Chretien’s caucus remarks illustrate little respect for religion

Back in the 1870s, future Liberal prime minister Wilfred Laurier traveled through Quebec explaining that French-Canadian liberalism was not the anti-Catholic and anti-clerical liberalism of Europe, but the tolerant variety found in Britain. Once, in 1877, he claimed, “there is not a single Canadian Liberal who wants to prevent the clergy from taking part in political affairs let the priest speak and preach as he thinks best, for it is his right. Never will this right be challenged by a Canadian Liberal.”

If Laurier were alive today, however, he might wonder if the party led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien has become hostile towards the church. In a May 1 meeting with Liberal MPs and senators, Chretien is said to have spoken for nearly ten minutes about the dangers of mixing religion and politics, and even claimed the “best decision” he made after Sept. 11 was to not have a priest speak at a Parliament Hill memorial service for the victims of the attacks. The prime minister apparently mentioned his 1985 autobiography, Straight from the Heart, which talked about the power of the Catholic church in rural Quebec, and the fact that a Catholic bishop had once refused to give communion to Chretien’s Liberal grandfather. “At that time people were ex-communicated for their liberalism, which advocated the separation of the church and state, among other radical measures,” wrote Chretien.

An unidentified Liberal strategist defended the prime minister to the press, saying, “I think there is no question he made quite a concerted decision to keep church and state separate, especially after Sept. 11, which some would argue was a clash of culture and religion. We have to respect the right of all parties and sides and not to mix the church and state.”

Not everyone at the meeting agreed with the prime minister. One MP called it a “rant,” while Ontario MP Dan McTeague is said to have yelled, “what’s your problem?” at Chretien as his colleagues filed out of the room.

For his part, Mr. McTeague does not wish to discuss the incident, telling The Interim, “it’s a caucus matter, and I’m going to leave it in caucus.” He added, however, that the reporting of what happened “accurately reflected my general concern about the diminution of religion in public life.”

McTeague believes “people tend to put too much emphasis on the division of church and state. That argument was nice 400 years ago, but it’s being wrongfully interpreted today to mean there should be no religion in political life whatsoever, that people should have no moral underpinnings.”

The MP argues the separation of church and state was originally intended to protect both parties from each other, yet religion today finds itself under increased secular scrutiny. “Increasingly, the state is determining how religion should behave,” says McTeague, citing the case of Marc Hall, a gay 17-year- old who was recently given permission from a judge to take his 21-year-old boyfriend to a Catholic school prom.

Asked if he feels uncomfortable in the party of Hedy Fry and Allan Rock, McTeague replies: “Not at all. Most Catholics vote Liberal, and the caucus is full of MPs like Tom Wappel and Albina Guarnieri who are guided by their faith.”

While McTeague is unwilling to openly criticize the prime minister, Canadian Alliance MP Reed Elley tells The Interim that Chretien “is indicative of a number of politicians in Canada who live under the impression you can divorce faith and morality from public life, which is like sticking your head in the sand. If that’s really the way he feels, it’s very, very sad. Not only did he show a total disregard for those Canadians with faith-based beliefs, but it shows his own understanding of Christian faith is quite inadequate.”