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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Trudeau visits Obama while U.S. candidates blather about their religion

| March 7, 2016
Photo: creative commons/google images

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The Canadian prime minister will be in Washington this week to meet with a U.S. president some of us are already starting to miss.

In November, the Americans will choose Barack Obama's successor, and, unless by some miracle Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is on the ballot, the choices do not look too comforting.

Now, some of us Canadians did feel more than a bit queasy about Justin Trudeau as he glided to victory last October.

His rhetoric seemed too often confused and forced, and he had the worrying habit of saying just about anything to curry favour with key segments of the electorate.

So far, however, the new Canadian prime minister is, overall, proving to be something of a pleasant surprise.

There have been missteps, of course.

One wonders why Trudeau's Liberals felt it necessary to support a mischievous and demagogic Conservative motion on the Israeli Apartheid movement.

People (such as this writer) can legitimately differ with the analysis that present-day Israel is, in essence, a South African-style Apartheid regime without slandering those who put forward that analysis as anti-Semites -- which they definitely are not.

That the Trudeau Liberals were fearful of pushing back against that bit of Conservative hyperbole and demonology is disconcerting.

As is the fact that the Trudeau government's so-called middle class tax cut disproportionately benefits six-figure income earners.

That latter misstep is much mitigated by the fact that, unlike the New Democrats, the Liberals have been willing to raise taxes on upper incomes -- and have ditched the balanced budget fetish that caused so much unnecessary economic pain over the past two decades.

Trump and Cruz are both scary -- and Clinton simply fails to inspire

But Trudeau looks positively inspiring compared to most of those now running for the United Sates presidency -- and not just the nauseating Donald Trump.

Ted Cruz is, objectively, quite far to the right of Trump on most issues.

And while Hillary Clinton often espouses reasonable policies there is something so mannered and calculated about her performance that one fears she simply has a basic problem connecting with a great many voters.

Many of us here in Canada are starting to hear pleas of quiet desperation from friends and family in the U.S.

They ask: Have you got a spare room for us? We might need to take refuge after November.

Without descending into smugness, there are some good reasons to feel at least a little bit good about our Canadian political folkways and culture when we look south across that long, unguarded border.

While in the U.S. politicians talk about hand (and other body part) size and slathering makeup on with a trowel, here we air our significant differences as to how to tackle climate change.

While U.S. politicians feed paranoia about the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, here we agonize over the best way to integrate a massive influx of Syrian refugees.

Again, we should not be smug.

Americans may just be waking up to the fact that you cannot drink the water in the industrial town of Flint, Michigan.

In Canada, bad water has been a daily fact of life for thousands of First Nations people for many decades.

Where does the U.S. obsession with religion come from?

But let's focus on just one of the rituals of U.S. politics that we, in Canada, do not, thankfully, practice: the auto da fé, or declaration of faith.

There is occasional chatter in Canada about a political leader's religion; but it is normally very much on the margins.

Some speculated about former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's supposed membership in an evangelical Christian church.

But it was not a major preoccupation. No media interviewer ever had the temerity to ask Harper about his religion.

Canadians seem to instinctively consider religion to be a private and personal matter and not an appropriate topic for public, political discourse.

We had a number of leaders' debates during the last election campaign and not once was religion, or even belief in a higher being, mentioned.

Let's keep it that way.

In the U.S., where there is supposed to be a constitutional separation of church and state (which we do not have in Canada), candidates for high office still seem to feel absolutely compelled to blather on about their religious faith.

In the theoretically secular U.S. candidates frequently and obnoxiously invoke God in an almost crass and pandering way.

When some, such as Sanders, choose not to, interviewers and debate moderators force the issue.

Sanders tries to turn God talk to universal ethical precepts

During one on-air interview, CNN's narcissistic host Chris Cuomo unabashedly tried to goad Sanders into saying he did not believe in a higher being.

