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Lorna Dueck, Peter Stockland, James Loewen, Howard Voss-Altman, Sheema Khan, moderator Guy Nicholson

With Canada's federal election campaign in full swing, the parties are making their way through the electorate, courting voters and demographics of all stripes as they try to find the winning formula. But for most voters, the decision will be made in a less scientific way - driven by emotion, trust and a personal weighing of priorities. Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss how religious voters might assess the candidates and parties.

Here are today's participants:

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

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Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Peter Stockland is director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, a Canadian think tank that explains culture to religion and religion to culture. He is a former editor-in-chief of The Gazette in Montreal, was the editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald, and was vice-president of English editorial for Reader's Digest Canada. He is a regular contributor to the Catholic magazine Traces. He lives in Lachine, Que.

James Loewen is an active member of his Mennonite Brethren church and parent of four children. He advocates for restorative justice to federal government and in churches, is a past president of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections and has organized and facilitated dialogues across Canada and internationally.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.


Guy Nicholson: Thank you, panelists, for taking the time to join us - especially Peter and James, who haven't been with us before.

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Before we get down to the four major parties and their leaders, I'd like to ask you all: What role does your faith play at the ballot box? And from a religious point of view, have any of this year's election issues caught your attention?

Howard Voss-Altman: My political activism is deeply informed by my faith. In judging the candidates and their party platforms, I hear the voice of the biblical prophets who implored us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the poor, the widow and the orphan. The commandment to pursue justice for all is central to my political choices.

Sheema Khan: My faith plays an integral role in all of my life decisions. In the realm of elections, I am reminded of an authentic tradition of the Prophet Mohammed: "A leader is the servant of the people." So, I look for leadership through service, which implies that our political leaders should be serving the best interests of the Canadian people, through consultation, transparency and accountability.

What has caught my attention is the absence of discussion around health care, and hardly any mention about parliamentary contempt by the Conservatives. The other issue is voter apathy. I have just returned from the Middle East, where people are dying and fighting for a chance to have a say in their future. In Egypt, about 41 per cent of eligible voters turned out for a constitutional referendum - a much higher voter turnout than past elections, when elections were rigged. A greater turnout is expected in the fall general election. That is, it seems that we, the electorate, have taken our democracy for granted, and, rather than engaging our parties, demanding more, we seem to be turning away. That is my biggest concern.

James Loewen: First of all, it is because of my faith that I vote. Second, I am called by my God to be engaged fully in the world and to lovingly act out my faith in every aspect of my life, so when I vote, my faith guides my choice. I think that I have reacted most to those issues related to the behaviour of elected leaders, to those issues most related to the strengthening of democratic participation and those related to my particular area of interest, justice.

Lorna Dueck: I head to the ballot box with my faith reminding me that all of life is connected to God's love, and believe that in voting I'm actually taking spiritual discernment into my choice, asking who in government can be a guardian of justice and wisdom for this great country. An issue that has caught my attention in this election is health services - assistance for elder care, disability and rural health care. I'm also keen on the one whisper we've heard so far on our nation's leadership role in human rights, and that is the proposal to create an office of religious freedom - I hope we can use our freedoms to help colleagues in countries that would never see a press debate like this.

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Peter Stockland: Well, I have only one head and one heart and each is indelibly Catholic, so I can't dispense with them for politics - or anything else, for that matter. So, yes, I weigh political performance against the truths of faith. As a result, I am impressed by the Conservative promise of an office of religious freedom, and deeply disappointed by what appears to be their duplicity in handling the G8-G20 spending issue.

Howard Voss-Altman: Peter, given your perspective, are you able to support politicians who uphold Canadian law that is contrary to Catholic doctrine on issues such as abortion and gay marriage?

Peter Stockland: That's a good question, Howard. The answer is: Not if I have a choice. But if I don't, and still want to be politically engaged, I do have to look for lesser-of-two-evils opportunities.

Guy Nicholson: Let's get down to talking about the parties themselves. Peter, I'm glad you mentioned the Conservative promise. There is a view in much of Canada that the Conservatives tend to be the religious voter's party of choice. Everyone, is this a simplification, or do you believe it's largely true?

