The hidden meaning of political language

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • September 9, 2008

So the battle is on and one thing for sure, between now and Oct. 14 the federal election campaign will be marked again by suggestions, allegations and threats that the governing Conservative Party can’t be given a majority because they have a “secret agenda” that a majority will allow them to impose. And of course by “secret agenda” the opposition parties really mean a scary “right-wing Christian agenda.”

Politics can at the best of times be a murky and dirty business, especially when the language of politics becomes immersed in codes and metaphors. And no code, no metaphor has dogged the Conservatives so much as the charge of secret right-wing Christian agendas. At any particular moment a Canadian could rightly be fooled into thinking that they were being forced to choose between the American self-proclaimed right-to-lifer, biblical literalist Sarah Palin and the British “Religion is the root of all evil” Richard Dawkins for the job of Canadian prime minister.  

The reality, though, is that religion doesn’t normally have much traction in Canadian politics, despite the fervent desire on the part of certain religious leaders that it did and the mirror belief on the part of the extreme secular left that religion has too much traction. Compounding this confusion, deliberate or otherwise, about the role religion plays in Canadian politics is the equally arguable proposition that religion is deeply important to Canadian politicians and voters, as long as it is the right religion.  

So, same-sex Supporting United Church ministers are OK candidates for the New Democratic Party and pro-choice priests can run for the Bloc Quebecois. Faithful but silent Catholics are fine for the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, devout Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or any variety of Buddhist are fit for service in the House of Commons, but pro-life traditional marriage candidates would appear to be crossing the line. Muddying the waters even more is the reality that you might share the values of the Evangelical Christian lobby but as long as you didn’t go out of your way to express those values, you are OK to the chattering classes.

Despite this, the truth of the matter seems to be that most of the media, most politicians and seemingly most voters aren’t surprised that politicians have faiths and values. If fact it seems to be a default position that they do. That would explain why all political parties have internal committees to handle religious issues, why candidates make a point of attending religious services and meeting with religious groups, and why professing the importance of religious values in solving the social problems of the world is a standard campaign trope.

What seems to surprise the media in particular is that some people and some politicians are more assiduous than others in attempting to live their faith. And this surprise, and surprise in media coverage of election campaigns normally translates into scandal and controversy, makes news, headlines and stirs up campaigns. And since the media love scandal more than anything, the ordinary day-to-day of candidates with faith doesn’t matter much. What matters is whether this faith can be a matter of dispute.

In Canada, and in the United States to be fair, when religion becomes an issue in an election campaign, it is around the matters of abortion and same-sex marriage. These are the two hot buttons. You can tout the Pope’s line on the dangers of consumerism, the threat of unjust wars, the rights of workers and the poor and you’ll be fine. In fact better than fine, you’ll be respected and admired. But claim to understand and abide by Humanae Vitae and be ready to be pilloried.   

So over the next five weeks, expect two things. When hidden or secret agendas are raised it’s about religion. When religion is raised positively it is about inclusiveness, multiculturalism and coming together as a society that shares and empathizes. Confused? Who isn’t?

As a voter or even just a concerned citizen, what you are really being asked is whom do you trust and on what basis you give that trust. And when it comes to trust, maybe thinly veiled codes aren’t enough; what is necessary is honesty and true understanding.

(Kavanagh is a Senior Producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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