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faith and politics

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a menorah lighting ceremony, celebrating the Jewish festival of Hanukkah in Ottawa, December 16, 2009.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As millions of Canadian Christians flock to their churches this Easter weekend, they will be joined in worship by party leaders trying to navigate the tricky boundaries between public and private belief.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, who talk freely and openly about their religiosity as if it were a job qualification, Canada's political leaders generally remain guarded when it comes to matters of faith.

"The mix of politics and religion can be a minefield in this country," says political scientist Myer Siemiatycki of Ryerson University.

One of the dogmas of Canadian public life is that religion is a private choice, one better left undiscussed and undebated. Another is that the views of church and state are best kept separate in order to avoid social conflict.

But religion, however obscured and neglected, is out there on the campaign trail all the same. So how do the leaders and their parties manoeuvre their way through the minefield?


Leaders are eager to pose for photo-ops in temples, synagogues and mosques but Christian houses of worship are generally a no-go area. What's so scary about the Jesus-folk? A leader who comes from a Christian tradition (and that's still the norm in this campaign, apart from Gilles Duceppe's atheism) runs the risk of looking sectarian and closed-minded by hanging out with fellow believers. So this becomes a net loss in strategic terms. But politicians courting votes in a Sikh temple may have a better chance of expanding their support: They connect with a sizable ethnic community that's perceived (fairly or unfairly) to take their cue from their religious leaders and vote as a group. And yet their visit isn't perceived as a partisan (and therefore divisive) religious act. Thanks to the miracle of Canadian diversity, an out-of-place leader trying to look at ease while wearing someone else's religious headgear can come across as open-minded and accessible to a broader range of multicultural voters. "It's strange but true," says Dr. Siemiatycki. "There are some places of worship that leaders can't enter, and some they can't enter often enough."


While political leaders generally prefer to keep their theological views to themselves and treat their worship habits as a private matter, this election campaign has presented them with a tricky religious test. With little more than a week to go until the vote, the solemn Christian feast of Easter has intervened and dared leaders to show their hand. The political calculations are immense: Not going to church might alienate religious voters, scheduling a photo-op for an Easter service is too crass and self-serving but the opportunity to woo the undecided faithful is hard to pass up when campaign time is running short. And that's why Jack Layton has craftily invited the press to monitor him as he walks in a Toronto Good Friday procession, which is as much a festive public event of multicultural street theatre as it is a meditation on the sufferings of Christ. And why Stephen Harper, while keeping his churchgoing plans close to his chest, issued an official statement in which he spoke of "our great fortune in living in a country that embraces diversity and finds strength, stability, and unity in the coming together of the many cultures and faiths of the world." If that sounds more like all-embracing campaign ecumenism than a pious sermonette, well, who's surprised?


Back in 2006, Stephen Harper ended speeches with the ringing phrase "God bless Canada." He doesn't invoke the deity with the same gusto any more, and with good reason: The Tories have such a strong grip on religiously observant Christian voters that the divine blessing can go unspoken. "An intensity of faith conviction is probably the most powerful predictor of support for the Conservative Party," says pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research. The greater challenge then, particularly for a party chasing a majority, is to win over the swing voters who may not share the praise-the-Lord approach to patriotism. "Americans leaders talk openly about their relationship with God," says Mr. Graves. "But apart from religious conservatives, most Canadians don't want their leaders to talk about their faith." Which explains why Stephen Harper has become more or less opaque about his personal religious views, even though he attends an evangelical church of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. "I don't know what Stephen Harper believes," says Rick Hiemstra of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who thinks that the religious faith of all party leaders should be out in the open and up for debate. "He has been very guarded about his beliefs … He may or may not be an evangelical Christian."


Liberal leaders historically have been among the most religiously observant members of the political class – who can forget Pierre Trudeau's high-Catholic funeral mass, an astonishing farewell to the man who liberalized laws on abortion, divorce and homosexuality? And yet the Liberals are the party most closely identified with a secular approach to governing, a position that increasingly costs them the votes of people who consider themselves religious. Evangelical Canadians are deeply suspicious of the Liberals' commitment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document they view as an unholy handbook of moral relativism where everything is permitted. Their social-justice counterparts on the religious left (admittedly not as numerous as in Tommy Douglas's day) consider the more virtuous, less pragmatic NDP and Green Party programs more in tune with their fervour. So as religious politics polarizes, God no longer hangs out in the big tent's mushy middle. The Liberals' hands-off approach to religion has historical underpinnings – a party that aimed to win Catholic Quebec and Protestant Ontario needed to play it safe. And a party that courted diverse immigrant groups couldn't pick and choose when it came to religious preference. But with the Bloc displacing the Liberals in Quebec and immigrant groups increasingly finding succour in Conservatives values, the godless Grits may have to reconsider their articles of faith.