News
15 min

Fighting back religion: Part III

Religion is treading where Caesar ought walk

CROWDING PARLIAMENT. The same-sex marriage debate resulted in all sorts of fundamentalist religious groups, some funded with US money, setting up shop on Parliament Hill. Credit: John Crossen

When it comes to religion in this country, most Canadians tend to think of us as being miles ahead of our US neighbours in terms of separating it from matters of state and government.

After all, the idea of someone being elected in the States who doesn’t profess — however hypocritically — a belief in the Christian God is unthinkable. Evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists have been a major factor in the last few elections. Support for Israel in Congress is a virtual given. And they’ve had at least two presidents — Ronald Reagan and the current inhabitant of the White House — who seem to base their decisions as much on the Book Of Revelations as on geopolitical realities.

But in some ways, the US system is actually ahead of ours when it comes to the separation of church and state. For one thing, it’s in their Constitution, although not quite as clearly as most people think. The first amendment of the Bill Of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Though it is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” never actually appears anywhere in the US Constitution, the first part of the first amendment has been interpreted, by the courts and Congress, to mean that the government has no power either to establish a state religion or to interfere with the practice of religions. This has been taken to mean that, by the same token, religions have no right to interfere in government.

And while US lawmakers may seem to frequently override this prohibition, in Canada no such prohibition even exists. In fact, Canada has a long history of religious involvement in government. And sometimes, it’s been good. It was prairie preacher Tommy Douglas, after all, who famously established our system of medicare in search of his Jerusalem on Earth.

But religion has also been used, and yes, even by Douglas, to establish government policies of forced sterilization and eugenics and on longtime bans on abortion and legal protections for homosexuals. And long before George Bush launched his “faith-based initiative” in the US, the Canadian government had begun downloading social services to faith-based charities, opening up the possibility of discrimination against queers.

And in the last couple of years, the issue of same-sex marriage has cracked the fault lines wide open. We can now see clearly that religion has established itself firmly in every major political party, and the calls for religious involvement in political life are coming from every major religion, with anti-gay feeling being the motivating factor in many cases.

The debate over separation of church and state in Canada is no longer a theoretical one. It’s now a debate over the very future of governance in this country.

* * *

“Put me in the column of ‘Fuck off, what kind of nonsense is this?'” says Toronto bathhouse owner Peter Bochove.

Bochove, a longtime activist, is part of the Committee To End The 19th Century, a Toronto-based group dedicated to fighting government laws against consensual sex. Bochove is now part of a coalition active in fighting the Conservative government’s attempts to raise the age of sexual consent. He says the rise of religion in politics is terrifying him, beginning with the financial support Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are getting from the States for the battle over same-sex marriage.

“The money that has flowed into the Conservatives has come from the American religious right,” he says. “Because there’s no election, they don’t have to account for it.”

And the money certainly has flowed to the Conservatives and their religious allies. The party has a huge lead in finances over the opposition parties. And rightwing Canadian religious groups that formed to fight against same-sex marriage, or joined in the fight, have become rich.

Groups like the Canada Christian College and the Institute For Canadian Values have extensive ties to US groups and their funding has skyrocketed. And Focus On The Family, the Colorado-based group that Republican presidential hopefuls are currently trying to impress, has been especially active.

Focus On The Family (FOTF) established Focus On The Family Canada. The Canadian chapter has denied receiving funds from its US parents, but according to the Toronto Star, the US group’s 2003 financial report stated that “Focus provides, without charge, the cost of certain services necessary for the operation of the Focus On The Family (Canada) Association. The value of these services for the years ending Sept 30, 2003 and 2002 was approximately $217,000 (US) and $239,000 (US) respectively.”

The Canadian chapter also opened the Ottawa-based Institute Of Marriage And Family Canada, which, among other things, attacks the right of queer couples to adopt.

* * *

But the damage isn’t limited to organisations that have recently put out a shingle on the hill. There’s also the deeply committed religious activists who run for Parliament and sometimes get elected. And the reluctance of the leadership of any party to stand up for a secular Canada and denounce religion creep into the processes of our democracy.