Howard Voss-Altman: I believe it is an utter simplification. The Conservatives have, time and again, placed corporate profits and corporate tax cuts (and of course new prison construction) ahead of social justice concerns such as health care, education, support for mental illness and disability, and the environment. I'm sorry. I'm just not seeing the emphasis on corporate wealth as particularly "religious."

James Loewen: I do believe this is an oversimplification. While it is true that most folks at the Mennonite church I attend will vote Conservative, particularly as the candidate attends our church, in the faith-based non-profit world that I work in, no one would vote for the Conservative Party even if you paid them to. Frankly, I don't think any of the parties have done much to engage people of faith or addressed the role of faith in our democracy very effectively.

Sheema Khan: No, I don't believe that the Conservatives have the "religious" vote locked up. They may share conservative social values with those who are religiously inclined, but the Prime Minister is the PM of all Canadians. And, people of faith cannot be pigeon-holed into any one, all-defining category. For some, social justice and compassion take top priority; for others, moral values; yet for others, truthfulness and accountability. For others, a combination of a number of characteristics will shape their choice. On a personal level, I am looking for someone who can balance many competing priorities, both domestically and abroad.

Peter Stockland: There is no question that people within the Conservative Party have worked extremely hard to bring the sensibility of religious faith to policy and politics, while the other parties have gone out of their way to discourage the intersection of religious faith and political thought. But let's not forget it was the Conservatives who made gay marriage a legal reality. Stephen Harper has been more successful than any Canadian politician in memory in quashing discussion of abortion as an issue. So there is a pragmatism at work along with the willingness to listen.

Howard Voss-Altman: Peter, perhaps you could give us some examples of this: On what issues have the Conservatives worked extremely hard to bring "the sensibility of religious faith to policy and politics?" As far as I can tell, my religious faith hasn't been addressed in any way, shape, or form.

Peter Stockland: To be clear, I said people within the party, not "the Conservatives" in general. Certainly, some of the Harper cabinet ministers, and some of the closest advisers, have been people of unapologetic religious faith who refuse to live inside-outside lives. And that makes - or will make - a difference to the way Canadians are able to bring their religious faith legitimately to the public square.

Lorna Dueck: I recently interviewed 14 faith-based activists in Ottawa and was surprised to discover that only one recommended we vote Conservative; the rest were adamantly non-partisan in their recommendations because they said the variety in their constituents demanded it.

Church research shows that the Canadian evangelicals I find myself among have a minimal preference toward Conservatism - quite different than in the U.S. So yes - it's a simplification to say people of faith vote Conservative.

Peter Stockland: Still, Lorna, the establishment of an office of a religious freedom embedded in DFAIT is a game-changer in terms of the bureaucracy having to sit up and take notice of faith.

Lorna Dueck: Another game-changer is that the Liberals tasked MP John McKay to pursue the religious voter and he has been actively taking Mr. Ignatieff into those kind of audiences prior to the election. What I'm finding is now that the election is well under way, neither the Conservatives or the Liberals are answering calls for engagement with the religious voters but the Green and the NDP are. I think the Conservatives assume they have our vote in the bag, but I don't think they should assume that with people under 40. For that age group, the contempt charges and appearances of heavy-handedness are of high importance for holding back trust.

Sheema Khan: Peter, I am very cynical about this proposed new office. It is election bait designed for the "ethnic" vote. As one letter-writer pointed out in The Globe, will the Conservatives decry the French ban on niqabs (as being contrary to religious freedom), when Quebec Premier Jean Charest has proposed the same, not to mention that one of the Conservatives' own back-benchers introduced a private member's bill to forbid niqabi women from voting? Given the partisanship of the Conservatives in foreign affairs, one can't help but think that this office will be politicized. In addition, they readily cut funding to charities and NGOs that worked overseas but did not follow the Conservative line, and are now ready to dole out $500,000 to this new office.

Peter Stockland: I think that is laudable skepticism, Sheema. It still needs to be shaped and protected, no question. But the initiative is a worthy one. And I know people in the government who are genuinely concerned for the protection of religious freedom. Also, I think there is a distinction to be made between what has happened in France and what is proposed for Quebec, though I share your concern about even the Quebec initiative.

James Loewen: I am with Sheema on this one too, there is no party I would trust less to establish such an initiative given their very narrow lens on whose religion counts, their autocratic and politicized control of bureaucracy and their questionable decision making matrixes around what faith-based groups are allowed to do.

