CALGARY — The Greek chorus that is Twitter rang shrill with outrage: Jim Prentice, the newly minted Alberta premier, had picked Gordon Dirks, a former pastor, to head the Ministry of Education.
Though Mr. Dirks currently is not an elected politician, he is a former Saskatchewan MLA and has served several terms as a Calgary Board of Education trustee. He has also held senior positions at a local bible college.
Brian Mason, the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) opposition leader, was quick to voice concern, comparing him to the “Lake of Fire” pastor who scuppered the Wildrose Party’s chances of forming a government in 2012 with his blog post condemning gay people.
Mr. Dirks does have ties with churches and schools that teach traditional beliefs on morality and homosexuality. However, there is no evidence he has attempted to impose those views on a secular school system. He has also declared his intention to balance the rights of all the children under his care.
Yet the backlash has been astonishing. Alberta is sensitive to allegations of bigotry, perhaps because of its reputation of as a crucible for Conservatism.
Ironically, this has led to a diminishing tolerance for people with deeply held religious beliefs, a narrowing of consideration that, critics fear, will ultimately dissuade the devout from entering public life.
Ted Morton, a social conservative, political science professor and former Progressive Conservative caucus member, said he believes backlashes of this type are ultimately narrow-minded and regressive. Further, they discourage well-intentioned people with genuinely held religious beliefs from running for public office.
“For those on the so-called ‘progressive left,’ it’s open season on Christians who voice disagreement with any of their pet policies,” he said.
“This is just one example of the poisonous effects of the new identity politics now practised by most feminist, gay-rights and racial minority advocates. Disagreement with one of their policies is automatically interpreted as hatred for the group members — an absurd but effective assertion.”
The tactic is effective, he said.
“No one enjoys being called a bigot in the public media. Their message is clear. It’s not that you are wrong. It’s that you are bad.”
Religious groups once defined morality in our society. But in the span of a lifetime, mainstream values have diverged sharply from faith-based ones on several divisive issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage.
This makes it increasingly difficult for anyone who is genuinely devout to find a footing in mainstream politics.
Faron Ellis, a political science professor at Lethbridge College who is seeking nomination as a Wildrose candidate, said parties on both the left and the right have to hew to the middle to obtain any kind of mass appeal. That means silencing anyone seen as holding views outside the norm.
“People who are more committed to their personal beliefs … than to the compromises they have to make to be part of a political party need to give their ambitions a second thought.”
Currently, the federal Conservatives and the Alberta Wildrose are playing to the mainstream, expunging or quieting their more strident members. The federal NDP has also made a play for the centre in recent years.
However, Kris Wells, director for the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta, was not at all sympathetic to cries of anti-Christian bigotry.
“I have no problem with people of faith running for public office. It’s about how one exercises that faith. In this case, [Mr. Dirks] is no longer a pastor, he’s the minister of education and he must be held accountable to those requirements, which means he not harbour bias or prejudice toward any group,” he said.
“Welcome to the realities of 21st-century Canada and the Charter of Rights Freedoms and the equality provisions that exist.”
This week, Mr. Wells met Mr. Dirks and Mr. Prentice to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning (LGBTQ) issues in the the Alberta education system.
He said he was willing to give Mr Dirks a chance to prove he could separate his religious beliefs from his new role as education minister.
However, he warned, “We’ve seen in Alberta that LGBTQ issues swing an entire election … I said to the premier and minister Dirks, that can happen again.”