Canada’s Evangelical movement: political awakening
CBC News Online | June 14, 2005
From The National, June 13, 2005
Reporter: Keith Boag
Producer: Leiane Cooke
Thousands of people attend an anti-same-sex marriage march on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 9, 2005. (CP Photo/Jonathan Hayward)
It wasn’t that long ago that Canada’s Supreme Court said it’s up to Ottawa to decide who gets married in this country.
Canada might not make as big a deal of it as some in other countries do, but this country is founded on principles that recognize both the rule of law and the supremacy of God.
If that last part is news, check your Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The reference to the supremacy of God is right off the top.
An Ipsos-Reid poll in May 2005 found more than 60 per cent of Canadians say they believe in God and that religion is an important part of their lives.
Naturally, some of those people have strong feelings about the traditional definition of marriage and are upset with plans to change it. And nowhere more so than in Southwestern Ontario, the heart of what some call the Bible Belt.
Now Tristan Emmanuel has an audience and a goal. The Ontario minister is deeply opposed to same-sex marriage, and he’s organizing those who share his convictions. He is reminding those he talks to that they decide who goes to Ottawa.
Cambridge, Ont., is very churchy in its public square and somewhat wistful in its recollections of simpler times.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact on the Christian communities in a place like Cambridge of an issue like same-sex marriage legislation. To some, it’s as though their federal government were now operating in a different solar system, one so far away they couldn’t reach it in a million years, even travelling at the speed of light.
So they wonder, whatever happened to the influence they believed they once had on the direction of this country, and how do they get that influence back?
In churches such as this, the Orthodox Christian Reform Church of Cambridge, there is a kind of political awakening happening encouraged by the Reverend Tristan Emmanuel.
Among his firm beliefs is that the time has come for Christians to speak with a louder voice in the world of politics.
Emmanuel says: “I stand here and [a] newspaper headlines says, ‘Gay bill fast tracked,’ and it goes on to say the federal government told Liberal MPs yesterday it will push same-sex marriage legislation through Parliament before a summer recess prompting critics to charge the Liberals that they are ignoring public complaints about the controversial bill. That is an understatement!”
Emmanuel says Christians have been too timid in their approach to politics. He believes that homosexuality is a choice people make and a bad one, and he wants the same-sex marriage issue to shake up his fellow Christians and bring him into what he calls the public square.
“I believe it so much that I think we need to vote for members of Parliament who will defend that institution and will not allow for the re-altering, the redefinition, the reconfiguration of it, and to me, that is essential to who I am as a Christian and as a Canadian. It’s a Canadian virtue, it’s a Canadian institution.” Emmanuel says.
“I don’t know why that’s scary. Why is that scary? It wasn’t 10 years ago, in fact, it wasn’t five years ago, when the federal government including the federal Liberals agreed that we will not change the definition.”
Reverend Tristan Emmanuel is not a household name nor an important player in the evangelical community, not yet. But it was Emmanuel who put together an anti-same-sex rally in Ottawa this spring. The turnout was surprisingly strong, somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people. That raised the question whether the marriage issue has the power to draw people into active politics who would not previously have considered it.
Stephen Harper at an anti-same-sex rally
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper told the rally, “We can win this fight!”
Then suddenly a national newspaper headline alerted readers that Christian activists have been getting behind candidates at Tory nominating meetings near Halifax and elsewhere. In the middle of the story, there was Tristan Emmanuel’s name.
And what was he doing in Halifax?
“Motivating, motivating the evangelical community out there and the Roman Catholic community, too. I want to be clear here that while I’m evangelical, I’ve been involved with Roman Catholics, and I love so many of them. They’re in there as well,” Emmanuel says.
Emmanuel says he was motivating them “to not be ashamed of who they are, to contribute vitally to the makeup of Canada.”
Emmanuel says he will also support political candidates.
“If it means protecting the institution of marriage, you bet, yeah,” he says. “I mean, we either believe in this or we don’t, right? I mean, the same is true of the other side. They believe very much in what they want to accomplish, and so they’re going to work to ensure their political candidates make it.”
Maybe it’s because the religious right in the United States holds such sway over politicians there, particularly Republicans.
Or maybe it’s because our own politics in Canada has been in an uncertain transformation for more than a decade. In any case, Christian activism, especially evangelical Christian activism, provokes strong feelings, and that is in spite of its relatively benign role in Canadian political life.
