After peeling away funds for progressive programs — from the Law Commission to Status of Women Canada — Stephen Harper, buoyed by religious conservatives, is incrementally changing the face of the country. So what’s the game plan? The following is an excerpt from Tom Warner’s new book, Losing Control: Canada’s Social Conservatives in the Age of Rights:
The war to recapture the public square for people of faith and to reclaim the moral agenda is not, then, a momentary or short-lived phenomenon.
The social conservative leadership in Canada, whether prescient or simply deluded, has concluded that the changing consensus of Canadians about sexuality and moral issues, the pronouncements of the courts, and the actions of legislatures are merely transitory and changeable.
They do not see the growing separation of church and state that has produced the incremental secularization of Canada’s laws and public policy over the last several decades as being irreversible. They want more, not less, religious faith influence on the nation’s public policy. They are determined to wage their war for the long term, convinced that they can still prevail over the forces of immorality, secularism, and “political correctness.”
Social conservatism as a movement faces immense challenges. A crucial question is whether movement activists will attempt to position themselves more within the mainstream of a broad conservative coalition movement — and whether they will succeed if they do. Will they truly embrace the “moderation” and “incrementalism” championed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan in the interests of achieving significant long-term progress? Can the coalition of political conservatives maintain a place for social conservatives?
“Christianity is now under serious attack in order to push it out of the public square so that religious beliefs will cease to play a significant role in determining public policy… The final struggle we are now undergoing is between the believers and the non-believers…. In the end, it will either be a Christian or an anti-Christian victory.”
—REAL Women of Canada, 2006
As Tashha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah observed in their 2005 book Rescuing Canada’s Right: A Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution, the way forward is a tricky one.
“Let’s be clear: an overtly socially conservative platform calling for implementing so-con ideas through legislative means — ie, through laws restricting abortion, outlawing gay marriage, etc — will not resonate with a majority of Canadian voters. Unlike the United States, we are not a socially conservative, God-fearing nation.”
Indeed, the pluralistic, multicultural, multi-religious country of the 21st century is not the old Canada of predominantly European colonialists, firmly indoctrinated with Judeo-Christian beliefs and morality. Attempting to desecularize the state would be somewhat like trying to unscramble eggs. Myriad laws and public policies, as well as social and cultural institutions, would have to be repealed and replaced or at least substantially altered.
The biggest obstacle of all for the forces of social conservatism remains the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the rights that it guarantees to every citizen, notwithstanding the fact that its preamble declares, “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God.” To achieve the total retransformation of Canada would require an amendment to the Charter.
Alternatively, social conservatives could hope that, over a very long period of time, appointments to the judiciary by governments staunchly committed to reclaiming the religious moral agenda could rely upon the “supremacy of God” wording in the preamble to reinterpret the provisions of the Charter and undo the damage done by the hated secular judicial activists. Harper has not ventured down that highly contentious path, but Christian activist Charles McVety began agitating on the subject of judicial appointments in May.
Nonetheless, the stark reality is that social conservatism’s call to take back Canada, to return to the Christian democracy of the past, cannot be met with complacency. To simply label and ignore the social conservative constituency as a fringe element or to magnanimously dismiss the movement’s leaders as extremists, as many suggest, is dangerously myopic.
Contrary to what their own propagandists and many in the media contend, social conservatives continue to have great influence and vast resources to pursue their agenda. They have stamina, resources and, increasingly, the infrastructure to wage their campaign over a long period of time — perhaps, as REAL Women notes, for several decades.
Most importantly, social conservatives have, at least for the time being, a fellow evangelical as prime minister and, in the Conservatives, a governing party in which evangelicals are disproportionately represented. The Harper government’s election in 2006 and reelection in 2008 were undeniably historic — and reason enough for evangelicals to be optimistic about the future.
“In recent years, some politicians and commentators have asserted that in order to maintain a separation of church and state, legislators should not be influenced by religious belief… The notion of separation refers to the state not interfering in religious practice and treating all faith communities impartially. It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or the public square.”
Having secured the reigns of power and being determined to make the Conservatives the “natural governing party,” Harper and his evangelical colleagues are well positioned to strive for the transformation of Canada they and their crucial social conservative constituency so ardently desire. The Harper government is testament to how the holding of strong religious views is not an impediment to gaining political power. It is proof that the movement can effectively navigate Preston Manning’s “faith/political interface.”
Setting aside (at least for now) the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, the legislative and policy agendas of the Harper government have confirmed the advance of a radical agenda of lasting social conservatism.
“One cannot ignore the fact that the Harper government has been in a minority position and, perhaps more importantly, confronted until recently with a very hostile media seeking every opportunity to make it appear extremist,” wrote conservative evangelical Richard Bastien in 2009.
Seen in that light, the “soft” response of the Harper government on some issues important to social conservatives “has been based more on tactical prudential judgment than on a lack of commitment.”
For Bastien and, it seems, a majority of other evangelicals, “the Conservatives remain the national party most capable of addressing the issues of particular concern to conservative-minded people.”
If for short-term pragmatic reasons they cannot achieve the transformation of Canada that they seek, they may very well do so once Harper and his Conservative Party achieve a majority government. Or it may fall to Harper’s successor, or to that person’s successor, to be the victor in social conservatism’s righteous war. The prospect remains that transforming the nation is an attainable goal, even an imminent one.
Resisting the many efforts by social conservatives to regain control of the moral agenda is not just an imperative for gays and lesbians, women, youth, those who are labelled as socialist, left-wing, or even for that matter liberal, or, most especially, all of those deemed to be moral transgressors. The challenge of doing so must necessarily be met by all Canadians who prefer the morality of rights and equality of treatment over the puritanical religious morality preached by evangelicals.
Tom Warner is a longtime gay activist. This excerpt is adapted from his new book, Losing Control: Canada’s Social Conservatives in the Age of Rights.
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