Churches weigh in on 2008 election

By Dennis Gruending

kairos_175.jpgSome Canadian churches are posing earnest but polite questions for candidates and parties in the 2008 election campaign while religious conservatives are denouncing Stephen Harper for betraying them on abortion. The statements and election kits prepared by the churches fall into three broad categories: those that focus on questions of social and economic justice; those that give precedence to issues such as abortion and euthanasia but which acknowledge other issues as well; and those that focus solely on questions such as abortion and insist that they are the only issues which really matter.

Churches that belong to KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition, exemplify the first category. The organization has issued a four-page election resource kit that highlights poverty, aboriginal rights and the environment, particularly climate change. The first in a list of questions that KAIROS recommends be posed to candidates asks,  “Will your party commit to the immediate ending of subsidies to oil companies and redirect these funds to energy conservation and sustainable, renewable energy?” The second question relates to aboriginal rights: “Will your party endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and conclude treaties with Indigenous peoples that implement the rights contained in the Declaration?”

KAIROS includes mainline Protestants, including the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, as well as Quakers, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) along with Development and Peace, the Catholic organization tasked with promoting international justice, represent Catholics at KAIROS. Most of the KAIROS member churches and groups have also issued their own election statements or kits.

The Catholic bishops, for example, issued a document called Federal Election 2008 Guide in which they frame the political choices that Catholics should make under the heading of “Respect for the life and dignity of the human person.” Life, they say, must be protected at all stages, “from conception to death, no matter the circumstances.” They say that, in addition to questions such as abortion and euthanasia, protecting life includes “being present to people with disabilities and those who are elderly, ill, poor or suffering; promoting peace and ending violence as a way to resolve conflicts; and encouraging policies that help people balance their family and work responsibilities.”

There is little ecumenical crossover at the national level between evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) represents evangelical churches and organizations but does not belong either to KAIROS or the Canadian Council of Churches. The EFC has issued an election kit that is in some ways similar to that of the Catholic bishops, highlighting abortion but also including questions of poverty and justice. The kit also features a statement by EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger, who says: “There are a variety of important issues being debated in this election and at least one, abortion, will likely be absent as no party seems willing to dissent from the status quo.”

Clemenger’s comment signals the widespread disppointment that religious conservatives have come to feel toward Stephen Harper, who has made it clear during this campaign that he will not introduce or allow new legislation recriminalizing abortion. Perhaps the strongest denunciation of Harper has come from Rev. Alphone de Valk, the editor of a magazine called Catholic Insight. De Valk issued a news release on October 2 under the heading: “Prime Minister Harper betrays conservatives.” De Valk says that Harper should be defeated in his riding and removed as Conservative party leader.

The anti-abortion organization Campaign Life is rating the leaders based on what it calls a “party leader report card on life issues.” Harper is accorded a D, although he might take at least small solace because all other major party leaders receive an F. Campaign Life and several other organizations on the religious right, including the Canada Family Action Coalition (CFAC), have also prepared an online pamphlet called Election Guide for Serious Christians. This, of course, implies that some Christians are not serious about their faith. Charles McVety, CFAC’s president, has in past elections organized on behalf of right wing religious candidates seeking nominations for the Conservative Party. He has also led the Canadian section of a group Christians United for Israel. Brian Rushfeldt, CFAC’s executive director, says he wants churches to use the election guide as a Sunday bulletin insert and hopes that people in the pews use it as a guide to “vote the way they should.” The guide outlines five “non-negotiable issues” which it says, “should be ranked above all other issues that come up in political debate”. They include: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same sex marriage. There is no mention of any of the social and economic justice issues raised by the churches involved in the KAIROS coalition or the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Interestingly, the EFC’s election resource kit reminds its congregations of the rule that, as charitable institutions, churches must be non-partisan. The EFC says that, “a church may not endorse a particular candidate or political party, or use its resources to support a candidate or party (even if they attend your own church).”

All of this civic activity on behalf of churches exists against a backdrop of Canadians being wary of religious involvement in politics. A national Angus Reid poll conducted in July 2008, prior to the election being called, indicated that 82 per cent of respondents consider it inappropriate for religious leaders to urge people to vote for or against a political candidate, and that 66 per cent of Canadians believe it is inappropriate for political candidates to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their campaigns.

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Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament