Monday, July 31, 2017

Andrew Scheer, Faith and the Media, or How Should the Media Cover Religion in Politics?

How should journalists approach Andrew Scheer's religious faith? That was the question posed by Paul Adams on iPolitics in June.

The election of Scheer, a devout Catholic and social conservative, as Conservative party leader “has raised a tricky question for journalists,” Adams wrote.

“How should they cover his religious beliefs, if at all?”

It’s a fair question. Here in Canada, religion has traditionally not played much of a role in politics, and candidates are not required to prove their religious bona fides when seeking office.

But many politicians are religious, and bring their faith to work. For Canadian journalists, this puts them on shaky ground.

Few reporters have any background or knowledge in religion—it’s not a required course of study in journalism schools. As a result, many are uncomfortable asking questions about faith, not knowing where to begin.

And so Adams’ question is welcome; at least he is acknowledging that the subject is worthy of attention.

But it did prompt me to wonder why it wasn’t also asked of the Prime Minister, when he became leader of his party. Trudeau is also a Catholic, but I could not find a similar article about how to cover his faith on the iPolitics website.

And why is that?

One answer is that Scheer is a social conservative, and many people are deeply suspicious of that kind of religiosity—including some journalists. It also makes them uneasy when someone is outspoken about their religious beliefs.

And Scheer has not been afraid, in the past, to talk about his faith.

In 2014 he stated that faith “is an important part of my life. [Faith] can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person's faith is welcomed.”

While his faith has influenced his work as a politician in areas such as voting against gay marriage and being pro-life, if he should be elected Prime Minister Scheer  has said he would not re-open those issues, nor would he impose his beliefs on the Party.

He would, however, allow MPs to “bring forward legislation and to make statements to bring up topics that they care deeply about, either on behalf of themselves or their constituents.” This could, presumably, be a backdoor for legislation on things like abortion.

Not wanting to rely on other reports, I reached out to Scheer’s office several times asking to interview him about how his faith would impact his work as leader. I was advised he would not be available.

I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, as the experience in Great Britain of former Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron showed.

Farron, an avowed Christian who led his party for two years, resigned from his positon over what he felt was an inability to reconcile his faith with politics.  

“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith,” he wrote about how the media had often queried him about his beliefs, especially around gay marriage.

“I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience,” he said, admitting “sometimes my answers could have been wiser.”

The result was he found himself “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader,” even if he was “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.”

He went on to say that “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

Which brings us back to Adams’ question. How should journalists report about Scheer’s faith, or the faith of any other politician?

My answer: With respect, with knowledge, and with the same evenhandedness they would bring to anyone else about any other subject.

As for politicians who say their faith is important to how they do their jobs, they also need to respect the honest inquiry of journalists about how religion may influence the way they vote.

For journalists and politicians to act any other way would diminish both journalism—and faith.

From the July 29 Winnipeg Free Press.

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