Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 15-18.
It was perhaps the most unusual statement in a political year full of surprises. Stockwell Day, new leader of a new conservative political party, the Canadian Alliance, was under attack for his evangelical Christian faith, and sought relief from a hostile press corps by attempting a reductio ad absurdum.
“There is scientific support for both creationism and evolution,” said Day, responding to attacks on his alleged fundamentalism. “But I don’t think that I should have to debate the interpretation of Genesis any more than I would expect Jean Chrétien or Joe Clark [leader of the Progressive Conservative Party] to debate Catholic teaching on transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception.”
Day’s gambit didn’t work. His opponents were asked no questions about the Immaculate Conception. Instead, an infamous Liberal Party spin doctor showed up on the TV talk shows with a stuffed toy dinosaur, a prop to mock evangelical Christians’ supposed belief that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. Theology did not fare well during the federal election in Canada late last year.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the Liberal Party was reelected last November 27—his third straight majority government. That was expected. The surprise was that the so–called moral and religious questions—abortion, homosexuality, public funds for private religious schools—were being discussed at all. Social conservatism was on the agenda in Canada for the first time. That alone was a notable step forward, even if social conservatives got hammered with intemperate and bigoted attacks such as are rarely seen in this nation known for its niceness.
Intense regional and linguistic debates have dominated politics in Canada for at least three decades. On economic issues there has been for the most part a center–left consensus, while there hasn’t been any debate at all on social or moral issues—the secular–libertine mindset has been regnant and beyond challenge. Conservatives challenged the prevailing economic policy in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, and as a result the federal government and several provinces began to take seriously free trade, tax reform (and more recently, even tax cuts), elimination of deficit spending, and cuts to social assistance programs. For social conservatives out to trim the abortion license or to protect the traditional family, however, that famous Canadian compassion and accommodation was in short supply.
It is difficult for outsiders to understand the extent to which secular libertinism grips the major institutions of Canadian politics, law, media, and academia. Since 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down the country’s not–very–restrictive abortion law, there has been no abortion law in Canada. The result: abortion on demand, fully paid for by the state–financed health care system. The Canadian Court has embraced abortion with an enthusiasm that would make the American Supreme Court blush, ruling unanimously that even a child in the birth canal is not a person entitled to legal rights (the case arose from a botched delivery). On homosexuality, the Court did not content itself merely with striking down laws, but actually gave itself the power to amend the Ontario Human Rights Code so that it would be read “as if” homosexual orientation were a prohibited ground of discrimination. During oral arguments at the Court in November 2000, Supreme Court justices ridiculed as untenable the Christian maxim of loving the sinner while hating the sin. Theology does not do too well at the Supreme Court, either.
The sheer ordinariness of all this is most extraordinary. Even Canadians who follow politics would be hard–pressed to name any Supreme Court justices—despite the reach of their decisions, they are not really controversial. For the most part, Canadian governments, both federal and provincial, have been content to follow the Court’s direction, if not grateful for its leadership. Social conservatives in Canada have frequently complained that it’s not so much that arguments are being lost as that they are not even being had.
That began to change in the mid–1990s, when press baron Conrad Black bought most of Canada’s major daily newspapers and reoriented them toward a more balanced position on both economic and social issues. Social conservatives were no longer shut out of the national debate. In 1998, Black launched a new national daily, the National Post, which sought from its first issue to fashion a new political coalition that would challenge both the ruling Liberal Party and the regnant cultural consensus. The goal was to bring together Canada’s admittedly small social conservative base with the larger economic conservative base that had been growing in both the West and in Ontario. The splintering of those groups—along with the numerous other fissures that are a feature of Canadian politics—has been principally responsible for allowing the Liberals to win majority governments with no more than 40 percent of the popular vote.
In 2000 that effort bore fruit. The Reform Party, well established in the West and home for most of Canada’s social conservatives, reinvented itself as the Canadian Alliance in an attempt to win over voters from the Progressive Conservative Party. The PCs, who were in power in the 1980s, had been reduced to a parliamentary rump in the elections of 1993 and 1997, but still drew enough of the conservative vote to prevent a breakthrough for the Reform Party. The Alliance chose itself a new leader, the telegenic Stockwell Day, who established his economic credentials as Treasurer of Alberta, delivering budget surpluses and tax cuts. Day was also an unabashed Christian who did not hide his pro–life, pro–family beliefs. And while the official Alliance platform only called for a national referendum (and then only in response to a citizens’ initiative) on abortion, Canada’s weary pro–life forces convinced themselves that Day represented, well, a new day in Canada.