Lorna Dueck has been immersed in the issues as a journalist, commentator, and a person of deep faith herself.
“We’re getting almost Joe McCarthy-like questions when you see shocking headlines that are alarmed that Christians are getting involved, as they always, always have been, in politics,” Dueck says. “What happened in the U.S. could not happen in Canada for a couple of reasons. We simply don’t have the critical mass of evangelical Christians and active Christians that they do.
“Evangelicals in the United States are 90 million strong, we have three million. So the numbers aren’t there, but this is a bigger thing because Evangelical Christians vote all over the board and they are all over the political parties in Ottawa, and so this idea of it just being swung to what we saw in the United States would never happen in Canada.”
That’s backed up by those who study politics for a living. David Doherty who teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University has a few points of his own to make about the whole thing.
“We’re relatively sure the next government will be a minority. Even if it were to be a Conservative minority government, I would be very, very surprised to see Stephen Harper saying to those very socially conservative religious right MPs, ‘Go to town.’ Because that’s the last message that they would want to send out as they try to fight to get a majority government,” Doherty says.
But there’s a tactical political advantage to linking Christians to Conservatives. It raises the spectre of social conservatism and tilts the political battlefield.
“This headline is exactly the kind of headline that Stephen Harper would say oh, no, and Paul Martin would say, oh, yes. Whether it’s true or not, it allows Paul Martin or the Liberals to say, this is what you’ll be electing if you vote for the Conservative party.” Doherty says.
“Whether they say that directly or not, it certainly allows those kind of doubts, particularly in places like Ontario that have been reluctant and have those questions in the back of their mind already, it plays in to those fears.”
The irony is that socially conservative Christians have been part of the government for a long, long time. Many who identify themselves that way sit in the Liberal caucus. Liberals like to claim this is because their party is a big tent with room for all kinds of views. They say that’s the difference between their party and every other party. It’s apparently an effective tactic.
In last June’s election, the Liberals salvaged a minority government in part by telling voters that the Conservatives were a narrow-minded party with a hidden agenda. They raised the spectre of a social conservative government taking away minority rights and turning back the clock on issues such as abortion.
They figured that would work because, well, it had worked before, hadn’t it? In the 2000 election, the socially conservative and evangelical Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day had been an easy target for the Liberals. Day was a vulnerable candidate for a lot of reasons, but one of them was certainly his religion. To some extent, the media played along calling his campaign plane “Prayer Force One,” for instance. So, can Liberals play the same card again? And if they can, whose fault is that?
Does Emmanuel see himself as a liability for the Conservative party, who therefore undermines his own goals?
“No, I couldn’t see that,” Emmanuel says. “I don’t want to be a liability. Quite frankly, I can’t see that, unless, of course, the engine that drives perception, i.e. the media, gives expression constantly to this position that somehow we are bad people. Are you willing to allow what quite frankly would not be allowed to happen to any other religious community? I mean, no federal politician would dare, would dare marginalize the Islamic community of Canada ipso facto and as often as they have done to the evangelical community. They wouldn’t do it.”
Dueck says, “I don’t know Tristan well, but I do know him, and I fear the same thing I fear for myself or any person who talks publicly about Christianity is that we’ll be, we’ll be, you know, we’ll trip, we’ll fall. Something stupid will happen. You do fear that, you do fear that. But I mean, we just have to embrace what democracy is, and that’s freedom to express, and if that means your faith, that’s just part of who we are as Canadians.”
There is a heavy indictment of the media in this. Many evangelicals say they do not get fair media coverage, and they strongly believe if they had more access to the airwaves as they do in the United States, things would be different here.
Tristan Emmanuel would like to have his own TV show. “I think it would add to the mosaic of our culture. It would be a voice,” he says. “Whether it’s me or another good evangelical who understands his theology and is able to articulate it in a manner that’s intelligent and professional, I think it would help to present who we are to the very culture who says, we don’t know who you are, so you must be scary, right. But our ability to contribute in the public square necessitates our ability to engage the public square through the method of the public square, which is the media.”
Tristan Emmanuel is probably not going to have his own television show in the foreseeable future, but this may not be the last you ever hear of him. He’s already come a fair distance in a short time on the strength of his personality, his conviction, and the simple fact that the same-sex marriage issue may offer him something all politicians crave: the chance to broaden his base.
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