Ex-preacher's rise makes religion a political topic in Canada

Posted: Friday, July 28, 2000

TORONTO (AP) -- He's a telegenic leader on the rise whose religious faith has raised a blunt question: Will his deeply held convictions influence his political agenda?

Issues that faced a young John F. Kennedy a generation ago now confront Stockwell Day as he takes over Canada's official opposition party and prepares for a run at the prime minister's office.

Day, a former Protestant preacher, is an evangelical Christian who takes Sundays off to go to church and be with his family. As the new leader of the Canadian Alliance, a party hoping to unify Canada's conservatives to oust the governing Liberal Party, he insists that his strongly expressed religious beliefs and social conservatism promote personal freedom -- not religion-induced controls.

Questions keep coming, nonetheless. Newspaper articles and columns incessantly debate the matter, and Maclean's, a national news magazine, ran a large photo of a stern-looking Day on the cover with the huge question ''How Scary?''

In a television interview last month, Day battled back when challenged by his Canadian Broadcasting Corp. host about his opposition to government recognition of same-sex marriages.

Noting the Liberal Party government led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien also opposes granting licenses for gay and lesbian marriages, Day responded: ''Have you ever had Jean Chretien in here or a Liberal and said to him why do you have this definition in your law that says families should be defined heterosexually? Have you ever asked a Liberal that?''

His chief adviser, Jason Kenney, described the media focus on Day's religion as ''a double standard applied to evangelical Christians.'' Canadian politicians with a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish background rarely if ever face such questions, Kenney said, calling the treatment of Day ''one of the last acceptable forms of polite bigotry.''

He acknowledged people may be reacting to a familiar image of the proselytizing Christian fundamentalist, pushing his version of the good news on nonbelievers.

''I guess there is that stereotype. Any serious person of faith believes they have that particular window on the truth of man and want to share that with others,'' Kenney said. ''That's why religion and politics are the two subjects you aren't supposed to talk about in public.''

Day talks about both, a lot. He describes himself as a person who believes in God, opposes abortion, supports capital punishment, and blames liberal policies for societal ills such as increased crime, divorce and illegitimacy.

But in an April speech that echoed Kennedy's 1960 U.S. presidential campaign statements drawing a line between personal faith and public policy, Day declared, ''I do not seek, nor do other persons of faith I know seek to impose their spiritual beliefs on anybody else.''

He continued: ''As a conservative, I have no intention of making my religion someone else's law. But neither is it possible to demand that the convictions I express on Sunday should have nothing to do with the way I live my life the other six days of the week.

''In other words, I believe in the separation of church and state; but am opposed to any suggestion that citizens separate themselves from their beliefs in order to participate in the government of their state.''

Some journalists and analysts say the focus on Day's religious beliefs misses the point. Newspaper columnist Paul Wells, writing in Time magazine, noted that Chretien attends Mass every Sunday and nobody makes an issue of it.

''Nothing Day has ever said is as scary as the proposition that a devout man should be barred for high political office in Canada,'' Wells wrote.

Vince Carlin, chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University, said examining Day's history and views on public policy was the proper way to assess his abilities and character.

Journalists, he said, tend to succumb to an ''easy shorthand'' regarding fundamentalist Christians, saddling them with an image without explaining what it means.

''If the effort for journalists is to be vaguely intellectually consistent, we should keep in mind that liberals were once derided as communists because they weren't sufficiently anti-communist,'' Carlin said. ''This is the same thing.''

According to David Reed, a professor of theology at Wycliffe College, a part of the University of Toronto, the creation of the Canadian Alliance as a political home for conservatives and Day's emergence as its leader reflect a societal shift in Canada.

After World War II, he noted, 65 percent of Canadians regularly attended church, but the figure was down to 25 percent three decades later. Reed said a sense of ''dislocation from our former history'' is still being felt by many Canadians who remain unfamiliar with Day's type of fundamentalist religion and his social conservatism.

''What you are hearing in the reaction against Day is a fear that is normal among people who feel that shift going on,'' he said.

Kenney, a former Jesuit scholar, said many journalists lack an understanding of religion and believers like Day.

''There's a kind of peculiar curiosity among those in the media who tend to disproportionately be secular in their world view if not hostile to the metaphysical certainty of serious people of faith,'' he said.

Or as Day himself put it in his April policy statement: ''I would like to ask those who are always accusing religious believers of being intolerant how tolerant they are of people who hold these beliefs.''

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