June 22, 2004 Volume 18, Number 07
Christian candidates tiptoe through the political minefields
Religion deemed a negative factor in public perception
By Doug Koop
Frank Luellau answers questions from the media.
Frank Luellau picked his words carefully, but in the end it didn't really matter. As the federal election campaign ground through its third week, the former director of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities was feeling the political heat on the hustings as the Conservative Party of Canada candidate in Kitchener-Conestoga.
"The biblical teaching is that [homosexuality] is not a natural kind of relationship," he told a Globe and Mail reporter. "I think it is inappropriate for Christians, especially Christian leaders, to live that lifestyle."
That may sound like a cautious statement, but any sense of nuance was lost as Luellau's picture and quotes ended up under the headline, "Tory candidate condemns gay 'lifestyle.'" Welcome to politics.
"The complexity of the issues is so great, but the level of discourse is insulting," laments Michael Markwick, a committed Roman Catholic and a PhD candidate in democratic communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
The media furor surrounding the "gay lifestyle" comment drew Tory leader Stephen Harper into the fray, and Luellau was required to clarify the distinction between personal views and party policy.
"Regardless of my personal religious views, I respect the legal right of consenting adults to make their own choices, and would not legislate in this area," he said. "I will ensure equal opportunities to all public jobs and programs to all Canadians."
Luellau is but one of a growing number of avowedly Christian candidates who are taking a run at federal political office. In a nearby Ancaster, Ontario riding, David Sweet is also running as a Conservative. Before tossing his hat into the ring, Sweet was national president of Promise Keepers Canada.
While having a high profile in the Christian community may very well win a candidate support from people eager to see biblical values more firmly established in Canadian society, being perceived as a religious person-especially "evangelical"-is a political handicap.
In Saskatoon, two-term Conservative incumbent Maurice Vellacott, an ordained minister, is in a tough race against a seasoned opponent. Chris Axworthy, now running for the Liberals, reportedly considers Vellacott's clergy status an "Achilles heel" and is raising the religion issue on the doorstep.
Avoid moral questions
The real battleground for this election is in Ontario and Quebec, which political observer Joe Couto describes as "bastions of secularism that treasure peace, order and good government above sticky ethical or moral questions."
That's why Stephen Harper has been trying to run a quiet, middle-of-the-road campaign that avoids precisely these questions that so vex the electorate. And although he's been quick to caution outspoken candidates, politically controversial issues like abortion and the definition of marriage just keep popping up.
Peter Stock, a longtime pro-life activist now running as a Conservative candidate in Simcoe-North, told the Globe and Mail last April he doesn't believe the issue of abortion should be revisited.
But it's been a prominent issue anyhow, with near hysteria erupting in mainstream media whenever the possibility of limiting abortion rights is raised. Pro-life observers say this volatility reveals continuing social discomfort with the fact that more than 100,000 abortions are performed every year in Canada.
Still, no contending party is eager to discuss the issue and none is willing to introduce restrictive legislation. It's political poison.
Thus candidate Stock takes a very prudent approach as he shapes his political image. His Web site, for example, studiously avoids any hint of controversy. It describes him as the co-founder and federal affairs director of a national conservative advocacy organization, but does not identify the group as the Canada Family Action Coalition.
But real views do tend to emerge in the rough and tumble of public life. "I go on record stating my view to uphold the traditional definition of the word 'marriage,'" declares Kent Fox, a Conservative running against Liberal incumbent Andy Scott in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
And although he allows that same-sex couples "deserve to have the right to have a recognized union," he has been targeted for defeat by Canadians for Equal Marriage.
Not all Conservative
While the majority of candidates who self-identify as Christian tend to be conservative and run as Conservatives, there are plenty of exceptions to demonstrate that "Christian" political candidate does not equal "social conservative" political candidate?
Desmond McGrath, for example, is a pro-life Catholic priest running for the NDP in Newfoundland. "The Liberals and Conservatives are doing a great job looking after the interests of big corporations," he says. "What our Parliament needs is more people standing up for working people."
Similarly, longtime NDP Member of Parliament Bill Blaikie is a prime example of a left wing politician who frequently speaks with the conviction and cadence of Old Testament prophet. Liberal MP John McKay is a devout Baptist.
And in the Richmond riding of B.C., both the Liberal (Raymond Chan) and Conservative (Alice Wong) candidates have close ties to evangelical churches.
Chuck Strahl is one of the more prominent Christian MPs running for re-election. One of Strahl's opponents is Ron Gray, national leader of the Christian Heritage Party.
Written with files from ChristianWeek correspondents in Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton.