More acknowledgement is needed in current public discourse
Over the 25 years I’ve been making submissions for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to parliamentary committees, the current study mandated by Motion 103 is one of the few times religion has been a focus of a committee’s work.
There were hearings on religious broadcasting and on changes to the faith-based education systems in Newfoundland and Quebec.
There’s been the odd time when a committee was investigating biotechnology or euthanasia, and they convened a panel from diverse faith groups to comment.
But a focus on religion itself – and in this case antireligious discrimination – is rare.
Religion has also come up this fall in Bill C-51. Canada has few laws that pertain specifically to religion aside from rules regulating the charitable sector or policies that enable religious organizations to receive government funding. But there is one section of the Criminal Code that specifically protects religious services and clergy – and it’s slated to be expunged in Bill C-51, having been deemed redundant and unnecessary.
It is perhaps a metaphor for how religion is treated in public life.
We act as if religion is no different than any other identity or association or private interest or type of expression. The common thinking in our society is that religion is not unique, so it doesn’t deserve special attention. We treat it as a subset of culture. But in doing so we miss its essence.
Should we be surprised so little attention is paid to faith and religion? We have no minister of religious affairs, nor is anyone calling for one – at least not yet. The closest we came was having an ambassador of religious freedom (from 2013 to 2016), but the focus there was on international religious freedom, not domestic concerns.
Each federal cabinet minister is given a mandate letter outlining their respective emphases and priorities, and I have yet to find one that mentions religion, let alone spirituality.
Governments should not be in the business of promoting religions or directly helping religions do what they do (technically known as "advancing religion"). However, religion is still an important factor in the lives of many Canadians, and there are many areas where the activities of governments and religious institutions overlap.
People who regularly attend places of worship volunteer more and give more to charitable endeavours. When governments seek to assist in caring for vulnerable people, they always bump into people of faith, and often initiatives and institutions organized by religious groups.
So it’s strange religious bodies are not regularly acknowledged as possible partners, or that the importance of spirituality to resilience and well-being is not regularly affirmed. (It is in specific places such as military chaplaincy, but in general not so much.) You’d think religious organizations would be sought out more regularly, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Reading most government reports you would not know religion is a lively and animating force in Canadian society. It’s usually lumped into the "charitable sector" or "civil society."
So when churches stepped up to settle a disproportionate share of Syrian refugees, media and governments rarely spoke of the role of religious communities.
Whether intentional or not, public commentary filters out specific references to faith and places of worship – except when the news is bad. Yes, religious communities and leaders need to be held accountable. And we need stories of positive, religiously motivated contributions – especially for the many Canadians not part of a religious community.
Our society needs an awareness of the contributions of communities of faith. This will become more critical as diverse religious communities grow and secularists realize the expected demise of religion in Western society is not occurring as they presumed, and that it can’t be ignored or privatized. It will become the elephant in the room – the topic people avoid talking about, but which we all maneuvre around.
The problem is not only that some politicians, media workers and other gatekeepers think religion is private. Sometimes the problem is people of faith are hiding in plain sight. Have we told our stories well enough to get the attention of others? Have we made what we do accessible to politicians?
To the degree there are two solitudes, church and state (or more broadly religious groups and governments), it means we need to work harder to build bridges for the good of our country.
In a society becoming more secularist, let’s press for dialogue and keep working to find understandable language to express the nature and role of faith.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.