that many Albertans thought were offensive and anti-gay, Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith found herself trapped this week between a rock and a hard place.

The leader of Alberta’s Opposition party desperately wants to leave behind the brouhaha created by unsuccessful Edmonton-South West candidate Alan Hunsperger, who imprudently left a blog post lying around the Internet before last April’s election that expressed the view all gays are doomed to spend eternity in the Lake of Fire if they don’t repent.

To do so, Smith tried Tuesday to “mend fences,” in the words of a local newspaper, with Alberta’s gay community by attending the Edmonton Pride Festival Police Chief’s Reception, a low-key event that involved the kind of imagery the Wildrose Party is comfortable with — squad cars and people in uniform.

But members of the gay community, including some of the police officers at the reception, continue to make it clear they expect her to apologize for the remarks made by Pastor Hunsperger, who is a minister in a conservative Protestant congregation that holds homosexuality to be a violation of God’s law and apparently spends lot of time agonizing about it.

Smith refuses to say she’s sorry, insisting that to do so would amount to an attack on Hunsperger’s freedom of speech and religion.

As a result, the issue won’t go away, creaking like a rusty hinge every time Smith opens the gate in that fence she’s trying to mend — to the absolute delight of the Progressive Conservative Party of Premier Alison Redford, who used the original controversy to derail the Wildrose campaign days before the April 23 election.

So on Tuesday, Smith tried to sidestep the question of an apology by telling reporters that if anyone wants atonement for Hunsperger’s remarks, they’ll have to go to Hunsperger. “I think it’s important for us to have the conversation about religious freedom, freedom of speech and equality rights, because I think that’s really what this comes down to,” she extemporized, according to the Edmonton Journal.

As is often the case when the political right starts letting off steam about our fundamental freedoms, though, this issue isn’t really about freedom of speech or religion at all.

Virtually all Albertans agree with Smith that Pastor Hunsperger has a fundamental right to believe anything he chooses is sinful. As we know, there enough sins in the Old Testament of the Bible to consign us all to the lake of fire — apparently including wearing a wool suit with a linen collar! (Leviticus 19:19.)

The question is really whether holding those views and talking publicly about them in a casual and hurtful way made Hunsperger an appropriate candidate for the party, and whether his doing so indicated the party holds homophobic views — which, obviously, is precisely what a lot of Albertans concluded.

Imagine if the bee in Hunsperger’s theological bonnet had been that members of some other branch of Christianity — say, Catholics, or Baptists — were sinners bound for Hell. Would Smith be prepared then to apologize to the Catholics, or the Baptists, to save her electoral skin? Of course she would!

As a matter of fact, quite a lot of Christians hold exactly such views. Consider the controversy in the United States among evangelical Christians about the Mormon beliefs of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, which are presumably the same as those held by Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson. And it’s certainly consistent with Christian theology to believe non-Christians are bound for an unhappy eternal destination.

But you can count on it that supporters of a right-wing party like the Wildrose would never have gotten their knickers in a twist about that they way they have about homosexuality. It’s reasonable of us to ask why.

What’s more, almost all the Christians associated with parties of the right like Smith’s seem completely disengaged from many of the teachings of the nominal head of their church. For example, “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24.) If that’s not a clarion call for fair progressive taxation as a social good, in this world and the next, I don’t know what is!

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, the real reason for Smith’s predicament — and for her reluctance to say she’s sorry — is her party’s practice of wedge politics, not freedom of religion.

The Wildrose Party embarked on a strategy of wedge politics designed to separate groups of voters traditionally associated with Redford’s PC Party and drive them toward Wildrose candidates. For a time, at least until the discovery of Hunsperger’s Epistle to the Albertans, it seemed to be working spectacularly.

One of the groups they tried to appeal to was religious fundamentalists with strongly hostile views about sexual minorities.

The problem now faced by Smith, who I am sure is not personally homophobic, is that she can’t say sorry to the gay community without infuriating a significant portion of her party’s most loyal base, religious fundamentalists so carefully and discreetly cultivated before and during the election campaign.

It is said here Wildrose opposition to public payments for gender reassignment surgery, another sore point with the same community, is mud from the same muddy spring.

That’s the thing about wedge politics. It’s a two-edged sword, and sometimes it cuts on the side its wielder didn’t intend it to!

This must be very frustrating to a market fundamentalist like Smith who really, one strongly suspects, doesn’t care a fig about fundamental religious issues.

But it’s pretty hard to feel much sympathy for her predicament. She got herself there. Now she’s going to have to get herself out.

It seems like Pastor Hunsperger won’t be much help in that endeavour.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...