Canadian policy-makers need to be aware that the country is not as comfortable with official secularism as many might expect. That’s not to imply that we’re a deeply religious country; we’re not. But the notion that religion and faith must stay out of politics, public policy and public life is not one on which you’d find unanimity — or even near unanimity — in Canada. In fact, public opinion is split almost down the middle.

When Cardus partnered with the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) to poll Canadians on faith-related issues, one key finding from a fall survey was that a wide swath of Canadians are open to voices of faith playing a role in public policy issues and public life. A slight majority (53 percent) of the almost 2,000 adults surveyed say religious and faith communities should have “not much influence” or “no influence at all” on the country’s public life. The other 47 percent say those communities should have “some influence” or be “a major influence” on Canadian public life. When you take into account the 2.2 percent margin of error, the teeter-totter of public opinion is almost perfectly balanced. But that’s likely not what most would expect to find in 2017 as census data and news reports highlight the growing number of Canadians with no religious affiliation.

While the national picture shows a split decision among Canadians on the extent to which faith communities should influence public life, the regional breakdown provides more insight. In Quebec, which had the experience of the Quiet Revolution and where anticlerical attitudes are common, 64 percent of respondents want “not much” or “no” influence for faith communities. Ontario and British Columbia reflect the national split almost exactly. Majorities in the rest of the provinces favour faith communities having “some” or “a major” influence on public life. In Saskatchewan, for example, there is a 60-40 split in favour of faith communities, possibly reflecting the legacy of the social gospel movement.

Not surprisingly, when the pollster asked whether religious and faith communities were relevant to addressing social issues and challenges, we again ended up with a national split. While 52 percent of respondents say these communities are becoming less relevant or aren’t relevant at all, 48 percent say they’re as relevant as ever or more relevant than ever. Again, we can extrapolate from those numbers that nearly half the population sees a role for religion in social challenges, such as poverty relief and provision of housing.

Those in authority should not dismiss or ignore a point of view or opinion on a public policy issue just because it comes from a religious perspective.

What this tells us is that there is room in a diverse and tolerant nation for voices of faith in the Canadian public square today. In practical terms, it means that those in authority should not dismiss or ignore a point of view or opinion on a public policy issue just because it comes from a religious perspective. Enough Canadians are open to religious sources of opinion or viewpoints that decision-makers need not fear their public airing. Perhaps we can even start to build up the public vocabulary we would need in order to let religion and faith have a place in polite company.

Examples of the mix of faith and politics from around the world, however, don’t inspire confidence. Think of Iran or Afghanistan, for example, or even of the way Russia has co-opted religion for political ends. Some will fear, no doubt, that opening the door to religion and faith in Canadian public policy will lead to the political extremism we see in so many places around the world. Thankfully, polling by ARI last spring suggests those fears are misplaced.

So where do Canadians stand politically? ARI found that, in typical Canadian fashion, 54 percent of Canadians say they’re “in the middle.” The rest are almost equally divided between the left-leaning and very left on the one hand, and the right-leaning or very right on the other.

Those numbers can be sliced and diced in a number of ways, including by level of religiosity. That’s where things get even more interesting. Looking just at the 21 percent of Canadians whom ARI would call “religiously committed” — for example, those who are most certain of their beliefs and most likely to pray or attend worship services regularly — just over half of them identify as middle-of-the-road politically. When it comes to the 19 percent of Canadians who reject religious belief, you find the same thing. Just over half of nonbelievers identify as centrist.

There are some differences, however. A little more than one-third of the religiously committed self-identify as being on the political right, while 14 percent say they are leftist. Nonbelievers are the opposite: just over one-third are leftist, with 14 percent on the political right.

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In short, being religious doesn’t lead to homogeneous views or to political extremes. Opening up the public space to voices of faith could lead to discussions and the expression of views that might make some of us uncomfortable. That goes with the territory of a free and open society. But there’s little reason to fear it would lead to the evil we see in some parts of the world, or even the poisoned political climate of the United States.

We can even go a step further. There’s a good chance that bringing religiously inspired perspectives to the public sphere would help create a better country.

ARI asked Canadians about the best way to live life. Should they prioritize achieving their own dreams or should they be more concerned about helping others? Religiosity is the fault line between the answers. Fully two-thirds of the religiously committed prioritize helping others. An almost equal proportion of nonbelievers choose taking care of yourself first.

On the question of whether “rich people” should enjoy spending their money as they wish or should share the wealth with the less fortunate, the answers were equally interesting. Almost 70 percent of the religiously committed responded in favour of sharing the wealth. A much smaller majority, 54 percent, of nonbelievers did the same.

Do religious and faith communities have some role to play in public life? About half of Canadians would agree that they do. But, more importantly, we have good reason to believe that giving space to the voices of faith wouldn’t simply be a neutral exercise; it would help make this country a better place.

This article follows from a November round table in Ottawa titled “Spirited Citizenship: Care, Conflict, and Virtue,” a joint Cardus/Angus Reid Institute initiative, marking Canada’s sesquicentennial.

Photo: Panoramic view of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and CN Tower, Toronto, Ontario. Shutterstock, by Diego Grandi.

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Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings is co-founder and executive vice-president of Cardus. He has long experience in Canadian industrial relations, public policy, and extensive involvement in the charitable and religious sectors.

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