Darrell Reid, the former head of FOTF Canada, ran, unsuccessfully, for the Conservatives in the 2006 election. In 2003, Reid had spoken against attempts to include homosexuals in the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code.

“You know, this isn’t the first time in human history where tyranny has been imposed on people. You know it happened in Germany in the ’30s and frankly I see some real parallels there because, you know, Adolf Hitler and his bunch really didn’t care ultimately what you thought personally but they really cared about what you said because that became dangerous.

“And, therefore, when people spoke up about things like freedom or spoke up about their religious values, that was when the power of the state started coming down.”

And in Ontario’s Kitchener-Conestoga riding, Rev Harold Albrecht was elected for the Conservatives. The recently retired pastor and founder of the Pathway Community Church wrote in a letter to a Kitchener newspaper in June, 2004: “If one is truly committed to the marriage vows of fidelity, these same-sex marriages would succeed in wiping out an entire society in just one generation.” And, he wrote, “Marriage is God’s idea, not man’s, therefore, He alone has the authority to define it.”

And in a byelection in London in November, 2006, Conservative candidate Dianne Haskett finished third. Haskett, while mayor of London, had refused to proclaim Gay Pride Day in 1995. After losing a human rights complaint over the matter in 1997, Haskett took out an ad in a local paper, in which she stated that she believed the human rights case was wrongly decided, and that the decision undermined guaranteed freedoms of expression and religion.

But while the Conservatives runs such new candidates, as well as the many rightwing Christians already in the party, Stephen Harper seems unwilling to expose the full range of their views to the Canadian public. At one campaign event during the last election, Albrecht was shut in a kitchen to keep him away from media. And in the London byelection, Haskett almost completely avoided both media and public appearances.

But notwithstanding any ambivalence the party might feel, they seemingly had no problems getting into bed with the Rev Tristan Emmanuel and his stridently anti-gay organization, Equipping Christians For The Public Square. ECP’s avowed purpose is to encourage Christians to enter public life, especially politics, and Emmanuel was very active in organizing Christian candidates to contest Conservative nominations in Ontario and the Maritimes.

An ECP newsletter from 2005 outlines the organization’s goals:

“That Christian Members of Parliament and Senators would seek the will of God in earnest in the performance of their vocation and public duties. Pray for courage and wisdom for those who are planning to counteract the homosexual juggernaut.

“That God would awaken Christians to their responsibilities in the political realm and to help us to realise the victory that is possible when we submit to His will and call our nation back to His law.

“That Christians would hold their MPs accountable, particularly those who profess to be Christians, in the performance of their duties as governors.”

But while Emmanuel has been working primarily with the Conservatives, the Liberals certainly have more than their share of religious fundamentalists, the leading one being Toronto-area MP Tom Wappel.

In the March 2000 edition of Theological Digest And Outlook, Wappel wrote about the difficulties of being a Christian MP.

“In 1994, the activist homosexual movement began to push its agenda forward. I was there to oppose it, again based on my Christian heritage and belief system… What is this [homosexual] agenda? It is to force everyone, not just to tolerate homosexuality, but to actively accept and embrace it as normal, and to teach our children that it is normal, so as to permit homosexual marriage, adoption and benefits. They want to make it illegal to say anything negative about the practice, even if you, as a matter of religion, believe it to be abnormal and sinful. The activists are well on their way to the successful completion of their agenda.”

It’s politicians like this, and their well-financed connections, that worries Bochove.

“Now it’s quite open. The religious right believes it’s in control up here, and they’re right. You need people who are willing to represent everybody. They certainly don’t represent me. I’m expendable.”

But Bochove’s worries about the religious infiltration of politics extend beyond the Conservative and Liberal parties. He’s equally worried, and far more disappointed, in the recent actions of the federal New Democratic Party.