Lorna Dueck: Is it election bait, or is it bait for us to lead on? Imagine if we actually discussed this across our faith groups, brought a forum together and put it into a place of global leadership. We'd be pioneering on peace talks.

Guy Nicholson: The other party I think of in this discussion is the NDP, which seems like it ought to be capable of making inroads with religious voters with policies geared toward compassion and social justice. And yet, among Canadian "traditionalists who value morality and decency," to quote one recent Globe story, the Conservatives prove overwhelmingly more popular. Why is that?

Peter Stockland: If everyone in the NDP would spend, oh, say, next July 13 reading Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, the party might get back to its roots and actually appeal to people of religious faith again. As it is, they're the party of sad-eyed puppies painted on green velour.

James Loewen: The NDP as a party have lost a great deal of credibility in the social justice movement due to their behaviour in the last number of years, I used to be a big NDP guy, but now I have begun to support the Green Party because they have a much stronger grasp of what it means to bring social justice realities to the broader political and legislative stage. To value "morality and decency" is such a conservative set of values that it should not surprise us that they would vote Conservative. The NDP would never be able to get inroads with that bunch given the party's support of gay rights and other "indecent" groups.

Howard Voss-Altman: I don't wish to beat a dead horse here, but what do we mean by those who "value morality and decency"? Who defines what "decency" is today? Does that mean no gay marriage? Does that mean longer prison sentences? Who, in this day and age, can define the nature of morality and decency?

Guy Nicholson: Howard - I apologize for having abridged that reference. It should have read (and did read in my original notes) "traditionalists who value morality and decency over science."

James Loewen: "Well, doesn't that just make total sense then. That is one good description of the Conservative Party, if we are to take "morality" to mean harsh punitive responses to aberrant behaviour and "decency" to mean autocratic control and the crushing of democratic institutions and "science" to mean any reasoned expression of wanting to do what is effective and efficient.

Howard Voss-Altman: Thank you for the clarification. I guess, as an American, I am wary of politicians who are people of unapologetic religious faith. Candidates such as Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson often see the world from a black-and-white, good-and-evil perspective that their religious views have reinforced. I am not implying that Conservative politicians see the world in this light, rather that they are elected to represent everyone, even those who do not share their religious views. Politics is about the art of negotiation and compromise. Religion - particularly from those in the majority - has often been about absolute truth. Such views often lead to dangerous policies.

Is this a code for biblical literalists? It's rather a sad commentary on our society when we feel we must juxtapose "morality and decency" against science? After all, how did science ever advance morality and decency? Health care, anesthesia, the polio vaccine, penicillin, the advancement of our culture from the medieval age, just off the top of my head. I'm sure the Conservatives must be quite proud to have these voters in their camp.

Peter Stockland: Quite right, Howard. As Pope Benedict says in Deus Caritas Est , it's not the role of the church to create the perfectly just society. That's the realm of politics. It is the role of the church to help form people of just conscience, and a benefit of that is some will become directly active in politics to promote justice.

Lorna Dueck: Howard, I don't think that will happen anywhere on the Canadian scene. That's just not the Canadian experience. A long-time faith activist of the Conservative stripe, Wes McLeod, recently handed me a sheet of 169 faith groups and institutions in Canada which were trying to influence the political fabric of Canadian life. These groups covered everything from education, peace making, humanitarian, family, taxation, pro life, military … it was a very Canadian look at the holistic integration of faith into our nation. Ten years ago, you might have seen extremes; we've since evolved to understand democratic involvement in a much more "love your neighbour" type of way.

Howard Voss-Altman: I hope you are right, Lorna. From the tenor of the conversation today, what constitutes religious values seem quite at odds with such a perspective.

Peter Stockland: Part of the problem, too, is the identification with conservatism with backwardness, selfishness, greed and beggar-thy-neighbour behaviour. And it's true that a lot of people who self-identify as conservatives exhibit those traits and worse. But if you align conservatism with the root "conserve" you are able to see the number of conservative groups actively involved in social justice work.

