Canada
4 min

Harper isn’t the only leader guided by religion

Whoever we elect will bring their beliefs into office with them

Religion hasn’t played a big part in the election so far. Unlike the previous contests where Stephen Harper tried to appeal to religious communities by using the anti-gay marriage card, this campaign has been determinedly secular.

The Conservatives have kept a tight muzzle on their collection of far right religious nuts, mainly by refusing to let any of their local candidates speak to the national press. And the Liberals, who sport their own collection of God-inspired loonies (see Dan McTeague, for example), have been downplaying God as well.

But make no mistake. God may be too busy deciding whether he supports Obama or McCain to be worrying about our election, but whoever we end up electing as our next Prime Minister is going to bring religious belief into the office with them.

Stephen Harper’s religious beliefs are explored in frightening detail in Marci McDonald’s investigative piece. If Harper is given a majority government, which is entirely possible as of this writing, it seems that God will be given an open invitation to walk into the Houses of Parliament anytime he pleases.

But don’t think Harper is the only leader guided by religious beliefs. Jack Layton belongs to the United Church. Elizabeth May is an Anglican, although she insists her religion has zero impact on her politics. In an opinion piece in the National Post, she writes of the Green Party, “We don’t do God here…. Church and state must be separate as institutions, but it is important that voters know the motivations of their political leaders and the extent to which they may be influenced by their religious beliefs… My religious faith is a large part of who I am, but it has nothing to do with the Green party and our policies.”

Stephane Dion describes himself as Catholic, although to what extent he practices is debatable. Still, on the Michael Coren show, he talked about his desire to “reconcile people with God’s environment” and saving the planet “given to us by God.”

Religious belief, in and of itself, doesn’t mean an individual can’t be progressive and gay-friendly. The NDP and the Liberals, for example, are running two candidates who are both openly gay and openly religious in Toronto. NDPer El-Farouk Khaki, in Toronto Centre, is a well-known gay activist and an equally well-known gay Muslim. Liberal Rob Oliphant, in Don Valley West, is a United Church minister.

(As an aside, it’s become not uncommon for Christian ministers from various denominations to run for and serve in Parliament, including the now retired Catholic priest Raymond Gravel, who had a background as a gay teen prostitute. It’s much less common for priests, imams or rabbis from other faiths to run, and, as far as I know, there are none actually serving in Parliament. There are Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and members of other faiths serving as MPs, but none of the leaders from those faiths. Why is that? I don’t think other faiths prevent their religious leaders from running for parliament. Are they worried that voters won’t accept a religious figure other than a Christian priest or minister?)

But religion can influence otherwise progressive politicians when it comes to queer issues. The debate around the Conservative age of consent bill is a prime example. The bill passed with all-party support despite the fact that it did nothing to bring the higher age of consent for anal sex in line with other forms of intercourse. The NDP point man on the bill, who tried to persuade queer activists to support it, was Joe Comartin, a Catholic. Despite the fact that he had been excommunicated from his congregation for his support of same-sex marriage, he was not willing to stick his neck out for ass-fucking.

As Marion Boyd, the former NDP attorney-general of Ontario, told me, it’s that particular aspect of gay sexuality that gets to even progressive religious types.

“It’s that kind of Levitical thing that gets people really upset. It’s not really surprising that we talk about missionary position.”

Religious belief also seems to make it easier — not that they ever find it hard — for parties to allow their MPs to flout party policy. The Liberals allowed hardcore — and often homophobic — opposition to same-sex marriage from MPs like Tom Wappel and McTeague. In the last election, the NDP was willing to run candidates like Monia Mazigh and Catholic priest Des McGrath, whose religious beliefs would have required them to vote against same-sex marriage, support of which was party policy.

The idea of not having religious believers competing for the top job, but of having actual secularists, was encapsulated nicely in an opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper recently.

The piece, by AC Grayling, addressed Britain’s need for a non-believer as leader. Grayling writes of the more egregious consequences of religious belief by British politicians, such as invading Iraq and supporting religious schools. But even if one believes that politicians such as Layton or Dion won’t go to such extremes, Grayling makes relevant points, especially given social downloading trends by Canadian governments Liberal and Conservative.

“Atheist leaders will be sceptical about the claims of religious groups to be more important than other civil society organizations in doing good, getting public funds, meriting special privileges and exemptions from laws…

“Atheist leaders are more likely to take a literally down-to-earth view of the needs, interests and circumstances of people in the here and now, and will not be influenced by the belief that present sufferings and inequalities will be compensated in some posthumous dispensation…

“It means that churches and religious movements have to see themselves as civil society organizations like trade unions, political parties, the Scouts and so on: with every right to exist, and to have their say, but as self-constituted interest groups no more entitled to a bigger share of the public pie of influence, privilege and tax handouts than any other self-appointed interest group.”