SHERBROOKE, Quebec — As night falls and a frigid December wind blasts across Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the 100-foot-tall illuminated cross atop Mont Bellevue commandeers this small city’s skyline.
The sight of it startles me. Just an hour earlier, I was standing at the mountain’s base, watching snow guns furiously try to compensate for nature’s lethargy in time for an approaching weekend. Mont Bellevue is a city park, 900 vertical feet laced with ski trails that offer a convenient workout for Sherbrookois when they are disinclined to travel to taller peaks. From the simple base lodge, with no view of the summit, I had no idea that the cross existed.
But that is not why the sight surprises me. I find the cross startling because Americans do not place religious symbols in city parks. Occasionally someone tries, and we end up in court reaffirming that our form of religious freedom — separation of church and state — requires that emblems of faith stay off public property.
Sherbrooke’s civic leaders intended to create an emblem of faith when they erected the cross in 1950. Other towns in this historically French Catholic province, including Montreal, have similar crosses. As in Montreal, the cross in Sherbrooke has gradually become more a civic symbol than a religious artifact.
I visited Sherbrooke the day after Canada’s House of Commons voted 175-123 against repealing the 2005 law that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives had pledged to try to restore traditional limits to marriage, declared after the vote that the issue was now settled. Not only did his minority government lack the votes to roll back the law, but several of his own ministers voted against repeal.
I see a sharp contrast between these neighboring societies. Americans endorse church-state separation, but a strong religious subtext runs through one political controversy after another: same-sex marriage, school prayer, and perhaps most of all, abortion. One side talks about family values, the sanctity of life, protecting marriage and putting God back in the classroom. The other side talks about freedom of choice, the right to privacy and religious liberty.
Canada, on the other hand, puts crosses on municipal mountaintops, but seems to have no place for religious agendas on more substantive secular matters. In the three years since Canada’s courts first ruled on the issue, this country has formed a national consensus behind same-sex marriage. It has been 13 years since the Hawaii Supreme Court first ruled in favor of gay marriage. In that time, one state — not Hawaii, which changed its state constitution in response to the court ruling, but Massachusetts — has adopted same-sex marriage, three have instituted civil unions, and a handful are considering similar arrangements. But most states, as well as the federal government, adamantly refuse to recognize same-sex unions and have adopted statutes or constitutional amendments to block them.
Canada has been much faster than the United States to settle its abortion and school prayer issues, as well. The country has had, since 1988, essentially no restrictions on abortion. No significant legislation has been proposed on the subject since 1989. This is true even though Canada flatly prohibited abortions until 1969 and made them available on a much more limited basis from then until 1988 than did the United States following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down prayer in public schools in 1962. We are still arguing about it. Several Canadian provinces opened the school day with Bible readings and the Lord’s Prayer as recently as 1988, when an Ontario court outlawed the practice. School prayer is not a significant issue in Canada today.
Why do Canadians get past these issues so much faster than Americans? Political scientists might note that Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, so its view of personal liberties reflects our era’s experiences and a recent national debate. The American Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution adopted in 1789. Many of our disputes center on how to reconcile the words written more than two centuries ago, and the ideas of the white, landholding men who wrote them, with the issues we confront today.
A more cynical view might be that the Democratic and Republican parties are more interested in politically advantageous “wedge issues” than solutions. Republicans who allied themselves with religious conservatives decades ago have made effective use of social issues to motivate their voting base. Democrats have their own wedge issues, of course. Minimum-wage initiatives were a popular Democratic device in the recent election. Social Security is a Democratic evergreen. The perceived evils of oil companies, health insurers and drug makers are on the list.
Four significant parties exist at the federal level in Canada. If the purpose of a wedge issue is to create a “them vs. us” dynamic, a wedge might be less effective in such a fragmented system. Of course, Canadians have divisive political issues, too. It’s just that with the exception of the eternal tensions between English and French Canada, I am more likely to figure out the scoring system at a cricket match than to understand what Canadians are arguing about. Or even to recognize that they are arguing, since Canadians are so unfailingly nice.
The worst thing about wedge issues is that the party using them has no incentive to solve the disputes, as long as the disputes themselves help to win elections. With Democrats holding such a slim majority in Congress, and with that majority and the White House at stake two years from now, I expect the new Congress to accomplish very little. But I expect it to work diligently to forge new and potent wedges for the 2008 campaigns.