Don’t fear the preacher. Let politicians pray in peace
Every now and again, some commentator insinuates that evangelicals have unprecedented influence in Canadian politics; and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper might be one of them, on account of he’s a member of an evangelical congregation and doesn’t talk about his beliefs; and that perhaps this threatens, or should threaten, the traditional separation between politicians’ personal and religious beliefs and their public lives. Lawrence Martin was the latest to do so this week, in The Globe and Mail, citing journalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s circumstantial case for a divinely inspired Prime Minister published recently by The Tyee.
“If his government’s policy-making in important areas … is being motivated by religious faith at the expense of reason, it is cause for debate,” Mr. Martin wrote. As the Conservatives continue to frustrate the soothsayers’ predictions of a social conservative uprising in Ottawa, the main points of suspected influence have changed: Maybe, Mr. Nikiforuk and Mr. Martin suggest, evangelical beliefs are influencing Conservative approaches to (in Mr. Martin’s words) “research, statistics, environmental assessment, pipeline opponents, climate change and so on.”
Such arguments often produce angry responses, and I understand why. Evangelical churches are no more strident about trying to insinuate themselves upon public policy debates than is the Catholic Church — but they are considerably less successful at doing so. Ontario’s New Democrats can’t even bring themselves to oppose the practice of funding Catholic schools but not those of other faiths. When a left-wing or centrist Catholic Canadian politician who never talks about religion goes to a service given by a cleric who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, it’s no big deal. But when an evangelical Canadian politician who never talks about religion goes to a service given by a cleric who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, somehow it threatens to upend the apple cart of church/state separation.
Why do people assume an evangelical politician believes some or all of what comes from the pulpit, but that a Catholic politician believes none of it? Why is it that when a Catholic politician publicly supports abortion rights, it’s exculpatory, but when an evangelical politician doesn’t publicly oppose them, it’s suspicious? Evangelicals can only conclude, correctly, that they are seen not just as different, but less trustworthy. It’s ugly.
In fact, confusing matters further, Mr. Martin went out of his way to note that “just because [Mr. Harper] is an evangelical does not necessarily mean he holds to all evangelical teachings or even most of them — just as being Catholic does not necessarily mean one believes a communion wafer is literally the body of Christ.” In response, my colleague Charles Lewis, who forgets more about religion in a day than I’ve ever known, accused Mr. Martin of “secular ignorance.”
“A Catholic who does not believe the communion wafer is literally the body of Christ is not really a Catholic,” he wrote. “The belief in the real presence of Christ in the communion wafer is the absolute height of Catholic worship. It is not an option, nor is it an option to believe in the resurrection, the ascension into Heaven and the final judgment.”
I wouldn’t dare impinge upon anyone’s freedom to believe that. But respectfully, it’s the least scientific thing I’ve heard all week — every bit as unscientific as Young Earth creationism, never mind global warming skepticism or laissez-faire oil sands policies. I suspect many self-identified Canadian Catholics might take issue with Mr. Lewis’s argument; it’s none of my business. But that’s precisely my point: If you don’t believe everything you hear and say in church, then you shouldn’t believe that anyone else believes everything he hears and says in church. Some Muslims enjoy a beer, some Jews enjoy a BLT and some evangelicals believe in the disastrous potential of anthropogenic climate change and that outlawing abortion might be somewhat impractical. The public life/private views split sorts it all out for us. It’s either fair game or it isn’t — and I suspect liberal Catholics, in particular, would very much not want it to be fair game.
Mr. Martin worries that faith is supplanting “reason.” I think “reason” is too far down the list of important policy-drivers in Ottawa to care very much. Politicians believe all sorts of stupid things for all sorts of stupid reasons. In the end, I fail to see the point of all this speculation … well, unless it’s to bash conservatives and evangelicals for sport. Democracy provides us with a wonderful opportunity, every four years or so at the most, to judge politicians for what they do. What does it matter why they do it?