Your Agenda: Religious beliefs affect policy–so the leaders should talk about them

This is a piece I was asked to submit to Canada.com’s new “Your Agenda” election feature.

Religious beliefs affect policy – so the leaders should talk about them

The night Stephen Harper was first elected prime minister in 2006, he shocked the nation by ending his speech with a phrase that sounded almost American: “God bless Canada.” Yet, even after five years in power, the media and politicians have yet to broach the taboo subject of religion in Canadian politics.

Agreements between British Protestants and French Catholics led to the creation of our country. That multicultural spirit continues today in a country that welcomes people of any or no faith. However, this multiculturalism is under increasing strain as continued immigration brings customs that clash with other Canadian values and freedoms.

As more Canadians abandon Christianity or bring other beliefs from around the world, some of our older traditions look increasingly archaic. Some surveys have pegged the number of Canadians who don’t believe in God as high as 1 in 4, yet our anthem and Charter both explicitly favour belief in God.

When last year’s Throne Speech promised updates to the national anthem that would address some of the sexist phrasing, the uproar from conservative believers forced a retreat. Few expected such a progressive change from the current government, and many sought further improvements, but Harper’s backtracking was too fast for any actual discussion on the merits of change to occur.

Much of this uproar came from the Christian right in Canada, which has been growing over the past few years. Journalist Marci McDonald documented this growth in her 2010 book The Armageddon Factor. Organized in response to the gay marriage debates, McDonald credits evangelical Christians with rallying behind the Harper Conservatives, propelling him to victory.

Their success is such that Harper’s Minister of State for Science and Technology made some unclear statements about his beliefs on the subject of evolution while others have stood in the House (http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/02/james-lunney-v-science/) and defended Biblical Creationism. In 2000, similar statements led to Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella openly mocking then Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day on national television.

Yet questions about the personal beliefs of candidates for our highest offices seem to remain off-limits. While there should never be a religious (or atheistic) test for our government, it is greatly mistaken to think that deeply held beliefs will not affect the policy positions once in power. People have a right to know if any of our elected officials think the world will end in our lifetime.

These beliefs lead to actions like the government’s denial of funds to maternal health initiatives that might have provided access to abortions in the Third World, and to social-justice group KAIROS that apparently represents the wrong kind of Christian. Dennis Gruending documents numerous other organizations (http://dennisgruending.ca/pulpitandpolitics/2011/03/25/stephen-harpers-hit-list/), including Pride Toronto and Planned Parenthood, that have fallen victim to these seemingly ideological cuts. While past Prime Ministers have harboured varying levels of commitment to their beliefs, few have let it bleed into their policy. Until recently, most politicians seemed to take Trudeau’s legacy of keeping the government out of the bedroom to heart.

My hope for this and future elections is that we can have an open discussion about the role of religious belief in Canadian politics. We need to shed light on hidden agendas and move toward policy based on reason and evidence.

Ian Bushfield is currently a masters student in physics at Simon Fraser University and lives in Vancouver. He is president of the B.C. Humanist Association and blogs at http://terahertzatheist.ca and http://canadianatheist.com .