The party’s history is rooted in populist prairie Christianity, as epitomized by Tommy Douglas, and religious faith has played a major role for the party over the years. Bill Blaikie, the longest-serving MP in Parliament, and a former party leadership candidate, is an Anglican clergy member. Ontario MPs Charles Angus and Joe Comartin — both Catholics — were refused communion by their congregations because of their support for same-sex marriage. Those three MPs are part of the NDP’s “faith caucus,” for party MPs who have religious beliefs. So far, the membership is all Christian.

Bochove is disgusted that the NDP would mix any sort of religious belief with politics in this era.

“They put forward the novel idea that it’s possible to be both religious and progressive. I don’t believe that’s possible. When you see this happening with the NDP, it’s particularly disturbing, because I don’t think it’s compatible.”

Bochove points to the party’s enthusiastic support for raising the age of consent — especially that of Comartin, the party’s justice critic — as an example of where religion leads even the NDP. Bochove says Comartin met with queer activists in Toronto last fall to try and persuade them to support raising the consent age, but wouldn’t even commit to voting against the bill if it didn’t bring the age of consent for anal sex — now at 18 — in line with other activities.

Bochove says he believes Comartin’s support for the bill is based on religious beliefs.

“This bill will strip 14- to 16-year-olds of their basic human rights. And it’s all based on this antiquated 2,000-year-old book. All the antiquated sex laws are based on outdated ideas. It’s all rooted very deeply in religion.

“I did not renew my membership in the party, nor am I going to. The NDP has left me terribly disappointed in this area.”

Indeed, the NDP seems willing to sacrifice social principle to religious belief. In the last federal election, the party ran Mona Mazigh — the Muslim wife of Maher Arar — in an Ottawa riding and retired Catholic priest Des McGrath in Newfoundland. Both candidates opposed same-sex marriage and said they would vote against it, despite the party’s support for it.

“I would vote for the Bloc Quebecois if I could,” says Bochove. “And I’m not sure about them.”

In fact, even the Bloc Quebecois has its religious members. Bloc MP Raymond Gravel, elected in a byelection last November, is a Catholic priest, although he stepped down from his post to serve as an MP. Gravel is probably not a typical Catholic priest; he admits to having been a gay prostitute as a teenager and to having worked in a leather bar. But despite publicly supporting same-sex marriage and abortion, he abstained from the vote on reconsidering same-sex marriage, contrary to Bloc policy.

Brent Hawkes, the senior pastor of the gay-centred Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto, believes the NDP’s religious members and faith caucus are exactly what’s needed in politics. He admits the party isn’t perfect, but says it’s essential to counter rightwing Christianity.

“I think that’s exactly what we do need in the progressive wing of politics. What we need is more of the spectrum speaking up. Politics has been dominated of late by the Christian right. With moderate and liberal churches declining in attendance, their finances are declining, their staff is declining, and they don’t have the voice. We’ve had the radical right being much more aggressive. They’ve got the money to spend.

“The majority in religious communities needs to speak up or their communities will be taken over by fundamentalists. Jesus came to save the religion of his day from the fundamentalists. Now all three of the major religions are about to be hijacked by the fundamentalists.”

In fact, it isn’t just Christianity that is taking over the public and political discourse in Canada. Judaism, Islam, even Sikhism, have all made major inroads in influencing government. And the one cause that seems to unite them all, and has even led to various alliances among them, is homosexuality.

In January, 2005, the spiritual leader of the world’s Sikhs told Canadian Sikh MPs to “fight tooth and nail” against same-sex marriage. Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, head priest of the Akal Takht, urged the MPs to stop such “anti-human tendencies,” saying the idea of same-sex marriage “originates in sick minds. We do hope the Canadian Sikh MPs will take a firm stand.”

And when demonstrations against same-sex marriage hit Parliament Hill in 2005 — the biggest, estimated at 15,000, was organized by Tristan Emmanuel — there were Sikhs, Jews and Muslims mingling with the Christian right. And the groups have come together to lobby in more structured ways, as well.