James Loewen: That is right, the terms themselves and the assumptions we make about the people we stick with them, "religious," "conservative" and so on serve more to create an "us" and "them" dialogue. I am a conservative Christian when it comes to some theology and practice, I am a liberal Christian when it comes to others and I see this kind of diversity throughout the conservative church I attend. Uninformed and unthinking voters vote for each party because that is what they do, have done and will do.

Howard Voss-Altman: Again, I don't wish to be contrarian, but its been quite some time since conservatism was actually tied to the root "conserve." Show me the conservative groups out there working to "conserve" the environment from the scourge of the tar sands? Show me the conservative group actively engaged in conserving universal health care? Here in Alberta, talk radio is filled with conservative voices, and they aren't attempting to conserve our precious resources - natural or economic.

Lorna Dueck: If we could have this campaign on issues of morality and decency, I think the first thing we'd tackle is the power of how issues are discussed. The media should be tasked to lead better in this area - more debates, done sooner, accessed by all so that we aren't driven by image or Twitter-sized barbs.

I am appalled that we haven't been able to yet hear ideas on solving the reality that one in eight Canadian children live in poverty, or what's to be done for our languishing Arctic and aboriginal youth. How about our 10-year war in Afghanistan - and going into another war in Libya - what is our understanding of right to protect? What about the growing demands for transparency and accountability - what could that look like given the technology Canada has at its disposal? Big ideas on our well-being, but it's immoral how impossible it is to get them out there.

Sheema Khan: Lorna raises a good point - namely, that overarching themes related to poverty, war, health care, etc. are not even part of the election discourse. The environment has dropped off the radar too. I really believe that our political discourse has been dumbed down to the sound-bite level. Of course, that does not mean we cannot effect change. It simply means that we should not look to politicians to lead society to any meaningful accomplishments any more. They are simply managers (at least the current lot). It would be great if we could have a debate on the big ideas, but, we the electorate, seem not to be interested.

Guy Nicholson: That's an interesting point, Sheema. I hope we're not contributing to same with our all-too-cursory discussion.

Lorna Dueck: Perhaps our panel should invite party leaders to respond to a few big ideas that come from the concerns of our faith engagements in Canadian life ?

James Loewen: This kind of discussion is exactly what democracy is about, a diverse group of people discussing issues of import in an open and free way. I think the sad part is that there are a limited number of opportunities to engage in these kinds of conversations and even fewer where there are informed resource people to help answer questions about the facts of things and skilled people to guide the conversations in productive ways.

Guy Nicholson: It was interesting to watch Liberal leaders offer divergent reactions to the Tory promise about creating an office for religious freedom in the Foreign Affairs Department. As a "big tent" party, are the Liberals at a disadvantage with religious voters?

Peter Stockland: I think they have certainly put themselves at a disadvantage with a lot of Catholic voters, mainly by chasing them out of the Liberal Party. In Jean Chrétien's era, there was contempt gusting to active hostility. People in the pro-life movement, particularly, were driven away and left adrift. In Paul Martin's era, Catholics considering a return to the Liberal Party encountered the mush of the leader's ambivalence about his public-private faith. I haven't heard that much has changed.

Sheema Khan: Actually, I find it healthy to have divergent viewpoints. If the Liberals are still thinking "out loud" about the merits and disadvantages to the proposed office, that makes for a healthy debate. Why should a party have a singular view on an emerging issue? I also find the term "religious voter" rather problematic. What is a "religious voter"? I could consider myself a such a voter, as I vote "religiously" (that is, I vote in every single municipal, school council, provincial and federal vote, referendum, etc.) To paraphrase the classic Tina Turner hit, "What's religion got to do with it?"

James Loewen: I think it does with the conservative parts of each religion as it is a feature of conservatives to limit and constrain who they identify themselves with and who they listen too.

Howard Voss-Altman: I guess what troubles me the most about our conversation is the characterization of "religious" voters as conservative in nature. I don't know how this rhetoric became so entrenched in our way of thinking. As has been brought up previously, religious voters used to be people who supported Tommy Douglas and the social gospel of the liberal church. Jewish history teaches us that when we take our religious lives seriously and thoughtfully, we will support those candidates who seek a fairer, more equitable, and more just society. Those are the "religious" voters that I know.

Guy Nicholson: The Bloc Québécois are perhaps the most resolutely secular federal party, reflecting a widespread sensibility in Quebec. Sheema and Peter in particular: Does the Bloc have anything to offer a religious voter?

