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Bigotry Repeats Itself

The differences between Andrew Scheer and John F. Kennedy may be stark. But last month's anti-religious assaults against Scheer hold a troubling similarity to what Kennedy experienced 60 years ago. 

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Bigotry Repeats Itself September 4, 2019  |  By Peter Stockland
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No one with the remotest inkling of politics or history would confuse Andrew Scheer with John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was Camelot. Scheer is home a lot. Swinging 60s American glamour icon. Post-millennial Canuck in a family guy cardigan. Spot the difference?

Yet the anti-religious assaults of August 2019 against Canada’s Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have a troubling similarity to what presidential hopeful Kennedy had to overcome in 1960. Did I say troubling? Oh, let’s be truthful and call it ugly – as bigotry always is.

Kennedy, recall, had to fight his way through the naked hostility directed at U.S. Catholics –particularly Irish-American Catholics – to convince the political class and the public that he was trustworthy as a Catholic. He was forced to dispel the centuries-old canard, dating back to the anti-Catholic pogroms of Henry VIII, that he would use high office to do the pope’s bidding. In doing so, he created the bizarre hybrid known as “the Kennedy Catholic,” which claims to uphold the faith in saecula saeculorum while disavowing it as an active principle in this lifetime.

Almost every Catholic politician since has adopted some variant of Kennedy’s Roman rogue routine, an exception being Ralliement Creditiste du Québec leader Réal Caouette. He famously, if indelicately, declared 50-plus years ago that the only contraceptive pill Canadian women needed was holding an aspirin between the knees. He might have borrowed the phrase from advice columnist Ann Landers, the era’s celebrated syndicated Jewish mother. Imagine Andrew Scheer even thinking such a thought, never mind expressing it publicly. Yet his Catholicism and Caouette’s vulgar variety are considered much of a muchness.

Indeed, the summer’s attacks on him show how high the “Kennedy Catholic” ante has just been upped. It’s no longer enough to think like a religious person while practicing the politics of a populist pagan. Now, total interior transformation must be professed and proven as well.

It’s an escalation that must deeply concern all Canadians, not merely adherents to all religious traditions, including those in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. If Canadians truly are a people of diversity, openness and welcome as we claim, we have to call out all forms of bigotry. Animus that diminishes people of religious faith as fully participant citizens is just as objectionable and destructive as any other form of intolerance.  

In Scheer’s case, the reduction began with the scurrilous fake “discovery” of a video in which he delivered a speech in the House of Commons as a rookie MP taking the nay side in legislation concerning same-sex marriage. It continued with the outrageous innuendo of a secret Conservative agenda to criminalize abortion. It culminated in demands that Scheer go beyond pledging himself to the legal status quo (or, with abortion, to the total absence of legality around it) and somehow demonstrate he no longer believes in the underlying theological or philosophical principles underlying the old laws. The demands were so incessant he was obliged to call a media conference to address them.

Descend the ladder here. Catholics were once prohibited from holding high office. Then they were allowed in but only under the fair-enough democratic proviso that they refrain from acting like Catholics while in office. Then they were disallowed from using democratic means to persuade their fellow citizens that Catholic doctrine, limited in the public sphere to the social teaching of the Church, has merit.

Scheer’s mistreatment shows that they must disavow their Catholic beliefs as beliefs. They must vow full conformity with the zeitgeist: mind, heart and soul. They must, there is no other way to put it truthfully, cease to be Catholics.

Kennedy Catholicism rested on the separation of private and public. Its stricture was that you had to keep what you privately believed out of the public square. Today’s shift seeks to abolish even the private. You may no longer believe privately anything contrary to what is deemed publicly acceptable. You must stop being, even internally, what you are. You must transform yourself into what the mob demands you become.

It is all the more shocking coming after two generations in which demands for such internal conformity have been rejected across almost every social sector imaginable. Prejudicial barriers on grounds such as sexuality, gender, marital status, race, ethnicity, age and so were demolished for being intolerable injustices, prima facie assaults, on fundamental human rights.

Most distressing is that none of this is accidental. No one with the remotest inkling of history of politics could imagine the auto-da-fé that Scheer has been put through just happened as naturally as summer heat. The whole shebang has to have been a conscious concoction of political operatives who sat down in their vaingloriously named pre-election “war room” and deliberately set out to attack him for his creed. They mapped out deliberate strategic decisions to isolate his faith as a political vulnerability. They scripted, doubtless through numerous drafts, the wording by which his own innermost beliefs would be used to discredit him.

The party brand, or brands, of those responsible is irrelevant. It’s actually a distraction to raise it because doing so provokes the absurd partisan extremism of the day. It becomes a puerile matter of red team versus blue team versus green team versus orange or yellow with purple polka dots team. It also lays the blame entirely on politicos, which is untrue and unjust.

Every journalist worthy of the name in this country should be decrying the treatment of Scheer not because they favour him (I don’t) or his party (I don’t) or share his faith (I do, but would make the same protest for any person of sincere religious belief). Some have. Some have fled to the sidelines. Others have egged the campaign on despite its odious waft of anti-Catholic, and indeed anti-Christian, intolerance.

No Canadian should confuse this with politics, journalism, or indeed citizenship as usual. It’s as easy to see the difference between JFK and Andrew James Scheer that it’s taking us back to very dark times we thought we’d left behind long ago in Camelot.


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