Canada's coming enigma -religion and politics

Calgary Herald

Our ivory towers are hot boxed with thinkers high off the myth of secularization, giving us answers to questions no one is asking and looking on in perplexity at the data that suggests otherwise.


With the academic year wrapping up, academics are emerging from their grading foxholes and hitting the conference trail. A little more than a week ago the annual Canadian Political Science Association met, notable for its attimes unnatural bridging of policy jocks and political nerds in one space and time. Few things unite this disparate group, other than a general topical interest and, as I found out, a near universal disregard for religion as a practical force in national politics.

The first thinly attended session I sat through (two other people and myself filled the audience) was on provincial politics. Promisingly, one paper by a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia promised to show the role of religion in Albertan politics. His aim was to show that religion in Alberta should be characterized by more than social conservatism.

His argument met with resistance not so much because people didn't believe religion could be more complicated, refined and subtle than the social conservatism stereotype, but because the study of religion in Canada seemed somehow quaint, cute even. There was a limited intrigue on something as arcane as religion in Canadian politics, but general disbelief and skepticism that a serious link could be drawn. Alberta, one discussant even had the temerity to suggest, was the Quebec of this generation: full of mysterious motivations, rural and religious and -not said but implied -an imported conservatism from another culture and time. Possibly American.

What does it say when our political scientists better comprehend the secularist malaise of Central Canada than the robust, possibly religiously inspired, politics of Alberta?

Religion in Pakistan, sure. But religion in Canada as a potent political force? Not now please, I'm eating breakfast. It offends the secular sentiments of liberal Canada to imagine that the global resurgence of religion has come home from abroad.

This strikes most Americans (or really anyone outside of Europe) as bizarre. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs just launched The God Vote, a collaboration between the Washington Post and Newsweek to track the role of faith in this year's American election. Even globally, Timothy Shah, Daniel Philpott and Monica Toft -three of the world's leading political scientists -have just published a book called God's Century, arguing -hold your breath -that the 21st century will not be China's, America's or even Canada's but will be the stage for a spectacular comeback of God; la revanche de Dieu as frightened French secularists call it.

They write, "The view of global politics taught by political scientists is the poorest possible preparation for the era of global politics in which we now live. As we address central geopolitical challenges, we must delve into the details of religion and religious actors."

So what if these arguments are right? What if the UBC doctoral student struck academic oil arguing that a religion bigger than social conservatism is having an increasingly significant effect on Alberta politics?

Better yet: if the pundits are right and this past federal election was a win for Alberta, driving key western players into the halls of federal power, does that mean that religion might be even bigger than superstitious Albertan farmhands? Doesn't that mean that our political scientists have a huge hole in their analysis of Canadian politics going forward? And shouldn't that embarrass someone at the Canadian Political Science Association?

It all feels eerily reminiscent of the sub-prime crisis, when experts sat dumbly at a loss to explain how the bubble burst and why.

Our ivory towers are hot boxed with thinkers high off the myth of secularization, giving us answers to questions no one is asking and looking on in perplexity at the data that suggests otherwise. Only academic tenure means no one will get sacked; or -conversely -make a big bonus out of it.

There's not much to be said for Marci McDonald's factually light hearted dalliance into the power of religion in Canadian politics, The Armageddon Factor. But she has this over the CPSA: at least she's noticed that something is afoot. For good or bad, religion is back and our political scientists might be the last to notice. When we trot out McDonald for deft sociological analysis, you know we've reached a bad place.