Prairie Messenger Header

As the attack ads fly, church groups key on what really matters to Canadians

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

06/10/2015

Attack ads rule the airwaves. Sponsored Facebook posts are trying to flush out political supporters with a click. The twitterverse is dividing up by hashtags. The 2015 vote may be four months away, but political parties are already in election mode.

Churches are also warming up for the coming vote.

The Canadian Council of Churches has teamed up with five of its allied agencies to publish the first church election guide geared to the 2015 federal election. (Download the CCC’s Federal Election Resource at m https://goo.gl/jnDGI5 m ).

Catholics won’t be far behind this ecumenical effort. Both the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace are at work on their guides. More locally, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto plans to have its voters’ guide out in the summer.

Catholic Voice, a Toronto group that made its first foray into elections during last year’s Ontario municipal elections, has begun organizing to host all-candidates meetings in four or five parishes as soon as the election is officially called.

The Archdiocese of Toronto waits until the writ is dropped before once again encouraging parishes to hold all-candidates meetings.

“We certainly encourage all Catholics to be informed and educated voters,” said archdiocese spokesperson Neil MacCarthy. “First and foremost, all are encouraged to exercise their democratic right to vote.”

Campaign Life Coalition has already been active in Conservative riding associations trying to nominate pro-life candidates.

Looking at the Irish vote in favour of gay marriage and the Liberal Party of Canada’s recent policy against pro-life candidates, political scientist Ann Ward isn’t so sure the church voice has much influence on how people vote.

“The influence is declining, I think,” Ward, a political science professor at Regina’s Campion College, told The Catholic Register. “Perhaps the churches are having less impact than they ever have.”

The Canadian Council of Churches’ guide is a 15-page summary of issues from defence policy to poverty and climate change, each introducing thoughtful questions for candidates at all-candidates meetings. It stands in marked contrast to today’s poll-driven, highly centralized, social-media-focused political campaigns. It assumes Christian voters are undecided and discerning their best choice based on an analysis of issues.

“It may not be the way politics works (today),” said Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn. “It may be the way that faith communities work.”

CPJ was one of the five contributors to the CCC election guide. The ecumenical social justice group will have its own guide out by July focusing on poverty, climate change and refugee policy.

Sober, careful analysis may stand in contrast to the emotional appeal of campaign advertising, but that doesn’t mean there’s no demand for what the churches offer, said Gunn.

“Why not talk about important issues?” he asked. “We’re in the business of leading people into deeper reflection and having conversations.”

“We are not fighting the election of 1972,” insisted CCC general secretary Karen Hamilton. “The Federal Election Resource is also on our website and will be on Facebook and Twitter.”

But Hamilton is convinced that there has to be more than tweets and viral videos to how we think and talk about politics.

“Have we become a faceless society where all we are is Facebook and Twitter?” she asks.

The guide is carefully and properly non-partisan, said Hamilton. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a point of view.

“Is it neutral? No. It’s a proclamation of the kingdom,” she said. “The questions that are raised are questions that folk of deep faith believe resonate with the biblical and theological witness of the church down through 2,000 years.”

“It doesn’t say, ‘Vote for this or that party.’ But some of the recommendations are quite transparent against this or that party,” said Concordia University theologian Lucian Turcescu. “It doesn’t look neutral to me. In quite a few cases they were obviously targeting the Conservative party.”

Turcescu teaches university courses about politics and the church, looking at different approaches to the church-state divide in Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

Tiptoeing around the partisan nature of politics in fear of offending somebody or other isn’t helping anybody. On the other hand, tying the church to a political party or cause is almost always a disaster for the church, Turcescu said. The only way to fight aggressive and doctrinaire secularization is for churches to wade in on the side of more and better political debate, he said. That’s why Turcescu supports the CCC guide.

“The message they (CCC) are giving is a message of responsible, democratic processes in which churches can play a role,” said Turcescu.

The Development and Peace guide expected by August will concentrate on climate change and Canada’s overseas development aid policies. If those issues don’t play as well for Conservative candidates as for some others, that doesn’t mean Development and Peace is against the right-of-centre government, said Ryan Worms, D&P director of in-Canada programs.

“We are a democratic movement. We have members across all of Canada and within that membership we have members from the Liberal party, from the Conservative party, from the NDP and also from the Bloc Quebecois and probably even members from the Green Party,” he said. “By no means will we indicate to our members or followers which party to vote for.”

Catholic Charities isn’t trying to push people to vote one way or another. Its guide is intended to broaden the political conversation, said Jack Panozzo, Catholic Charities social justice and advocacy director. Among other issues, the Catholic Charities voter guide will highlight housing — an issue that doesn’t get much play in official campaigns or media coverage.

“We need a national housing program,” Panozzo said. “We’re just trying to flag things people wouldn’t think about . . . You can only put it out there.”