You might think, given the Postmedia headine on this column by Michael den Tandt (and I call it Postmedia since it appears in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Edmonton Journal) that Stephen Harper and the Conservative government had just attacked the Church.
It turns out the PM barely even appears in the story. Instead, it focuses on the verbal tripping-up of Senator Nicole Eaton, arguing that the church really shouldn’t be doing politics:
Asked by interviewer Carol Off whether the United Church should be audited, Eaton continued: “It’s none of my business. But I just think that’s it’s pretty strange, wouldn’t you say, that a church is taking (the) political action of boycotting a country?”
Off came back with this: “Churches take up a lot of causes — they go after politicians about poverty, they go after them about abortion laws. Do you think they should cease and desist from all of that?” To which the good senator replied, heaving herself directly into the deadfall trap: “I think yes. I don’t think that churches should take political stands. I think they should be more about helping people and giving people succour.”
You’d be tempted to dismiss the Senator as a Tory flake, but there’s a reason for her remarks. Back in February, according to her website, she launched a Senate inquiry into “foreign foundations in Canada’s domestic affairs.” It’s certainly possible to make the argument that the United Church, in Canada, is an NGO with a mandate to speak on political matters, but it’s certainly a stretch to consider it a “foreign foundation.” (Okay, granted, Jesus wasn’t born in Canada and worked mainly in Israel, but still …) It’s a shame that Mr. den Tandt does not mention this activity, by way of giving the Senator’s musings some professional context; it might have helped to justify some of the implication in the headline, if not its actual accuracy.
The irony of the piece is that den Tandt quotes the PM espousing an opinion that’s essentially the polar opposite to what Senator Eaton expressed:
“Leaving aside the fact that the separation of church and state is an American constitutional doctrine, not part of Canada’s legal or political tradition, the notion of separation refers to the state not interfering in religious practice and treating all faith communities impartially. It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or in the public square.”
Hardly a charge of political interference with the Church. So why does the headline suggest otherwise?
Simple. Few people have heard of Senator Nicole Eaton; but everyone knows of Stephen Harper. And there’s an insidious meme, among the PM’s critics, that when it comes to Canadian government activities, Stephen Harper is omniscient: not only (according to the meme) does he know about every little staple out of place in a published report, but he’s personally signed off on every trivial detail that’s now ruining their day; thus, Stephen Harper is personally responsible for everything that’s wrong with Canada. And, since Mr. Harper already has the reputation of being a control freak, it’s an easy meme to feed.
And thus, a senator’s random thought on the United Church becomes, via a headline, Stephen Harper’s attack on separation of church and state. Absolutely amazing, the amount of torquing that a headline writer has to go through to get your attention.