Other leaders have convinced voters they can reconcile faith with politics. Why can’t Scheer?

The problem is not that Andrew Scheer was asked a question this week about his religious faith.

The problem is that he didn’t offer much of an answer.

That’s been his problem for two and a half months now.

In fairness to the Conservative leader, he and his advisers probably hadn’t talked after Wednesday’s caucus meeting about how he’d handle a reporter’s question about whether he considers homosexuality to be a sin. And a press scrum is perhaps not the ideal forum for a serious discussion about religion and faith.

Setting aside the logistics, however, it’s not obvious that Scheer would have come up with a different or better answer if he’d had more time to think about it. And it’s not at all clear that he has any interest in having a serious discussion about his personal views in any forum.

“My personal opinion is that I respect the rights of every single Canadian,” Scheer said on Wednesday night. “My personal commitment to Canadians is to always fight for the rights of all Canadians, including LGBTQ Canadians.”

Even that vague response might be challenged on the grounds that Scheer voted against legislation in 2017 that extended protections to transgender Canadians.

When confronted with a difficult or unwelcome issue, the natural inclination of any political operation is to dispose of the matter as quickly and curtly as possible — to find the right ten-word statement that would allow the leadership to say they’ve addressed the matter. The typical response to any political fire is to deprive it of oxygen.

Scheer has spent the last two and a half months trying to find the right ten words, without success.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer looks back as he walks up stairs with his wife Jill to attend mass at a church in Vancouver, Sunday October 20, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A Conservative majority in last month’s election might have effectively quieted those questions. Instead, the questions have been renewed by a second-place finish.

And it’s too late for Scheer to claim that his religious faith is somehow off limits: just three weeks ago, he invited photographers and a pool reporter to watch him attend mass at a Catholic church in Vancouver.

But it’s also possible to speak about such things at greater length than a sound bite. Sometimes, it’s even the politically smart thing to do.

The history of the United States is filled with celebrated political speeches. Two of them come to mind now: Barack Obama’s remarks in 2008 on Reverend Jeremiah Wright and John F. Kennedy’s remarks in 1960 on his own Catholic faith.

President John F. Kennedy listens while Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg speaks outside the White House in Washington April 30, 1963. (William J. Smith/Associated Press)

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy said. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Less well known, but equally remarkable, is the speech that Wilfrid Laurier delivered in Quebec City in 1877. At the time, the Liberal Party and political liberalism were opposed by the Catholic Church in Quebec. Laurier went to Quebec City and took on the clergy directly.

“In our adversaries’ party, it is the habit to accuse us, Liberals, of irreligion,” he said. “I am not here to parade my religious sentiments, but I declare that I have too much respect for the faith in which I was born to ever use it as the basis of a political organization.”

Scheer’s current situation isn’t perfectly analogous to Laurier’s, of course. But the point is this: on complicated matters of deep importance, Obama, Kennedy and Laurier did not content themselves with a few pat sentences.

Did Scheer miss his moment?

Obama’s remarks ran 5,000 words and JFK spoke 1,600 words. Benefiting from the longer attention spans of the era, Laurier went on for more than 10,000 words.

The value of a speech is often overestimated by columnists (writers tend to think that words have magical powers) but some moments demand more than a comment.

If there was a particularly good moment for Scheer to make such a speech, it was probably in late August, when the Liberals first raised his comments from 2005 about same-sex marriage. Instead of the muddled, evasive response he offered at the time, Scheer could have accounted for what he said in 2005 and explained how he views same-sex marriage now — if, that is, his views have changed.

By then, he was also facing new questions about how he would handle parliamentary matters related to abortion. So he could also have explained in detail what he would expect of a Conservative caucus, and on what principles he based that approach.

Both of those matters deserve fuller explanations. But explanations on those two fronts alone might not have been enough to help Scheer.

The Pride problem

The Conservative leader’s comments on same-sex marriage in 2005 landed hard now because of a related issue: his refusal to march in a Pride parade. Which is something else he has declined to explain.

That refusal, and his lack of an explanation for it, provided an opening for a reporter to ask Scheer this week whether he views homosexuality as a “sin”.

Scheer seems to lack a good explanation for refusing to appear at Pride events. And without a good explanation, he might find it impossible to deliver the sort of speech that would dispose of these lingering questions.

If someone believes homosexuality to be a sin, that would explain why that someone might not wish to march in a Pride parade. But Scheer could simply be afraid of turning off the socially conservative supporters who helped him win the leadership, and who form part of the Conservative Party’s base.

There are other questions here, too. Would Scheer, as prime minister, allow a Conservative government to provide funding for Pride events? Would he allow foreign aid funding to be used to support abortion services overseas?

Perhaps Scheer is faced with circle he can’t square. Maybe he could not possibly deliver a speech that would satisfy the social conservatives who support him, while appeasing at least some of those who might now question who he is and how he would govern.

Or maybe he’s still hoping this will all just fade away.

No one should pretend that questions about religion, politics and leadership are always perfectly simple.

But unanswered questions tend only to raise more questions.



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