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Canadian and U.S. elections engage faith differently

By Lloyd Mackey,
September 11, 2008

AS THE Canadian election campaign gets underway, and the U.S. presidential race steams toward its conclusion, observers have noted key differences in the ways faith is presented publicly in the two countries.

In Canada, Green Party leader Elizabeth May was the subject of a photo in the September 9 Ottawa Citizen showing her donating some organically-grown pumpkins to The Mission -- an Ottawa inner-city ministry to street people, sited virtually within the shadow of the Peace Tower.

The gesture was one of a series of occasional Canadian forays into the world of relating faith and politics. All federal political parties attempt to engage at this level. But to many observers, they appear to do so much more subtly than do their American counterparts.

'Universal' vs. 'Religious'

David Kilgour, recently retired federal cabinet minister and a serious advocate for spiritual input on public policy issues, suggests some reasons for the Canadian subtlety. Kilgour co-authored Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, an exploration of contrasts between Canada and the U.S. He says Canada's lower religious commitment profile causes politicians to use "universal" terminology, rather than "religious" language, when dealing with potentially contentious values-based issues.

The sense with many politicians is that "if you are open to one faith, you will draw hostility from other faiths who feel they are being left out," Kilgour explains, adding that elected representatives "don't want to [be seen to] represent only some of the people."

Religious nuances

But American politicians, too, can be cautious on such expressions, Kilgour adds, noting that such caution goes back to president Abraham Lincoln, who "really understood different religious motivations and nuances and was never exclusionary. He was able to have a resonance with many faith communities."

However, Kilgour allows that, in Lincoln's day, religious diversity was limited basically to Protestant and Catholic Christianity; whereas present day Canada's populace includes increasing numbers of non-Christian religious groups.

And he points out, as well, that "a politician might be more at ease in using specifically religious language in, say, Abbotsford, than in mid-town Toronto."

Elizabeth May -- who hopes one day to be ordained as an Anglican minister -- likes to make the point that many Christians are prepared to give a nod to issues that aren't necessarily perceived as 'socially conservative,' such as the need to save the planet.

She makes the point because mainstream media coverage often leaves the clear impression, in both the United States and Canada, that there is a symbiosis which ties the political and religious right together.

The Palin factor

That perception has been heightened in the U.S. by the addition of Alaska governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket, as John McCain's vice presidential running mate. Palin represents many things which seemed to be needed on that ticket, not the least of which was the rounding up of evangelical support for the Republicans.

The possible downside of that support is the logical desire of mainstream media to dig into Palin's church background, which some of her critics decided exhibited a theocratic bent.

Throughout her life, Palin has been associated with Pentecostal or charismatic churches that help to shape the culture and politics of life in small town Alaska. It was not hard to find clips showing clergy friends of the Palin family who reference a biblical quote about "the ends of the earth" and portray it as a prophetic portrayal of God's future blessing on Alaska.

Biblical rhetoric

Some Christians are inclined to dramatize biblical or historically religious references to encourage the involvement of people of faith in the political process.

In Canada, the particular text they draw upon is the psalm declaring that God "shall have dominion from sea to sea." Christian leaders bringing tour groups to the Peace Tower often pray that God will soon fulfill prophecy, bring his dominion to Canada and publicly anoint the leader of his choosing.

A wide range of serious Canadian Christians take encouragement from the "dominion" reference. But most see the kingdom of God as being established in people's hearts, more than in the legislative chambers. They would suggest that when people pray and fellowship together, they draw strength. And they believe that those who are politically active among them will allow their faith to shape the influences they bring to bear on public policy issues.

New approaches

To that end, a September 6 analysis in the National Post is instructive. The piece deals with new approaches being taken to one of the issues considered most crucial to socially conservative Christians; it was written by David Frum -- a Canadian conservative analyst who works with an American think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

Entitled 'The new (softer) face of pro-life,' the article pointed out that when Palin made her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, she "welcomed her family onto the stage: her husband, her five children and the fiance of Bristol, her visibly pregnant 17-year-old daughter."

Noted Frum: "That moment confirmed a dramatic evolution in American politics: the transformation of the pro-life movement from an unambiguously conservative force into something more complex."

Unlikely allies

Frum made the following points to defend that thesis:

  1. The pro-life movement is finding new allies in unlikely places.
  2. It has made cause with the rights of the disabled.
  3. It has accepted gender equality and leadership roles for women.
  4. And "most fascinating of all, it has come to terms with the sexual revolution."

Religious groups, he said, have opened some 2,200 crisis pregnancy centres across the United States in recent years. Frum also cited the development of in-school nurseries, so unmarried teenagers who have given birth can keep their children and still attend high school.

The point of Frum's piece is that this broadened approach on the part of the pro-life movement has worked. His proof? Statistics show that "in 1981, 29.3 abortions were carried out for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the United States. By 2005, that rate has tumbled to 19.1 per 1,000 women."

In other words, abortion, he says, "has been made more rare; unwed motherhood has been normalized. However you feel about that outcome, it is not well-described as either left-wing or right wing."

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