Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regretted in the fall that “divisiveness and disinformation were all too present features of this past election campaign,” in which he acknowledged he had become a polarizing figure.
What the Liberal party leader didn’t quite admit, however, is he played an oversized role in turning the October 2019 election, in which his party was reduced to a minority, into a toxic battle about, of all things, religion and sexual ethics.
Who would have thought it would come to this in multicultural, multi-faith Canada? We like to think it is only other countries, like the rivalrous U.S. or India, that are torn apart by religion-fuelled conflict.
But we had our own culture war in Canada in part because of the way Trudeau, and to some extent NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, hammered Conservative party Leader Andrew Scheer and even Green party Leader Elizabeth May, over two wedge issues with ties to religion — abortion and same-sex relationships.
These two ethical concerns were torqued so hard that most of the electorate likely lost track of any real sense of what Canadian Catholics and Sikhs actually believe about abortion and LGBTQ issues. The public might be surprised.
The Angus Reid Institute found Scheer, an active Catholic, suffered the most as a result of his religion. Commentators say it’s a key reason he announced last month he would step down as Conservative leader.
More than 51 per cent of Canadians told pollsters they developed a negative attitude to Scheer based on what they heard about his Catholicism and his beliefs.
A smaller proportion, 36 per cent, leaned negative about the religion of Trudeau, who says he is Catholic. Voters’ pessimism declined to 31 per cent for May, an Anglican who wears a small cross on a necklace, and to just 24 per cent for Singh, an orthodox Sikh who wears a turban and carries a ceremonial dagger.
Faith clearly remains combustible in Canada. Even though two of three Canadians believe having “freedom of religion” makes this a better country, more than one in five admitted they feel deeply “repelled” when a political candidate is a person of faith.
Scheer’s political opponents didn’t want voters to forget he is personally “pro life” on abortion. That lead to Scheer often saying “as leader of this party it is my responsibility to ensure we do not reopen this debate.”
Nor did Liberal or NDP campaigners want anyone to overlook that Scheer doesn’t attend Pride Parades. To which Scheer’s typical defence was, “I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anybody else absolutely repugnant.”
But Scheer’s commitments to non-prejudicial behaviour did not assuage a suspicious electorate. Two of three Canadians said they don’t trust politicians to keep their personal views out of the public realm.
It’s possible, however, the public might have felt a bit more trusting of Scheer if they knew most of the country’s 13 million Catholics, many of whom are recent immigrants, are not nearly as uniform or doctrinaire as they are often portrayed.
Even though the Catholic church has long opposed any “direct attack on the fetus,” University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby and Angus Reid reveal in their book, Canada’s Catholics, that 85 per cent of Canadian Catholics approve of abortion when a woman’s life is in danger.
Illustrating striking variance among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the book also shows half of Canadian Catholics believe “a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason.” That was the same pro-choice stand championed by Trudeau and Singh.
When it comes to same-sex relationships, Catholic authorities continue to formally oppose them, while urging compassion. However, Canada’s Catholics are much like the rest of the laissez-faire population: “Close to two in three approve both of same-sex couples marrying and their adopting children.”
Contradicting the pundits, who said before the election that Singh would provide the strongest test of voters’ tolerance for religious diversity, Angus Reid Institute polls show he was harmed the least because of his religion, in which he often expresses pride.
It’s conceivable many Canadians were, through extroverted, upbeat Singh, getting more exposure than ever to a member of the Sikh faith, which is about 500 years old, rooted in the Punjab region of India, has about 27 million followers and more than 500,000 in Canada (mostly in Greater Toronto and in Metro Vancouver).
But just as Scheer does not come close to representing all of Catholicism, Singh does not represent all Sikhs. Nobody, especially a politician, can embody everything about a faith (and that includes the pope).
Sikh scholars make it clear that followers hold a spectrum of beliefs about abortion and homosexuality, most of which are more conservative than those promoted by the NDP leader.
In Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed, respected University of Michigan professor Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair says the “idealistic” position in the Sikh religion, which teaches reincarnation, is opposition to abortion.
“To terminate a birth through abortion would be tantamount to refusing a soul entry into a particular body and sending it back to the cycle of birth and deaths — a choice that is not ours to make,” says Mandair.
However, the professor says many Sikhs today feel “morally ambiguous” about abortion and are less “hard and fast” about it. Mandair says Sikhism’s ethical bottom line is abortion, though sometimes acceptable, should not be “driven by selfish motives.”
In a similar vein, Mandair points out many Sikh leaders have condemned homosexuality in recent years, leading to most members of the faith believing in a “hetero-normative model of sexuality” that discourages alternative forms of family.
“Such a process of forcing homosexuals to go underground, as it were, has led to a belief among many Sikhs that there are no homosexual Sikhs,” says Mandair. Despite it, the professor maintains the primary source of Sikh ethics, the Guru Granth Sahib, does not justify castigating homosexuality.
All of which should help demonstrate that followers of religions are not monolithic. So we can always hope next time an election comes along more voters will have a bit better understanding of people of faith.
In that way perhaps fewer politicians will try to twist religion-linked concerns into dangerous wedge issues.