The debate over Stephen Harper’s membership in the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance, which I discussed in a previous post, has been continuing. Chris Selley makes a couple of interesting and problematic points in the course of trying to convince his readers that Harper’s religious beliefs “are none of our business” (as the caption of a photo accompanying Selley’s article pithily puts it).
First, Selley levels a plausible charge of hypocrisy against people who want to rake evangelical Protestant politicians over the coals while giving Catholic politicians a free pass:
When a left-wing or centrist Catholic Canadian politician who never talks about religion goes to a service given by a cleric who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, it’s no big deal. But when an evangelical Canadian politician who never talks about religion goes to a service given by a cleric who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, somehow it threatens to upend the apple cart of church/state separation…Evangelicals can only conclude, correctly, that they are seen not just as different, but less trustworthy. It’s ugly.
To the extent that there’s an unfair inconsistency here, I would say that the best way to remove it is to subject Catholic politicians to more scrutiny, not evangelical politicians to less. However, I don’t agree that the inconsistency is entirely unfair or “ugly” in the first place. We Canadians tend to be highly sensitive – I would say hypersensitive, in many cases – to anything that smacks of discrimination, but it’s foolish to ignore the plain fact that different religious groups believe different things and are associated with different prevailing sensibilities. The Catholic Church, for all its cruel, smarmy and puritanical faults, accepts evolution and generally takes a nuanced and thoughtful approach to the business of interpreting the Bible. Nominal Catholics who cheerfully ignore everything their church has to say about contraception, in particular, are common enough to be almost a cliché. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are much more given to creationism and Biblical literalism, and in my experience are less likely to wear their religion lightly. Evangelical politicians should be viewed differently than Catholic politicians, because the former belong (at least by and large – I don’t want to tar absolutely all evangelicals with one brush) to denominations that are more flagrantly at odds with reality and are associated with greater levels of fervour.
Selley’s attitude, however, is that the religious beliefs of politicians are “private views” that should not be “fair game” for public discourse. This is beginning to sound suspiciously like a variation on the idea, hardly popular in atheist circles, that religious ideas should be exempt from the critical examination that other ideas receive as a matter of course. However, Selley avoids falling into this trap by taking the extraordinary position that we shouldn’t worry about the motivations of our leaders, period:
Politicians believe all sorts of stupid things for all sorts of stupid reasons. In the end, I fail to see the point of all this speculation … well, unless it’s to bash conservatives and evangelicals for sport. Democracy provides us with a wonderful opportunity, every four years or so at the most, to judge politicians for what they do. What does it matter why they do it?
What does it matter? On a practical level, in that understanding a person’s motivations can be helpful in predicting his or her future behaviour, especially when unexpected situations come up. On a slightly more philosophical one, in that the model of society that Selley is proposing sounds profoundly unhealthy. Politicians shouldn’t be remote figures who govern from inside a hermetically sealed bubble, refusing to explain themselves when they make decisions on behalf of us all. Voting every four years or so may be the most important formal mechanism of our democracy, but surely the sense that elected officials are members of society rather than aloof temporary dictators ought to be among its guiding principles. If they won’t even talk to us, about religion and other important matters, how can we possibly trust them or feel adequately represented by them?