Peter Stockland: If your religious fervour expresses itself in the worship of an independent Quebec, come on down. If not, walk on by.

James Loewen: The funny thing is, as a BCer, I resonate more with the BQ platform and their voting patterns in Parliament more than I do with the NDP or Liberals.

Sheema Khan: The Bloc's mandate is quite specific: to represent the separatist interests of Quebec. As a fabric of Quebec society, it reflects the archly secular ( laïque) nature of Quebec society. Those individuals looking for more balance between the religious and the secular in Quebec will have to engage in provincial politics, as the federal parties really can't come in and impose their less laïque vision on the populace.

Guy Nicholson: Before we conclude, I'd like to ask you about the party leaders themselves. Have any of them shown any personal traits or tendencies that could move, motivate or completely lose voters who are influenced by their faith? Either during this campaign, or before?

Peter Stockland: I suspect this issue with the Auditor-General's misquote could have serious consequences for Stephen Harper with voters of religious faith. I think many such people are going to start asking: "Do these guys know how to tell the truth?" Indeed, I was in a car with a Catholic priest and a very devout Presbyterian friend a few days ago, even before the A-G bombshell burst, and they were already asking that question. And both are lifelong Tories.

As far as Mr. Ignatieff, I don't see anything he's done or said influencing people of religious faith one way or the other. He's a statist, and if you're that way inclined, you'll go along with him. If you're not, you won't. And if you're a Catholic, you won't have seen anything to return you to a Liberal Party that chased you away during the past decade. As for the NDP and Bloc, I don't think they particularly care about religious faith as a political motivator.

Howard Voss-Altman: The leaders themselves are simply not charismatic enough to move anyone to vote in a particular fashion. Voters - religious and non-religious alike - are voting for a philosophical position on the relationship between government and society. What kind of world do we want to live in? How can government help us achieve that vision? In the United States, millions, myself included, were moved by Barack Obama's call for a better, more just, world. I don't think we see that kind of personal appeal coming from any of the party's leaders. Which may, of course, explain why voter apathy is so rampant in our society.

Sheema Khan: At a personal level, the leader I find most appealing is Elizabeth May. She seems to respect the intellect of the electorate by speaking to the issues, rather than in sound bites. I have found the PM's habit of avoiding the media, reducing the number of media questions per day to a quota, screening people at rallies, etc., to be quite authoritarian and anti-democratic. But that seems to be business as usual.

The PM will appeal to a certain class of religious voters. Within the diverse Muslim communities across Canada, some may vote Conservative, but many are angered by his one-sided, pro-Likud stance on Israel (even in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, when the government's stance was with Mubarak, for the stability of Israel), at the expense of Arabs throughout the region.

Lorna Dueck: There's no doubt that Mr. Harper has moved people of faith to be concerned about his government's transparency. One reason for this was the lack of discussion around the plan for bigger prisons - that launched a template of protest that was circulated for Sunday-morning bulletin inserts across the country, I haven't seen that kind of organized activism on an issue for years. The KAIROS scandal was another issue that moved liberal-minded Conservatives away from his camp.

Elizabeth May and Jack Layton have both demonstrated a perseverance and service that makes people of faith take notice. There's a humility in them that is to be admired - it won't actually move many votes, but I do think it makes them highly respected participants in democracy.

Mr. Ignatieff is an enigma to me. We can't really hear his ideas in the din, but bottom line, political leadership is so difficult, I think all the candidates are to be applauded. It's a hard job in our selfish world - yes it's well-paid, but it's completely service-driven and takes much patience, kindness and tenacity. We're told in scripture to pray for our leaders. I'd better get to that now.

James Loewen: I am with Lorna on this one.

Guy Nicholson: We're out of time - thanks to all for joining this month's discussion.

Howard Voss-Altman: Thank you for another fine discussion. As always, it is wonderful to be exposed to such a variety of religious and political perspectives.

James Loewen: This was very stimulating and I enjoyed the process - it was nice to hear all your thoughts.

Peter Stockland: Thanks very much for the chance to do this. It was a lot of fun, and a most interesting challenge. It certainly gave me lots to think about.

Sheema Khan: Another most stimulating conversation. A special thanks to James and Peter - your contribution gave me much to think about.

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