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Pat MurphyFollowing the news can be instructive in more ways than one. In addition to keeping you abreast of what’s happening, the response to certain stories can be illuminating.

Take, for instance, last week.

When Pope Francis nailed his climate colours to the mast, he didn’t bring any fresh scientific information to the table. Instead, he simply picked his side on a hot button issue. And some people certainly liked what they heard, hoping – indeed expecting – it to have a significant influence on public policy.

Indeed, one American commentator went so far as to suggest that Catholic Republican presidential candidates should toe the Vatican line. The argument goes like this: If the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are good Catholics, then they must pay heed to what the pope says.

That, however, begs another question. If Catholic politicians are morally required to follow papal pronouncements on climate, shouldn’t they be similarly required to do so on topics like abortion? After all, Catholic teaching equates abortion with deliberately killing the innocent.

Somehow, though, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, any time a religious leader, Catholic or otherwise, speaks out against abortion it invariably generates a responding lecture about the strict separation of Church and State. Religion and politics, we’re told, shouldn’t mix.

Thus it seems that devotion to the separation concept can be situational. If it helps your particular case, you’re for it. If it doesn’t, you’re not. While this impulse may be very human, it’s neither edifying nor logical.

For my money, the separation of Church and State is akin to pregnancy. There’s no halfway house. It either applies or it doesn’t.

Last week’s other big story was the appalling massacre in Charleston, an event many of us tended to categorise as a racially motivated hate crime. But apparently that isn’t the “correct” description. Rather it should be called a terrorist act – just like, say, 9/11 – and failure to label it that way suggests an anti-Muslim, maybe even racist, attitude. It’s as if we’re reserving the special opprobrium associated with the term for Muslims and people of colour.

Now I don’t have any particular objection to describing the Charleston atrocity as terrorism, but there are perfectly benign reasons for not doing so. It all comes down to definitions.

My first awareness of active terrorism dates back to the 60s and 70s, courtesy of the FLQ in Quebec, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. All of these had something in common. They were organised groups with specific political agendas, and they had some defenders who were prepared to rationalise their violence on the basis of “idealism” or the supposed “justice” of their causes.

Agenda aside, none of this applies to the Charleston shooter. There’s no indication that he was a member of any organised group, nor is there anyone prepared to defend what he did. So perhaps those of us who don’t think of Charleston as terrorism are simply adhering to a particular understanding of the term.

There was also news on the domestic front, a big item being Stephen Harper’s visit to Toronto to announce federal funding for the SmartTrack transit initiative. To one TV reporter, this was an opportunity for a gotcha question: Why SmartTrack and not the Downtown Relief Line? Could the motive be political, designed to cater to Harper-friendly suburban voters?

As you’d anticipate, the prime minister had little difficulty batting the question away, but one still has to wonder why anyone would think of it as a prospective gotcha. Of course, political calculation had something to do with it!

Put simply, that’s the way things work in a democracy, particularly in an election year. Faced with a choice of initiatives, one of which has something extra in it for potentially well-disposed voters, prime ministers will invariably opt for the double whammy. And someone who doesn’t won’t be prime minister for long.

Finally, there was the sorry tale of Don Meredith’s sexual dalliance with a teenage girl. Among other things, his status as an ordained minister exposed him to well-earned charges of hypocrisy. However, the 17th century Frenchman Francois de La Rochefoucauld wouldn’t have been surprised. As he put it, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

Life’s like that.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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