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Religious-freedom office shows lack of Conservative hidden agenda

Andrew Bennet, appointed the first head of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This is it? This is the hidden agenda? The God-gays-and-guns crowd should sue.

For as long as Stephen Harper has sought power, his political enemies have warned of a hidden agenda – a combination of economic and social radicalism imported from the Plains states and the Deep South that aimed at transforming Canada into a laissez faire theocracy, and that would be revealed just as soon as absolute power was his.

If any iota of that agenda was ever to be realized, the Office of Religious Freedom would be key – a mole planted right inside the godless Department of Foreign Affairs aimed at advancing a faith-based agenda – or so social conservatives might have hoped.

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But as it turns out, the office as finally realized and announced by the Prime Minister Tuesday is so modest and inoffensive that the Christian right can only shake its head at how little Mr. Harper cares for them.

The Conservatives' decision to announce the new office at a mosque in Vaughan, Ont., was hardly an auspicious beginning for Northern Tea Partiers. The office's $5-million budget is paltry and Andrew Bennett, its first ambassador, can expect to have little real impact.

So after seven years of Harper government, what do social conservatives have to show for their support?

Many of them once hoped that the Conservatives would roll back gay marriage. No luck. In fact Foreign Minister John Baird has made protecting homosexuals from persecution overseas an important element of Canadian foreign policy.

So-cons hoped that Conservatives would impose some limits on abortion. Mr. Harper has proscribed any such legislation, including any private-member's bills.

And as for promoting Judeo-Christian values through Canadian foreign policy, Mr. Harper went out of his way Monday to speak of the many communities that suffer at the hands of intolerant governments: Yes, Christians in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and China but also Baha'is, Ahmadi, Shiite and Uyghur Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists, and practitioners of Falun Gong.

"We're not trying to impose, we're trying to respect," Mr. Harper said at the press conference that followed. To those who are persecuted, regardless of faith, he promised: "Canada will not forget you. When you are silenced, we will speak out. We will use our freedom to plead for yours."

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Some will continue to rummage for an agenda, noting that Dr. Bennett is a Christian scholar.

But let's face it. The Harper government is economically conservative, pro-family and anti-crime, but it is not socially conservative and it is emphatically not Christian conservative.

Those who wish for such a political party should seek elsewhere.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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