Are Christians too dumb to govern?

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 4, 2000

Canada's recent federal election campaign was mercifully short and, inasmuch as it was essentially a rout by Jean Chretien's Liberal Party, there is no doubt about its outcome. Yet the divisive rhetoric and trivia that often masquerades as campaign issues demonstrated that Canadians are not altogether different from their neighbors to the south.

Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day
Day

There was much discussion, indeed no small amount of ridicule, of Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day's beliefs about the origins of the earth and human species. The Canadian Alliance, which resulted from a merger between dissident Progressive Conservative Party members (the Tories are so mushy they make the Republican Party seem like a consistent defender of individual liberty and limited government) and the conservative Reform Party and its strong base in the western provinces. Day, like his Reform predecessor Preston Manning, is an evangelical Christian. As such, he believes in creationism and rejects evolution. For this, he was roundly denounced as an extremist.

What did this have to do with which party was better suited to run Canada? About as much as whether Prime Minister Chretien could defend his church's doctrine of Immaculate Conception, as Day retorted. There are scientific objections that have been lodged against Darwinian evolution as well as religious ones, and there are variations of creationism that differ from the strict assertion that Genesis was intended as an all-encompassing literal description of the planet's beginnings. In any event, Day's religious beliefs were irrelevant and ridicule of them by those who would hold public office is out of line. One would think that a country grappling with inefficient bureaucracy, inexorably growing government that is slowly smothering the private sector, high taxes and threats to national unity not limited to separatism in Quebec would have larger issues to worry about.

Which of course isn't to say that politics are more important than whether the Bible is true. Given the claims the Bible makes, such an assertion would be nonsensical. But the aforementioned political issues are legitimate objects of public concern, whereas Day's religious beliefs should primarily be his concern. Yet this type of religious ridicule is not uncommon, nor is it confined to Canada.

During the 1928 presidential campaign, Democrat Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic nominee of a major political party for the presidency (Republican John Fremont was actually an Episcopalian who sent his children to Catholic schools in accord with his wife's preferences, and the GOP was still a third party back in 1856). He was subjected to vituperative assaults on his faith and its tenets, costing him the electoral votes of several usually reliably Democratic states with large fundamentalist Protestant populations. Among the charges leveled against him was that he would move the US capital from Washington to the Vatican and that he was planning to build a tunnel from New York City to Rome so he could secretly consort with the Pope. Smith ended up losing by a decisive margin to Herbert Hoover.

Of course, the religion issue was raised again when another Roman Catholic Democrat, John F. Kennedy, faced off against another Quaker Republican, Richard Nixon, in the 1960 race. That election was thought to put such issues to rest in America, when Kennedy ascended to the presidency.

Not so. The political participation of evangelical Christians has been the subject of debate since the advent of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the late 1970s. It has been effectively argued that these theological conservatives are out to repeal the Constitution and impose theocracy. It is difficult to imagine Jimmy Carter's open professions of faith occurring today without intense criticism (and Carter's "born-again" persona contributed heavily to the distrust of many liberals who supported Ted Kennedy's 1980 insurgency). There was even criticism of Joe Lieberman during this election cycle.

In 1993, evangelical Michael Farris sought the lieutenant governorship of Virginia. Rather than debating his socially conservative positions, he was the target of derogation and stereotyping on account of his religious views. He was criticized for his views on dating, marriage and for home-schooling his children. None of these things would have mattered very much if he had been elected, nor was he proposing some policy to mandate that the rest of Virginia adhere to his views. Farris won 46 percent of the vote, managing to run ahead of the Democratic candidate for governor even as he lost to a popular incumbent. But nevertheless, his defeat came as the Republican candidate for governor, the more secular George Allen, won by 17 points. That same year, the Washington Post characterized evangelical Christians as "poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Without addressing the agenda of the religious right on its merits, one must ask whether they are the only morality-legislators in society. The fact of the matter is that all laws are reflections of the legislator's and more appropriately the larger society's values. We fashion educational policy on the theories of John Dewey, economic policy on the writings of John Maynard Keynes and formulate governing philosophies on the teachings of Gailbrath, Schlessinger and any number of other political theorists. Surely, in Western countries provision can be made for the influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Liberals often behave as if anyone with remotely conservative views who has serious religious beliefs is apt to launch another crusade upon assuming office. The only saving grace for religious people in the political arena as far as they are concerned is to wed one's theology to liberal social action. The assumption that underlies the attacks on Michael Farris and Stockwell Day is not simply this; it is that anyone who believes in Christian fundamentalism must be some kind of moron. What kind of dummy can doubt evolution? How can a great, big, grown-up parliamentary opposition leader believe that the world was created in just seven days? What kind of rational Canadian citizen wants Elmer Gantry to be prime minister?

If evangelical Christian equals back-woods ignoramus, then these buffoons should not be entrusted with political power. But this is rather overwrought. Although we may hesitate to admit it in our hyper-tolerant age, everyone thinks that what they believe about religion is the truth and all other beliefs are nonsense. This is true of the atheist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian, the agnostic, the Zoroastrian, the Buddhist, the people whose religious views defy classification. It is true of every sect within these groups. Moreover, every one of those belief systems contains teachings or ideas that seem outrageous, ridiculous, scandalous or just plain odd to those who don't agree with or aren't familiar to them. It's a plain fact.

If government were strictly limited and the rule of law was in place to protect individuals from political usurpation, people would have less need to be concerned about diverse religious beliefs. Government in its proper place would impose fewer obligations and leave less room for religiously motivated politics to curb freedom. People of faith involved in politics would still have ample room to base policies on their values, but debate could be centered on the substance of their proposals rather than misplaced fears about theocracy. Ironically, by voting to continue Liberal hegemony in Canadian government, Stockwell Day's critics prevented precisely that.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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