Canada takes its own tack in mixing religion and politics

The role of religion in public life is evolving rapidly, as churchesreact to cutbacks in the welfare state.

What got Preston Manning into such trouble recently in the Canadian Parliament was, arguably, that he behaved like an American.

Shortly after the Canadian Thanksgiving last month, the opposition leader expressed gratitude for "the religious liberty which allows each of us to turn toward God, or away from him." He voiced thanks for marriage and family, both rather broadly defined. He made reference to defining "the rights of the unborn."

And he drew a firestorm of criticism.

Accusing him of being homophobic and intolerant, critics interpreted his language as code for a divisive social agenda. His "values" rhetoric, which would be unremarkable south of the border, was roundly condemned in this country as "an address redolent of the values of the American religious right," as columnist Susan Riley put it.

That was not meant as a compliment.

If religion in public life has a different role in Canada from the United States, it is nonetheless complex - and evolving rapidly. Church people here, who tend to lean to the political left rather than the right, are alarmed about cutbacks in the welfare state and are looking for new ways to engage government. Mainline denominations are having to find a new footing as vestiges of their past roles as "established" churches erode. And court decisions, made in the light of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms from 1982, are raising questions about the appropriate role of religion in a secular society.

"There's been a greater polarization in the US, where the religious right is more active," says Marguerite Van Die, a historian at Queen's University at Kingston. She has just chaired a conference here, entitled "Faith and Public Life: Challenges, Choices, and Opportunities."

The US often serves as a negative role model for Canadians. Conservative denominations here, particularly, "have been consciously concerned to present a gentler image," Professor Van Die says.

At the institutional level, churches are having to rethink their roles as Canada becomes more pluralistic. Until the 1960s, Canada had what Van Die calls "an informal establishment" of traditional churches - an establishment that has since broadened to include other faith groups, including non-Christians.

But the British North America Act, Canada's constitution, still includes special privileges for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Only very recently have separate school districts for Catholics and Protestants been abolished in Quebec and Newfoundland.

Ontario retains its dual system, but many observers see this on its way out within a few years - to be succeeded, perhaps, by public funding for religious schools of all stripes, something that is imaginable in a country with no American-style separation of church and state.

Since the establishment of the postwar welfare state - and that's not a pejorative term here - Canadian churches have tended to focus their activism on international subjects, such as disarmament, "because we felt we could trust the state to do the right thing at home," says Bonnie Greene, program director for the United Church of Canada in Toronto. The churches have developed a "shadow" civil service that works closely behind the scenes with officials in Ottawa. "We wrote the prime minister's speech on the test-ban treaty," she says.

Now that the welfare state is, as the churches see it, under siege, "We need something as good as that on the domestic-policy agenda," Dr. Greene says.

This will mean developing new ways of working with provincial governments who have jurisdiction over health and education. A proposal for such is to go to the Cabinet in Ottawa this month.

Greene hints at another role for religion in public life: At a time when the volunteer sector is being called upon to take up the slack after budget cuts, the state has a clear interest in the health of churches - and especially their ability to "evangelize small children ... and to develop them as citizens."

But some observers, particularly at the Queen's University conference, point with concern to some recent court rulings. David Brown, a constitutional lawyer in Toronto, cited a couple of recent cases where courts ruled that in public schools, "reasoning based on faith or religious reasons is not acceptable."

In one case, as Mr. Brown noted, parents in a British Columbia school district contested exposure of their children to books portraying homosexual relationships favorably. The parents' objections were grounded in religious belief, the judge ruled, and that made them unacceptable grounds for removing the books.

"The belief that religious belief somehow taints you is dangerous," Brown said. As courts struggle to come to terms with the new rights charter, he added, the philosophical underpinnings of their decisions "are like quicksand."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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