U.S. religious forum would not have happened here

The separation of church and state is more notional than real in the U.S.

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's inconceivable that any religious figure in Canada would host a leaders' forum, as Rick Warren did with Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church in southern California the other night.

Yet Canada is a country where religious schools were guaranteed in the constitution, and the United States is one where the separation of church and state is a profound constitutional tenet.

In both countries, the visions of the founding fathers have been stood on their heads. In today's Canada, with the symmetrical character of the Charter of Rights, there could never be the asymmetrical features of the British North America Act, which in 1867 guaranteed Catholic and Protestant schools in Quebec. Indeed those schools have since been replaced by language-based boards, which required a constitutional amendment.

As for priests or prelates attempting to influence voters, we have come a long way from Sunday sermons where worshippers were reminded that "le ciel est bleu mais l'enfer est rouge," respectively the colours of the Conservatives and Liberals.

In the U.S., the separation of church and state was an important campaign issue as recently as 1960, when John F. Kennedy famously told a group of Protestant ministers in Houston: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic."

Nowadays, the separation of church and state in America is more notional than real, especially in an election year. Evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians are an important bloc of voters, perhaps one-fourth of the U.S. electorate. They write cheques, they have political agendas, and they vote, usually for the Republicans.

Rick Warren fits the general description of a televangelist - big church, big bestselling author, big TV audience. And big influence, as evidence his ability to convince the presumptive nominees of both parties to make separate but equal televised appearances in his church. Not even Billy Graham, for all his influence with U.S. presidents, ever tried that.

Warren said he wanted a civil forum, rather than a game of gotcha, where the audience could actually be informed and enlightened by the candidates' answers to the same questions.

The questions were definitely tilted to the interests of the moderator and the presumed bias of his followers. For openers, Obama and McCain were asked about their own and America's greatest moral failings. You don't hear that from Wolf Blitzer and the gang over at CNN.

But then there were two tripwires, abortion and same-sex marriage, which underlined the wide gulf in the political cultures of the United States and Canada.

On abortion, Obama was a nuanced pro-choice, while McCain was unequivocally pro-life. Leaving nothing in doubt, when asked when he thought life began, McCain replied, at the moment of conception. Of course, he was speaking to the converted. And he has been consistent in his position on abortion. But a clear majority of Americans is in the pro-choice camp, and McCain might have alienated some independents and moderates who might be considering a vote for him.

But it's interesting that Roe v. Wade would be still be a litmus test for a presidential candidate, 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court answered the question. In Canada, this has been a question of settled law since Parliament took abortion out of the Criminal Code in the early 1990s. No serious contender for high office would ever question a woman's right to choose. The Conservatives, at their 2005 convention in Montreal, specifically pledged not to reopen the abortion debate. Had they done so, they would have lost the 2006 election.

On same-sex marriage, both Obama and McCain had nearly identical answers: Both saw marriage as occurring only between a man and a woman, though neither favoured a constitutional amendment to enforce it.

Obama also favoured civil unions between gay couples. Interestingly, no one has since denounced him as homophobic.

But in Canada, this is also a question of settled law. The courts have ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, and Parliament has since confirmed this. End of discussion. End of story.

Yet it's an interesting point of comparison. Obama's position, upholding traditional marriage but affirming the civil rights of gay couples, is virtually identical to the view once held by Stephen Harper.

There is no doubt that, in American terms, Obama is a liberal Democrat, just as there's no doubt that Harper's base is on the Conservative right.

On this issue and others, the U.S. left is on the Canadian right.

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