The 2019 federal election campaign and its aftermath make clear that there are new boundaries to what can and can’t be said publicly. Moreover, the boundaries now cover what can and can’t be believed.
During the campaign, and in the days following, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was barraged with media questions about his Catholic beliefs, especially on sexuality. No other party leader faced that kind of religious scrutiny.
The implication is that Scheer’s religion is incompatible with public life.
Could Scheer answer questions more effectively?
Possibly. But he’d hardly be the first politician to answer evasively. He may, however, be the first in modern times to have endured such a sustained bombardment over religious beliefs.
And since the campaign, voices from the left and right have coalesced on the same point: Scheer’s Catholicism is problematic.
“You cannot have Mr. Scheer’s beliefs and be the prime minister of Canada,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told The Huffington Post.
The irony of Singh’s statement seems lost on him (and on The Huffington Post). Singh correctly opposes Quebec’s secularism law, which makes his beliefs as a Sikh incompatible with being a teacher, police officer or other public employee. Yet he still suggests someone else’s beliefs don’t belong in the public square?
On the right, meanwhile, Kory Teneycke, a supporter of Maxime Bernier’s failed Conservative leadership campaign, publicly took Scheer to task, despite endorsing him in August as “a kind, intelligent and responsible person.”
Teneycke told CTV that Canadians won’t accept someone who has “a personal moral problem with gay marriage” and who continues to consider homosexual behaviour “a sin,” because voters increasingly equate such beliefs with bigotry.
I know and respect Teneycke, having worked as a Sun Media reporter while he headed the Sun News Network. I was surprised to see him take a position so similar to Singh’s. If he and Singh are taking the stance that Scheer’s beliefs make him genuinely unfit to be prime minister, it’s a significant problem.
Firstly, Scheer’s beliefs are in line with the 2005 Civil Marriage Act, which opened marriage to two people of the same sex. The act acknowledges “the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs” and that “it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.”
The Civil Marriage Act is not bigoted. Neither are Scheer’s views.
Secondly, where does this all stop?
Can someone hold beliefs like Scheer’s and be a cabinet minister, a member of Parliament, a premier, a mayor? It would be a gross violation of religious freedom to allow religious beliefs to become a test for fitness for office.
And this matters to everyone, religious or not, argues Prof. Brett Scharffs at Brigham Young University.
“If we are unwilling to protect religious freedom, which lies at the core of human identity and meaning, then we should not expect our political, legal, and social institutions to protect other important civil and political rights,” Scharffs writes.
In other words, if religious freedom goes, which Charter rights are next?
Instead, we need an open and pluralist public square that protects everyone.
Former NDP MP Bill Blaikie recognized this. He wrote in Convivium that it isn’t good “to have religion caricatured as being narrowly focused on only a few issues and therefore, by extension, to have faith or religious arguments seen as inadmissible in public discourse about other public policy questions. Questions of peace and war, of economic justice and environmental policy are also issues that can be informed by a faith perspective.”
A reimagined public square, therefore, might include:
- Political activists from the left and right openly engaging with various faith communities.
- Journalists checking their own suspicions of religion to examine whether they’re marginalizing faith communities.
- Leaders publicly recognizing that defending religious freedom strengthens everyone’s freedom.
Canada doesn’t need to take a dark turn in the wake of the 2019 federal campaign. We can instead embrace a genuine pluralism that protects everyone.
Daniel Proussalidis is director of communications at think-tank Cardus.