Monday, September 26, 2005

Fighting Canada's secularist tide

Lorne Gunter
National Post

Monday, September 26, 2005

Canada's religious right has had a tough time of it in recent years. For the past decade, conservative Christians have watched as first human rights tribunals, then courts and finally Parliament have drawn an increasingly tighter circle around traditional values and religious beliefs in an attempt to banish such attitudes from public life.

The reaction by Christians has been an almost dream-like disbelief: This can't be happening. Sanity and reason will once again prevail before things go seriously wrong. The truth shall set us free.

It took this year's debate on gay marriage to jar the religious right into the realization that the truth is a weakling, no match for the ingrained biases of the Canadian establishment or the spin of well-funded special interest groups. If the religious right wants change, it now knows it will have to abandon its cultural isolation, stop preaching only to the converted and engage in the muck and mire of day-to-day politics.

Despite the paranoid fantasies of the editors at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, and producers at the CBC and CTV, Canada's Protestant Evangelicals and conservative Catholics have almost no concerted political clout.

They nominate a candidate here or manage to have a spokesman invited onto a public affairs show there. They helped Stockwell Day upset Preston Manning as leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. Yet in the general election that followed, and the one after that, their influence was negligible.

Having the strength to swing nominations or leadership contests within a party is one thing, but only when Christians have the power to sway elections will they get themselves heard on Parliament Hill.

Some leaders of the religious right are good at inciting their supporters to send mass e-mails and faxes, and make tens of thousands of phone calls to MPs and provincial legislators. Still, in our Westminster system, with its rigid party discipline, pressuring backbenchers is an almost entirely useless exercise.

In order to have influence, you have to show yourself indispensable to a government's re-election. In order to do that, you have to be adept at one or more of the three mainstays of modern politics: fundraising, manipulating media coverage and getting out the vote. So far, the religious right in Canada has not demonstrated any particular talent at any of these.

It has managed in recent years, through rallies and letter-writing, to raise its profile just enough to make itself a convenient bogeyman for its enemies, but not enough to ensure that parties treat its policy objectives with respect. Last year, Paul Martin was able to get away with calling evangelical candidates in the general election "scary." This year, while the Conservatives maintained steadfast opposition to gay marriage, they are also ran away from every other socially conservative policy. They tried hard at their Montreal policy conference last March to squelch all debate on moral issues, and party leaders worked diligently to have delegates take no stand whatever on abortion.

So far, the religious right in Canada has been all light and no heat.

When analysts wonder, "Can the religious right ever play a major role in this country?," the unspoken addendum is always "as they do in the United States?"

And if that is the question, then the answer is no. They lack the numbers and the mechanisms to force change in the way they've done south of the border.

Still, they can become much more influential than they are now.

In the United States, somewhere between 15% and 20% of the voting age population are self-identified evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals and conservative Catholics or Baptists. In Canada, the number is 10% at best. Still, if Canadian Christians want clout proportionate to even that low number, they would do well to emulate some of the Americans' lessons.

Our religious conservatives are today where the U.S. movement was two decades ago. They have finally accepted that if they are to save any of the values they cherish, they must become fully engaged in politics.

But they have almost no understanding of how best to channel their newfound concern into productive political action. They sound noisy alarms claiming that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, which fall largely on deaf ears with a population that is economically comfortable and that, for decades, has been soothingly reassured that tolerance and diversity are the most important virtues; moral certainty is apparently the only divisive force Canadians have to fear.

Canada's Christian conservatives have their Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and Garner Ted Armstrongs -- what they lack is their own version of Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed. They have their charismatic preachers who can rail against the deterioration of Canadian society, preachers who might even whip up a desire in their followers to confront Christianity's opponents on the secular battleground of partisan politics. What is missing is someone, like Reed, who is as comfortable in the political backrooms throughout the week as he is in the nave on Sunday morning.

It was Reed, who in the Reagan and George Bush Sr. eras taught the nascent religious right how to poll, canvass, recruit, raise money and get out the vote. It was Reed who took the alarmism of groups such as the Moral Majority (MM) and marshalled it into an effective political movement.

It is ironic, perhaps, that at the very moment when evangelical Christianity is enjoying its greatest influence in American politics in a century, the groups that gave birth to the religious right -- MM, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, etc. -- have lost some of their prominence. Donations and memberships for most of them are off their mid-1990s highs.

But in a way, their decline is a mark of their success. As their ideas and goals have become mainstream in American politics, their reason for being has diminished. In the 2004 U.S. presidential race, the get-out-the-religious-vote effort was done from within the Republican party, not by separate Christian groups. Christians in the United States are now established players. They no longer rely on agents and power brokers.

American Christian conservatism has gone through three stages in the past 20 years, from raising the alarm to marshalling their forces to capturing the mainstream. Canadian Christians are just now entering Stage One.

Our Christians, too, will have fewer mechanisms to build their influence -- no citizen-initiated referenda, for instance. Caps on third-party spending and advertising during campaigns will make it much harder for them to get their message out, as well. And our Parliamentary system of government also makes it much harder to convince individual representatives to vote according to the desires of voters back home than hew to the line laid down by party bosses. Moreover, our laws permit human-rights witchhunts that anti-Christian activists exploit to silence the religious right here to an extent undreamed of in the U.S.

Not even Bill Clinton's administration threatened to take away churches' tax-exempt status if they did not conform to the official line on gay rights. Revenue Canada has vowed to do just that to Canadian churches.

Canada's Christian right faces a steeper uphill battle for much smaller prizes than its American equivalent. Too soon to tell how far it will get. It has only just begun to climb.

© National Post 2005