During his campaign to become Alliance leader last spring, Day attempted something completely new in Canadian politics—a substantive discussion on the role of religious faith in the life of an elected official. His groundbreaking speech on the subject was not a reprise of John F. Kennedy in Houston or Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame, despite what some of his advisers wanted. Instead, Day, a genuine intellectual, outlined a vision of the “public square” that would be very familiar to readers of First Things.
“I have no intention of turning my religion into someone else’s law,” he said. “I support the separation of church and state, but I would oppose any suggestion that I ought to separate myself from my faith in order to participate in the government of the state.”
Having said that, Day signaled over the summer that he was no scold. He smiled a lot, never brought up “divisive” issues on his own, and generally focused on exhibiting his athletic physique by chopping wood, roller–blading, jet–skiing, and even driving in a monster truck pull. He also continued his fourteen–year habit of refusing to campaign on Sundays. He presented himself as a conservative who was also a Christian family man. And that he was fun.
In response, the chattering classes ceased chattering and bared their fangs. The 2000 election campaign put to rest any notion that tolerance defined Canadian politics. The secular consensus went on the attack. Viciousness in the defense of tolerance cloaked itself as virtue.
Hedy Fry, a Vancouver Liberal and the federal Minister of Multiculturism—a sort of tolerance czar—got right to the heart of the matter, declaring that Day’s belief that “Jesus Christ is the God of the whole universe” was “an insult to every Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, [and] everybody else who believes in other religions.” Fry did not take up what kind of god would be god of only part of the universe, but her point was clear enough: in the universe of acceptable Canadian political discourse there was no room for orthodox Christians. Elinor Caplan, a Toronto Liberal and the federal Minister of Immigration—another bastion of tolerance—outdid her cabinet colleague by saying that Day’s supporters were bigots and racists, and of course, Holocaust deniers. The Toronto Star piled on with the Nazi allusions, and the Globe and Mail (an economically conservative, socially liberal national daily) devoted pages and pages to barely concealed glee in lampooning Day’s evangelical Christianity.
Far from reining in his cabinet ministers and spin doctors, the Prime Minister gave them a wink and a nod. For his part, Jean Chrétien chose a Catholic high school to reaffirm his support for abortion on demand, compounding the affront by joking that his wife was too old to have abortions anyway. Both Chrétien and Joe Clark made abortion a campaign issue—a departure from the usual Canadian custom of silence on the matter. Indeed, while both the Liberal and PC parties had previously attempted an ambiguous non–position on abortion, in 2000 both Chrétien and Clark declared themselves foursquare for the extreme abortion license. Consequently, Canadians were treated to the curious sight of two Catholics attacking an evangelical Christian as a threat to “abortion rights.”
There were disapproving voices, among them Lawrence Martin, Chrétien’s sympathetic biographer, who charged him with conducting a campaign that was “not only cynically timed, but cynically executed.” Various other columnists clucked about the antireligious rhetoric, but for the most part the outrage was limited to pro–life websites and polite press releases from aggrieved parties muttering their disapproval. The voice of the churches barely registered. Christians and social conservatives were finally in the town square, but they remained strangely passive while their opponents gave them a public flogging.
It would be a mistake to overstate the role of religion and related issues in the campaign—in a time of prosperity and budget surpluses, incumbency was advantage enough for victory, even without a fractured opposition that by all accounts mounted a flawed campaign. Nevertheless, the eruption of the whole religion–and–politics question bears watching as a potentially promising sign for the future.
Despite the avalanche of abuse heaped upon it, the Canadian Alliance emerged from the election beaten but not buried. The new party increased its share of the popular vote markedly from the last election—more so than any other party—demonstrating that religion–bashing is not as effective as its practitioners might hope. More particularly, the party increased its share of the conservative vote over against the PCs, even if not sufficiently to result in a large increase in parliamentary seats. That being said, social conservatives—especially those informed by Christian social teaching—will need to learn some lessons from the tumultuous year 2000. Already the conventional wisdom is inviting Day and his allies to seek victory by means of surrender.
