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Jack Knox: Religion and politics make frightful bedfellows

Sep 12 2012

There's no doubt which side Elizabeth May is taking in the War on Science.

"Stop the Harper Conservatives' assault on scientific research and informed decision-making," declares the Green Party leader's website, advertising a Sept. 14 rally in downtown Victoria.

A piece she wrote in Monday's Hill Times, the Ottawa-based publication for political junkies, begins in a similar vein: "While the Harper Conservatives seem allergic to any kind of science to monitor and expand our knowledge of life on Earth. -"

May, apparently, is a firm believer in science.

Here's something else she believes in: God.

In fact, she was studying to become an Anglican minister when her path veered to politics a few years ago.

This would be little more than a footnote on her bio were it not for the nastiness going on in the U.S. election campaign, where religion is being wielded like a broken beer bottle in a bar fight.

Somehow, a debate over evolution versus creationism has been framed as a dispute between science and Christianity, as though the two are antithetical and you have to pick one or the other, Crips or Bloods. This comes as a surprise to those who grew up with both Darwin and the Bible on the bookshelf, whose churches had a lot to say about loving your neighbour but not a lot about carbon-dating.

Last week, Angus Reid released an online poll showing 51 per cent of Americans - but just 22 per cent of Canadians - believe God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years. The fuss associated with this kind of thinking has Bill Nye, television's Science Guy, so alarmed that last month he issued a YouTube plea to those who would block the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools: "If you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine, but don't make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future."

This, in turn, all but got Nye burned at the stake as a heretic by Americans who equate creationism with Christianity.

That's the sort of thing the left warned about before Stephen Harper came to power, the idea that the Albertaliban would turn Canada into a conservative theocracy with its roots in William Aberhart's Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute - which begat Alberta premier Ernest Manning, whose son Preston begat the Reform Party, which begat Stockwell Day's Canadian Alliance, which begat Harper's Conservatives. "How scary?" asked a Maclean's magazine cover in 2000 when Stockwell Day, portrayed as the Christian candidate by supporters and detractors alike, ran for prime minister, the fear being that he would inflict his fundamentalist beliefs on the nation.

But it's not as though other Canadian leaders' actions haven't been interwoven with personal conviction. Pierre Trudeau's Jesuit education shaped his belief in the individual, leading to his Charter of Rights, his declaration that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, and his suspicion of Quebec nationalists. Canada's medicare system was born when Baptist minister Tommy Douglas, an adherent of the social gospel, was premier of Saskatchewan.

Indeed, that social gospel movement is what gave birth to the New Democratic Party and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF's first leader was Methodist minister J.S. Woodsworth, who believed in a Kingdom of God "here and now." The thread continued through Jack Layton, who was active in the United Church.

Canada's prime ministers have almost all been devout Christians. Nine, including Liberals Paul Martin and Jean Chr├ętien and Progressive Conservatives Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark, have been Roman Catholics. In fact, with the exception of Anglican-raised Kim Campbell, to whom Mulroney ceded the helm of the Tory Titanic just before it sank, Harper is the first Protestant PM since Lester Pearson in 1968.

Prior to Pearson was John Diefenbaker, a Baptist who married the pastor's daughter.

The point? Not sure, other that to acknowledge the obvious: Politicians are guided by their convictions, but belief comes in a rainbow of flavours, and there are a lot of believers who don't like Christianity being stuffed in a political pigeonhole any more than Muslims like being labelled bombhappy extremists.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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