In an interview with the CBC last week, federal Green party leader Elizabeth May was asked who her personal hero is. She responded, “Jesus Christ.” Almost immediately, she apologized, saying that she had responded while failing to “self-edit.”
Canadians, by and large, are not so open to publicly discussing matters like religion, politics or other things that could be perceived as controversial. But political leaders should be prepared to discuss things in their lives that have shaped them. In fact, religion seems likely to be more central in this election than it has been in decades.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh felt compelled to address his religion in an ad (notably aimed at Quebec voters) about how his identity as a Sikh influences his worldview.
While Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans the display of religious symbolism in the public service, means Singh would not be permitted to teach in the province or hold certain roles in the civil service, he managed to finesse the issue quite neatly. He found a sort of common ground by acknowledging that Bill 21 is an effort by Quebecers to protect and preserve their identity, the importance of which he acknowledged paralleled his own pride in his identity and the importance it holds in his life.
Over the weekend, he also managed to continue discussing the topic while having a few laughs, which rarely hurts. Singh, who has struggled to connect with voters in the pre-election period, may come out of this round a winner by making Quebec voters and other Canadians take a good look at him for the first time.
Meanwhile, Liberals are trying to portray Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer as having a hidden agenda, based on his Catholic religious beliefs, on issues like reproductive freedom and equal marriage.
Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both Catholics, have taken similar approaches, asserting that their religious views will not dictate party or government policies. However, there is probably a different calculation being made on each side. Trudeau’s policies are probably more liberal than the teachings of his church, so segmenting the two prevents an undesirable schism with his church. Scheer is probably calculating that his beliefs in the teachings of his church are not shared by the majority of voters; therefore, segregating his political and religious positions may have a hint of political expediency. In both cases, Trudeau and Scheer have been vague and both have attempted to move past the topic. (This is tougher for Scheer, whose grassroots supporters, in many cases, are more religiously conservative than the average voter. Working on not alienating them while courting middle-of-the-road voters places him in a bit of a bind.)
The reticence by Trudeau and Scheer to enthusiastically discuss their religious views, and May’s odd flip-flop on Jesus, may be a consequence of a root misunderstanding around the separation of church and state: the concept is that religious institutions should not unduly influence, or be influenced by, governments. It does not mean that individual elected officials should neuter their religious views as they cross the threshold into the legislature. If one’s deeply held religious beliefs and values are what make up a person’s identity, worldview and morality, these are things that should very much be on the table for people seeking the public’s trust. By example, there is plenty in biblical literature that May could have cited as motivators for her environmental priorities. That kind of openness would be refreshing. Singh tried it. We’ll see what happens.
If religious adherence is an important part of who a candidate is, it would be nice to think that they would not be embarrassed or shy to share these perspectives with us. Canadians would perhaps understand our leaders better – including when they say that they personally believe one thing but would not legislate it on the country, which is an entirely legitimate position.
What likely makes voters suspicious or skeptical is when a politician seems to be hiding something, is ambiguous about how their beliefs might guide policy positions, or is ashamed of who they are.