A tale of two elections

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • October 23, 2008
{mosimage}If there is such a thing as election envy, and the degree of fascination Canadians have with Sen. Barack Obama suggests there may be an element of wistfulness if not outright envy, the difference between this fall’s Canadian election and the U.S. presidential race would surely provoke it.  

It’s not just that the stakes are higher; being prime minister is a somewhat less exalted and demanding role than U.S. president. It is as if the response to higher stakes seems to be an elevated discourse, an appreciation that politicians shouldn’t just be about tactical considerations but should also be concerned with fundamental values. It also encompasses a notion that political decisions might actually touch on issues of who we are as well as what we might do this fiscal quarter.
This is not to suggest that the American election campaign is always conducted outside the gutter; both the Canadian and American election campaigns are too sullied by far by mean-spirited and vicious allusions, suggestions and lies.

But Americans argue about values, first principles, justice and patriotism. We argue about two cents worth of taxes on diesel fuel and the elimination of a travel subsidy program for the arts. Values matter to American voters, or seem to. Morals and religion are key to their electoral discourse. Morals and religion are considered beyond the pale or at best too private to enter into the Canadian conversation, except by snide allusion.

Despite the best efforts of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to outline a range of issues that the concerned and engaged Catholic should wrestle with when deciding how to cast a ballot, any such conversation or debate was confined to after-Mass discussions or the pages of The Catholic Register. By contrast, in the United States, poverty, the environment, war and life issues are at the heart of their debate, the core of their decision making process. And whole policy areas such as bioethics, human rights, immigration, war, torture and even economic justice are made richer and more real because of the writing and thinking of Catholics of all political stripes.

Catholicism is vitally important to U.S. politics. The evidence is clear, Catholic voters matter and what matters to Catholics matters to politicians. When the New York Times recently devoted significant and prominent space to the vigourous debate in the Catholic world about which party best represented a “Catholic take” on life, social justice and a host of other political issues it was both evidence of a vital engagement of politics and religion and an unintentional rebuke of the lack of sophistication in the Canadian electoral debate.

The cheap knock on American politics is that it is riven by religious zealots who don’t understand the separation of religion and state. For non-Americans, the superficial and wrong assumption that the First Amendment excludes religion from politics renders the American political climate inexplicable.

The actual reality is that faith has always animated American society and arguably America is better off as a result. The great oratory that is the hallmark of American political campaigns — and Obama is one of the great orators — is replete with religious imagery, concepts and values. Appropriately enough given the link between religious values and all that is best in human aspiration.  Religion and politics is not exhausted by neo-conservative evangelicals; rather that voice is but one of many engaged in a passionate debate about what might make politics noble and fulfilling. 

We Canadians are far too smug about the absence of religion from our political discourse. Whenever religion appears to be emerging in a political context there is inevitably a wailing and gnashing of teeth that foreign, read American, values are seeping over the 49th parallel.

One of the reasons Obama soars is that he understands and reflects the tinge of possibility that is the essence of religious reality. His rhetorical tropes aren’t electoral pandering; they truly are reflective of his sense of The City on The Hill. Politics, especially at times American politics, can be crude, reductive, abusive and degrading but the religious tone is not the cause of that litany of diminishment. It is more likely the cure. Our smugness might better be seen as envy in the most positive sense, an acknowledgment of a defect.

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

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