by Jeffrey Shallit
The recent flap over Stockwell Day's fundamentalist beliefs raises a serious question: To what extent should a political candidate's religious beliefs be subject to public scrutiny?
It's not a question with an easy answer. As the current religious conflicts in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia remind us, nothing could be more damaging to democracy than the factionalism induced by religion. Would we want to live in a Canada where Christians vote only for the Christian party, Jews only for the Jewish party, and Muslims only for the Islamic Party?
Obviously not. But then again, the way a candidate approaches religion tells us a lot about their personality. For example, American TV evangelist and political candidate Pat Robertson has stated that only Christians and Jews should be allowed to hold public office. Although Robertson claims Biblical support for his view, it is clearly incompatible with the guarantees in the American Bill of Rights. On the other hand, former US President Jimmy Carter lives his beliefs by working actively for charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, building houses for poor people. Both men claim to be Christians, but evidently their opinions differ on what that means.
Given a choice between Robertson and Carter, should voters simply ignore what they know about their religious beliefs?
I think the answer is that a candidate's religious beliefs should be off limits to the extent that they do not seriously impact public policy. Believing that God specially created human beings or a refusal to work on Sundays should not be cause for an inquisition by the press. But when religious beliefs cause a candidate to call for changes in the abortion law, for example, the public is entitled to know the basis for those beliefs.
Stockwell Day apparently adheres to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, where the earth is only 6,000 years old and human beings co-existed with dinosaurs. These beliefs have been roundly criticized in the Canadian media.
Some fundamentalist Christians have been quick to defend Day, labelling any inquiry into a candidate's religion as bigotry, and claiming Day is being singled out because he is Christian. But is this really true?
The scientific evidence for a 4.6-billion-year old earth, the extinction of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, and the evolution of modern humans about 2 million years ago couldn't be more firm. With virtually unanimous agreement, scientists point to multiple independent lines of evidence that support these conclusions.
Day certainly has the right to believe the earth is young. This alone should not disqualify him for the position of Prime Minister. After all, he might hold such a discredited position because he hasn't studied the evidence. Although I personally might wonder at such a lack of intellectual curiosity, most people don't consider geology and paleontology as litmus tests for public office.
But when Day advocates the teaching of the pseudoscience known as creationism in public schools, the situation changes. Now it is no longer just a case of a privately-held religious belief, but rather forcing children to be indoctrinated in a narrow sectarian interpretation of one particular religious text.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees every Canadian the right to freedom of religion. But this important guarantee doesn't mean that a candidate's positions are immune from criticism merely because they are religiously based.
The defence of Stockwell Day by fundamentalists Christians would be far more credible if accompanied by an expressed willingness to support candidates who are atheists, Muslims, and Wiccans. Somehow I don't think this is likely to happen.