When Charles McVety — the president of the Canada Christian College — set out to form the anti-gay marriage Institute For Canadian Values, his choice to head the institute was Joseph Ben-Ami, an Orthodox Jew who had been the director of government relations and diplomatic affairs for Jewish advocacy group B’Nai Brith and a strong supporter of Stockwell Day.

Interviewed by the Jewish Tribune in June 2005 when he began the Institute job, Ben-Ami said, “A recent AP-Ipsos poll revealed that 25 percent of Canadians want their religious leaders — and I use that term broadly — to be active in the area of public policy development. Just to put that into perspective, that’s more than voted for the Liberals in the last federal election. We’re responding to that desire.”

The Jewish-Christian alliance is reflective of those seen in the States, where fundamentalist Christians have allied themselves with Jewish conservatives. The alliances have come about partly because of the Christian fundamentalist belief that Armageddon will begin in Israel, but also because of a shared anti-gay agenda.

According to a recent article by Marci McDonald in The Walrus magazine, McVety found kindred spirits in the conservative wing of Judaism:

“McVety’s preoccupation with Israel has become the thread that knits together his whirlwind organizational activities, from the fundamentalist theology that the college dispenses to the curiously wide-ranging agenda of the Institute For Canadian Values, where Ben-Ami fires out press releases on subjects as apparently disparate as same-sex marriage and Hamas terrorist threats. Both issues are concerns shared by the intensely conservative wings of the Christian and Jewish communities that rally around McVety and his closest collaborator, Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, who has an honorary doctorate from Canada Christian College on his office wall.

“Dimant and McVety’s mutual interest in Israel and family values is exactly what Stephen Harper had in mind three years ago in his Civitas speech when he laid out his plans for a new Conservative coalition that would unite social conservatives across faith lines. For those who can’t see the connection between so-con issues and Israeli security, McVety offers one practised sound byte. ‘Israel is the number one family-values issue,’ he says. ‘Where does marriage come from — God. Where does the Bible come from? Israel. The first family of Christianity — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — were all Jewish. Israel is the source of everything we have.'”

Fundamentalist Christian groups have also built alliances with Muslim groups, at least around their mutual opposition to homosexuality. And Muslim groups seem to have become perfectly willing to join the battle on their own.

Mohamed Elmasry, the president of the Canadian Islamic Congress — a mainstream, if very conservative, Muslim group — told the website IslamOnline.net in February 2005 in a discussion on same-sex marriage that, “I believe that the responsibilities of Canadian Muslims are to emphasize education in their own community and also other faith communities that homosexuality is against the natural law of the creator, and that it is harmful to the body, the mind and the soul of the person.”

The willingness of Muslim groups to enter the political arena seems to have several causes. Certainly, since 9/11, Muslim groups have had to become political purely as a matter of survival, to battle anti-terrorist legislation and police actions abridging human rights that Muslims fear will be used disproportionately against them.

Ontario’s debate over whether to allow Muslim sharia law to be used to decide family law disputes also brought many Muslim groups forward, although the debate split the Muslim community. Still, when the government decided not only to disallow the use of sharia, but also to end the practice of allowing Jewish family law, it created another alliance between religious groups.

And when it comes to homosexuality, Muslim groups and other religions seem to have been emboldened by Stephen Harper’s election campaign attempts to use opposition to same-sex marriage as a means of attracting support from minority communities. Harper made it very clear that his government supported such opposition and religious groups from minority communities have accepted the invitation.

But the alliances in the social and political arena between Christian and Muslim groups against homosexuality go back even beyond Sept 11, 2001. Perhaps the most significant battle was the fight in 2000 over the Toronto District School Board’s introduction of an equity policy including teaching about homosexuality as part of the curriculum.

The policy sparked heated protests from anti-gay groups, culminating in a gathering of several hundred people at Queen’s Park in September 2000. Among those protesting were members of Real Women, a Christian group with close ties to Stephen Harper; the Family Coalition Party of Ontario — for whom Tristan Emmanuel has run in several elections; Ontarians For Traditional Family Values, headed by Jann Flury, a Real Women associate; and the Toronto District Muslim Educational Assembly.