“You cannot have a successful political party with social conservatism,” advised Brian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservative prime minister from 1984 to 1993. While before the election Mulroney was hostile to both the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, he now favors a merger with his own PCs, provided that the “divisiveness” of social conservatism is junked.
Mulroney may be right, but the results of election 2000 don’t bear him out—at least not yet. Election 2000 proved beyond doubt that social conservatives will face intense and nasty attacks should they show any prospect of making gains. It also showed that if those attacks are suffered for the most part in silence, they will have a limited but not fatal effect. What remains to be seen is what would happen if social conservatives were to fight back.
Abortion provides the clearest example. The Canadian Alliance paid the price for being against abortion, but its pro–life position was so weak that it did not attract voters who are troubled by the more extreme aspects of the abortion license in Canada. Day’s response to the attacks—“Abortion isn’t even on the platform of the party”—gave him the worst of both worlds. Next time round, pro–life forces will have to offer something that puts the other side on the defensive—whether it is a ban on partial–birth abortion, a limitation of public funding, or even simple regulatory enforcement that would end the current de facto exemption of abortion clinics from the standard regulation of private health care facilities in Canada.
More broadly, social conservatives can no longer content themselves with moaning about exclusion from Canadian public life. It is clear that they are no longer going to be ignored—at least not while Stockwell Day is on the scene—and so they must choose whether they will fight back or will just passively accept the role of bogeyman for the secular libertines. It should be de rigueur that any politician or journalist who treats believing Christians as the equivalent of Nazi sympathizers will face a united front of religious spokesmen who will condemn antireligious bigotry and demand consequences.
That is not the case today in Canada, but it could be. One of Day’s most surprising successes was his ability to bring together socially conservative Christians with like–minded allies among Orthodox Jews as well as Muslims. In fact, Day was endorsed by the Supreme Islamic Council of Canada, and the Alliance had more ethnic and religious minority candidates than any other party. Yet so new was this coalition that it was not able to establish an effective common voice. The leadership of the Christian churches in Canada will be critical to any such common voice, and a good place to begin would be for the various churches to at least defend their own when the viciousness is directed their way. Canadians do think of themselves as a tolerant people and will be open to being reminded when their political and cultural elite betray one of their most cherished civic virtues.
Despite the political excitement of 2000, social conservatives in Canada need to see politics as the result of social change, not its principal cause. It is arguable that the pro–life movement in Canada has focused its limited resources on pursuing unattainable (in the short term) political change, while neglecting the necessary work of building alliances. Pro–life forces need to defend those in public who are working gradually to point out that the unlimited abortion license is not what most Canadians say they want. Regarding the homosexual rights movement, social conservatives have not been bold enough in the public square, even though most Canadians already agree with their argument. One of the promising signs of the 2000 political season was the ability of Day to draw together many pockets of social conservatism—evangelical pro–lifers, Catholic homeschoolers, Orthodox Jews concerned about private religious schools, immigrant Sikhs and Muslims worried about family breakdown—who previously felt unwelcome participating in public debate. The hope is not that all such groups will be converted into partisan cells—social conservatives, of all people, ought not inflate the importance of politics—but that they will bring their presence to bear in a way that challenges the monopoly on political discourse currently enjoyed by the secularist elite.
The secular libertine argument will always be made—the chattering classes will chatter. But it is possible now, at it was not ten years ago, for social conservatives to have a voice. It is true that beleaguered pro–life and pro–family forces in Canada, including the Christian churches, have been shot at so often that they are understandably gun–shy. But while understandable, that cannot serve as a perpetual excuse.
Things are changing in Canada. Election 2000 was the first time the Immaculate Conception was ever mentioned. One presumes—and hopes—that will not happen again. Theology is not meant for election campaigns, but its appearance last year was an indication that what comes next in Canadian politics may well be a pleasant change for those who are religiously engaged.
Raymond J. de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario,
studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.