Religion and politics shouldn’t mix when it comes to COVID-19

Anyone who assumed the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic would be purely medical and humanitarian obviously hasn’t quite grasped the dark depths of politics and religion. From the moment we learned that a deadly plague was suffocating the world, those with warped agendas were as bustling as a squirrel in a peanut store.

Enter conspiracy theorists and paranoid hysterics, claiming the virus was either a hoax, a plot to reduce and control the population, or the start of the ‘big reset’. And that vaccines are weapons of Satan, the mark of the beast, and developed from fetal stem cells and therefore – in their own words – “the product of the genocide of abortion”.

These Christian fundamentalists and libertarian fanatics are rejected by almost all responsible religious figures, from the Pope to the Chief Rabbi, and by all political leaders worthy of the name. But not by everyone, and not everywhere, including Canada.

A small, galvanized group of right-wing religious leaders are resisting vaccines and masks, and their activism has turned into Canadian conservatism. Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and most provincial Conservative leaders may disagree with these people, but they also know their base is drowned in the madness of denial. If they are too bold to condemn anti-vaccine fanatics, or in any way in favor of vaccine mandates, they could see their leadership challenged and even defeated.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s refusal to require immunizations for those working in the health field, despite expert advice, is a clear case. Ford is safer than O’Toole, but he has long leaned on the Christian right and owed them far too much to risk their anger, especially with an election so close.

Erin O’Toole’s decision not to require all Tory MPs to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has annoyed many of its members, but appeased those who see him as far too liberal about their chosen obsessions. Yet for many it still hasn’t gone far enough. Late last week it was announced that a group of 15-30 Conservative MPs and Senators intended to launch a “civil liberties caucus”. Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu has said she will speak out on behalf of those who may lose their jobs for refusing to be vaccinated.

It’s a tangible threat to the already in a precarious position of the leader, and many potential rivals wait in the shadows. One of the most prominent and ambitious is Leslyn Lewis, the new MP for Haldimand-Norfolk. She has been extremely successful in the party leadership race and her candidacy has been supported by a number of socially conservative groups who now oppose vaccines. She is the darling of religious conservatives, with “interesting” opinions on many issues that the conservative base in rural Ontario and Western Canada still considers vital. When I mentioned his point of view in a column over a year ago she immediately blocked me on social media and I was attacked hard by some of her supporters. In other words, he is not someone to be taken lightly.

One of the ironies of all of this is that for a party that boasts of its patriotism, this new conservatism is much more American than Canadian. The old-fashioned progressive toryism, which had much more in common with the conservative parties in Northern Europe and Great Britain, was long abandoned, and Canadian conservatives are now looking to American Republicans. This party, in turn, had to bow to the Christian right, because without this vote no Republican can hope to become president.

The conservative Christian world is much smaller in Canada, but it is far from insignificant and hits well above its weight. He has also become more dynamic and organized over the past 15 years, in large part because he sees what has been achieved in the United States. Right-wing Canadians witness the victory of Donald Trump and other radical leaders and see it as a triumph. The truth, however, is that the crisis facing modern Christianity is largely due to its perversion by the same people so revered by Canadian conservatives who currently influence vaccine and public health policies.

Religion and politics. Pray, and pray hard, that in this case, they stop mixing.

Rev. Michael coren is a Toronto-based writer and contributing columnist for Star’s Opinion and iPolitics. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelcoren

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