The TDMEA was especially vociferous in their opposition. At the time, their website talked of an “obligatory duty to protect children from corruption, destruction and the Fire,” and offered a letter for students to bring to their teachers. It stated: “We/I understood the so-called human sexuality agenda as a convenient institutional tool for the deliberate and conscious promotion of homosexual, bisexual and morally corrupt lifestyles on our children in the public schools.”

The website also contained, at the time, an essay by Jann Flury on AIDS And Homosexuality, which argued that “AIDS is a behavioural disease” caused by homosexuality. He called for compulsory testing, the identification of carriers, the dismissal of carriers from their jobs, and the quarantine and confinement of AIDS patients. These measures, Flury wrote, were blocked by homosexual lobby groups.

The TDMEA was disowned by many Muslim groups and mosques at the time, and their website no longer contains that material. Nor does it weigh in on same-sex marriage, although the site does still attack homosexuality.

“Homosexual and lesbian lifestyles are being taught as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable behaviour,’ in the name of the ‘Equity And Human Rights Policy,'” it says.

“Social Science and Family Studies Courses (articles and videotapes) are being used to teach the students that gay and lesbian people are ‘normal families.'”

But a major reason why the TDMEA may have lost influence, and probably the ability to easily call up their Christian allies, is that one of their leaders in the 2000 fight was Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal.

Jamal made a presentation to the Toronto District School Board stating, “If a class is addressing the ‘normalcy’ of homosexual or bisexual lifestyles, or promiscuous behaviours, then it is incumbent on the teacher to include opposing lifestyles without bias, such as the lifestyles of the three Monotheistic religions whose scriptures state that this form of behaviour is considered deviant and dangerous.”

The problem for the TDMEA is that Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal is married to Qayyum Jamal, a 43-year-old Muslim man arrested this past summer as one of the suspects accused of plotting to blow up sites in Southern Ontario.

But certainly not all Muslim groups support their religion fighting against same-sex marriage or getting involved in the political arena at all. The Canadian Muslim Union (CMU) is one of the few religious groups of any stripe calling for a strict separation of church and state.

Gary Dale, the CMU membership secretary and an NDP candidate in the 2006 election, says religion has no place in politics.

“Political discussions have to be framed in secular terms,” he says. “You can’t be arguing a particular way because your interpretation of your particular religion is that way. They should have to show it objectively. Otherwise, it gets down to ‘my religion is better than your religion.'”

Dale says the same argument should apply to same-sex marriage.

“If you try to frame that in religious terms, it comes down to which religion you hold in greater esteem.”

Dale says that, perhaps contrary to what many people think, he believes most Muslims support keeping religion away from politics.

“You can’t have a state religion in a multicultural society and world. Separation of church and state means that the fact that they’re a religious body doesn’t mean they should be given a special status.

“Probably a lot of Muslims support that position, primarily because Islam is a minority religion. If Canada had a state religion, it definitely would not be Islam. A lot of Muslims come from countries where there was a state religion, and they’re tired of living under that system.”

But for gays and lesbians, it’s beginning to seem that homophobia has become the new state religion. With religious leaders united on the evils of homosexuality — if little else — there’s a common message coming from many of the bishops, imams and rabbis in the country. Homos are evil and same-sex marriage is leading to the destruction of the moral order, they say. And even their politics opponents have stopped talking about keeping religion out of politics and are themselves forming religious caucuses and arguing religious dogma.

And with the power of the pulpit being increasingly funnelled into sophisticated and well-funded lobbying organizations — and with a government more than happy to lend a sympathetic ear — gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans are under religious attack in Canada as never before.

Queers have made major gains in Canada over the last few years. But in order to maintain them, and to advance further, we have to find a louder political voice — in local ridings, in election campaigns and in Parliament — and drown out the religious tumult.