Attacks on religious beliefs “disreputable” says former religious freedom ambassador

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN)—Attacks on the religious beliefs of any political candidate are unacceptable says Canada’s former ambassador religious freedom.

“I think it’s thoroughly disreputable that any party would attack anybody for what they hold to be true, whether moral beliefs, or religious beliefs,” said Andrew Bennett, the director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and Canada’s former Ambassador of Religious Freedom. “If we are going to enjoy a genuine common life as Canadians we have to be willing to recognize deep differences in our society and people are going to believe different things.”

“Not only that, but we need, if we truly believe in religious freedom, we need to expect that our public figures, our political leaders have as much right as anyone else to live both publicly and privately according to their deepest-held beliefs.”

Recently, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has come under attack for his Catholic faith, particularly on the issues of abortion and traditional marriage. Premier Jason Kenney faced similar attacks during the Alberta election.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale unearthed a 2005 video of Scheer opposing the redefinition of marriage, released it on Twitter, asking” “To be a leader for all Canadians, the Conservative Party leader should now end his lifelong boycott of Pride events and explain whether he would still deny same-sex couples the right to marry, as he said in Parliament.”

“Scratch the criticisms slightly, and it exposes a far more distressing concern that anti-Catholicism is alive and well in Canada,” said Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League. “The fact that the media continues to advance these arguments further discloses that the truly acceptable prejudice in Canada remains anti-Catholicism.”

But Bennett sees the attacks on Scheer of a piece with Quebec’s secularism law banning the wearing of religious symbols in public by public servants, police officers, teachers, judges and other representatives of the state. In a recent campaign appearance in the province, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, a baptized Sikh, was shown without his turban.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, is a baptized Sikh.

“The law on secularism in Quebec is an absolute affront not only to religious freedom but also to the promotion and development of our common life,” said Bennett. “In the upcoming election, one thing we have to be very clear on in this debate on what is acceptable in terms of open expressions of faith is that the Quebec approach is the wrong approach, because it marginalizes people of deep religious conviction, and it enforces this closed secularist view as the only acceptable belief system is secularism. And secularism is not neutral.”

“We have to remind people that our faith is not simply a private matter,” said Bennett. “As Catholics, through our baptism, we have an understanding that our faith is public.”

“We’re called to live out our faith in the public square,” he said. “In living out our faith in the public square, we have to be willing to take stands on our faith that are difficult and uphold that which is good and true.”

Horgan said attacks on Scheer and other prominent politicians seem to “suggest that the underlying message is that ‘Catholics or others need not apply for high public office,’ or perhaps that ‘Catholics need not apply for any public office,’ or that ‘Catholics or others should check their religiously formed beliefs based on natural law principles at the door of the public square, in order to participate in public debate.’”

“Is the new normal that even in circumstances where a politician’s public position is made known, that his private faith adherence excludes him from office?” Horgan asked. “Are we excluding people of faith from public life?”

“It’s interesting how history repeats itself,” said Bennett. “Look at what John F. Kennedy had to suffer in the United States in the 1960s: this anti-Catholicism and the idea that if he was elected president he would somehow do the pope’s bidding.”

“We’re seeing a version of that in attacks on Andrew Scheer’s Catholicism, because he may or may not hold certain views that are commensurate with his Catholic faith that somehow that is a threat to peace, order and good government,” Bennett said.

“They’re not attacking Jagmeet Singh for being Sikh,” said Alissa Golob, co-founder of It Starts Right Now. “That would be considered racist, bigotry. But it’s perfectly acceptable to attack Andrew’s Catholic beliefs, just because he’s a practicing Catholic and doesn’t have positions that are contrary to the Catholic faith that we’re used with Justin Trudeau.”

Jack Fonseca, director of political operations for Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), sees a tactical motivation for the attacks on Scheer, as a voter suppression tactic to demoralize the Conservative base and get them to stay home or vote for a fringe party.

“Scheer did exactly what they hoped he would do,” said Fonseca. “He distanced himself from his own beliefs and his own socially-conservative base.”

Fonseca said he was alarmed by a recent interview in which Scheer said he will “oppose” any measures to reopen the abortion debate. “That implies he will order his caucus to vote against it, too.”

Alissa Golob, co-founder of It Starts Right Now, disagrees, arguing Scheer has consistently supported the rights of backbench MPs to bring forward private members’ legislation and for free votes on conscience matters.

When Scheer says his government will not reopen the abortion debate, “that means the 30 or so cabinet ministers and not back bench MPs,” she said, noting Scheer has defended the right to free expression in his caucus.

Bennett notes most of the party leaders — including Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May – have at times expressed religious beliefs.

“We have to be willing to recognize deep differences in our society, and people are going to believe different things,” Bennett said. “If we truly believe in religious freedom, we need to expect that our public figures, our political leaders have as much right as anyone else to live both publicly and privately according to their deepest held beliefs.”