Cuomo tried that just after he paraded his ignorance of history when he questioned Sanders' criticism of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

On the latter point Sanders shot back with the names of three CIA-deposed, elected leaders: Mossadegh of Iran, Arbenz of Guatemala and Allende of Chile.

On religion, Sanders stuck with the idea that all religions come down to the same basic ethical ideal: caring for the other.

He pointedly avoided any reference to a higher being.

Based on his avoidance of the word God, one might have the right to suspect that Sanders is, secretly, what religious Americans disparagingly call a "secular humanist", i.e. a non-believer.

He would never say so, of course.

To publicly state that you do not believe in any God would be political suicide for a candidate for U. S. president.

And in his debate with Clinton on Sunday, March 6, in Flint, Michigan, Sanders could not avoid invoking God.

It was a long debate, which touched on many substantive issues from guns to corporate subsidies to schools to water.

But toward the end the God issue came up, as it so often does.

A member of the audience bluntly asked Sanders: Do you believe God is relevant or not?

The Vermont Senator replied: "When we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you."

He then gave his version of what we in Canada used to call the social gospel:

"I believe morally and ethically we do not have a right to turn our backs on children in Flint, Michigan who are being poisoned, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street … we are in this together."

But then there is the Jewish question, and Clinton's penchant for prayer

The host, CNN's Anderson Cooper, then got really personal and, believe it or not, decided to focus on the fact that Sanders is Jewish.

Cooper asked: "Just this weekend there was an article I read in the Detroit News saying that you keep your Judaism in the background, and that's disappointing some Jewish leaders. Is that intentional?"

Could you ever imagine any Canadian interviewer -- Peter Mansbridge or anyone else -- ever ever pushing that sort of issue in a chat with a political leader? In essence, Cooper was asking a candidate: They say you're Jewish, but how Jewish are you really?

In the Canadian context, such a question would have been completely out of bounds.

But Sanders took it his stride. He was neither flustered nor irritated (as, for instance, this writer would have been).

In fact, the so-called experts gave the Vermont Senator high marks for his answer, which was:

"I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father's family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler's concentration camp."

As for Clinton, when it came to God and prayer, the question she had to tackle was even more problematic, and, again, to a Canadian, quite beyond the pale of political discourse.

Hillary's question was also posed by an audience member: "… during our church services, we pray for the president of the United States, we pray for the armed forces, we pray for all civil authorities, three times during our liturgy. And we give thanks to them. We pray for our loved ones. We pray for our enemies. To whom and for whom do you pray?"

Clinton did not say, as many us might have been tempted to say:

"Who I pray for, and whether or not I pray, is my business and my business alone. It is not part of the job I am running for. Why don't you ask me something about what I might do as president? The job description does not involve prayer and we are supposed to have a separation of church and state in this country."

No, she did not say that, and thus throw the election right then and there.

Instead, as the American political culture expects of her, she got all pious and unctuous, almost cloyingly so:

"Well, I have been several times in your services and have joined in those prayers and have also been privileged to lead them in some settings … I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it. I have said many times that, you know, I am a praying person … So I pray on a pretty regular basis during the day, because I need that strength and I need that support …"

Maybe it's true that Clinton prays all the time and maybe it's not.

The fact is that she should not have to talk about it.

Thankfully, we do not talk about that sort of stuff here in the taciturn, discreet, self-effacing north.

Our current prime minister is not loath to open up in a confessional way about some pretty personal stuff, and some of us are old-fashioned and traditionally Canadian enough to find it more than a bit discomfiting when he does that.

But he has never gotten into the subject of his religion -- or lack thereof.

He will not be in Washington very long on this official visit, probably not long enough for anyone to have a chance to badger him on the subject of his "faith."

If it ever were to come up, we hope Trudeau would have the good sense to answer that in Canada we consider religion to be a private and personal choice and not properly part of the political sphere. 

In other words, it's none of your or the public's business.

Photo: creative commons/google images



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