What do Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin, have in common?
All four candidates for U.S. president and vice-president have made it clear, exceedingly clear, they’re proud Christians.
None is willing to follow the wishes of many annoyed Canadians and refrain from ending speeches with “God bless America.”
Religion, specifically Christianity, plays a much bigger role in American politics than it does north of the border. God talk just can’t be avoided down there — thanks to the overwhelming Protestant presence.
And even though it’s not unethical by definition to invoke a Supreme Being from a political stage, the practice can be manipulated. It can even be abused for demogoguery, through suggesting, for instance, questionable wars and policies reflect “God’s will.”
That doesn’t mean the word God doesn’t ever sneak into Canadian politics. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is quiet about his loyalty to the evangelical Alliance Church, will sometimes talk of his faith, carefully. Harper has also been known to declare “God bless Canada.”
Former Liberal PM Jean Chretien, a Catholic, occasionally mentioned God, including in this novel way: “God gave me a physical defect [a facial tic] . . . but I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.”
Still, there are many fascinating reasons Canadian politicians are much less inclined than their American counterparts to, as typically skeptical Canadians might put it, “play the God card.”
I’ll cite a few of them.
The most obvious is the rising strength of white evangelical Protestants. They make up one out of four Americans.
They feel divinely motivated to convert others to their Jesus, and some are ready to use politics as part of that. Seventy-eight per cent of conservative white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush in the past two presidential campaigns. It made all the difference.
Conservative politicians north of the border don’t have this huge religious voting advantage because fewer than one out of 10 Canadians belong to evangelical churches.
And while many evangelicals quietly support Canada’s Conservatives — half of Harper’s caucus of MPs are evangelical — most don’t have any illusions they can openly bring most Canadians onside with their beliefs.
Canadians are like secularized Europeans that way. Of the world’s industrialized countries, the U.S. is the most religious and most Christian.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the early 20th century, Canada had a much higher percentage of the population attending churches than in the U.S., as North America’s leading historian of religion, Mark Noll (an evangelical), writes in A History of Christianity in Canada and the U.S.
Beginning in the 1950s, however, Canadian church attendance dropped off dramatically, as it did in Europe. At the same time, however, U.S. evangelical churches began to become more appealing, particularly to the middle classes.
The trend has caused many U.S. evangelical leaders to become carried away and aggressively declare theirs is a “Christian nation” — and always has been.
Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by‘s performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin’s speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer whoâ€”being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexyâ€”could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.
Then came Palin’s first television interview with. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin’s luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady’s misfortuneâ€”and, above all, upon the “liberal elites” with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.
The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth’s surface (she didn’t have a passport until last year), or that she’s never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska’s geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success storyâ€”but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.
The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin’s lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. “They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary.
We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.” Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security â€¦ the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.
Palin’s most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn’t much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase “Bush doctrine.” And I am quite sure that her supporters didn’t care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin is guaranteed not to knowâ€”or will be glossing only under the frenzied tutelage of John McCain’s advisers. What doesn’t she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin’s ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.