Friday, April 10, 2015

What is going on with Christianity? Part II

In a previous post, I noted that I was going to write a series of blogs about Christianity and a post-Christian Canada. This is an important, I think, historical, social, cultural, religious, and political subject. The Indiana anti-gay and lesbian law interrupted my plans, largely because it was connected to the subject I was trying to address. Let me get back to the subject of post-Christianity. I used the term not in an ethical or moral sense, but in an interdisciplinary way to signify a change in the relationship between state, church, and civil society. I tried to argue that we live in a post-Christian Canada. This does not mean that Christianity has ceased to exist. It hasn't and won't. Instead, it means a number of things:
  • Christians can no longer accept the "taken for grantedness" of their values and worldview 
  • Christians no longer have as privileged a position as they once did in defining the boundaries of the good life and no longer have as privileged an access to the state 
  • Other value systems have made a claim to public adherence and been able to demonstrate that they can promote aspects of the good life: equality, say, as an example, at least as well if not better than Christians (or, at least some of those claiming in the loudest voices to speak in the name of Christianity)
  • Other values systems challenge challenge Christianity for public attention and individual preoccupation (say, consumerism) and have been remarkably successful is so doing. 
  • Post-secondary education has been largely secularized in the sense that direct connections between churches and universities have been broken
  • Education, more broadly, has been secularized in that Christianity is no longer taught as "right" in the public schools
  • Some of the serious problems with Christian complicity in the oppression of aboriginal people, for instance, have come clearly into light and raise questions about the supposed Christianity of Christians
In this post, I want to more directly consider the implications of this. I'm arguing that some of the things we see going on about us in our society are a result of this historical transition. This includes, for instance, demands from religiously-based universities (Crandall and TWU) to equal  treatment of their graduates in the public sphere (say, becoming teachers or lawyers) and a recent demand by "Christian" doctors to opt out of the requirement that they provide care to patients if that care would contravene their (the doctors') values. I've already said I don't agree with the doctors and tried to suggest (in other blogs) that the issues regarding post-secondary education are more complicated than either proponents of Christian education or its detractors allow. What I am arguing in this series of blogs is that these individual incidents are not individual incidents but rather part of an historical process whereby Christians are trying to work out a new relationship with state and civil society. 

The implications of these changes are important, I will argue in this blog, because a lot of people get it wrong, both Christian and their critics. I'll give you an example and it is one I have used before. A number of years ago, my daughter and her friends tried to start a prayer group in their school. One can think this is good or bad. That is your right and, perhaps, responsibility. I don't want to intrude on that right or tell you what to think.  What I found interesting about the discussion was how quickly those who found problems with my daughter's group reverted to stereotypes of Christians. One person who I know well -- and who is a staunch opponent of any form of prejudice and whose commitments I admire -- told me that religion had no place in the schools. I argued that that was not his place to say because the constitution guaranteed each individual the right to practice their religion. The schools could not impose religion on students and should not, but nor should it stop people from practicing their faith, particularly if it was causing no harm to anyone. In other words, if my daughter and her friends wanted to use an empty classroom to pray ... so what? Likewise, if Muslim students or Jewish students, etc., wanted to do the same thing ... so what? Their tax dollars paid for the school, a vibrant public sphere should not limit expressions of spirituality that are constitutionally guaranteed rights. If someone wanted to form an atheists club using an empty classroom at lunch (that is, on their own time), that was OK with me as well. 

My friend had a very hard time with this and said "but I don't believe that the state should take sides with regard to religion." "Neither do I," I replied. "But, you are saying the state should take sides by allowing people to practice their religion." "How?" I asked. "Well, " my friend said, "you can teach religious studies. I'm OK with that. But, people should practice religion on their own time." "Totally agree," I said. And on and on ... talking past each other. Me arguing that preventing people from practicing religion was taking a side. Him arguing that the only way to not take sides was to stop the practice of all religion in the schools. 

My second example occurred because of the same incident. A person who I did not know well at the time, but for whom I have since also come to have a similarly deep respect, vocally opposed the prayer group. Why? Because it will be used to marginalize other children.  How? Well, bad things have happened in the past when the church was let loose. Look at the inquisition. 

Now, both my friend and this other person have, I strongly suspect, modified their views, not because of me but because they are thinking people. What I'm interested in is the implications of living in a post-Christian Canada for debates such as this. I won't say my arguments in favour of my daughter's prayer group were particularly good. (In my mind, I sounded witty and insightful as I remember it but ... well, I think I am editing history.) But, the opposition had a number of characteristics

1. It confused the individual practice of religion in the public sphere with oppression of others. Now, to be sure, it can be and certainly was in the past in Canada, and is, very clearly, being used as a justification in some parts of the US to attain precisely this result. They have some reason, in other words, for concern, to ask questions, to ask for supervision or guarantees. But, the idea that all religion is a thing of the past that has no place in the public sphere is actually (a) wrong (since the Charter guarantees freedom of conscience) and (b) actually a religious perspective. To try to use the state through the school system to prevent people from practicing their religion is the odd mirror of using the state to force people to practice a religion. It is not providing for individuality or dialogue but trying to stop dialogue and impede individuality. 

Thus, one of the characteristics of a post-Christian Canada is a misunderstanding when it come to Christianity of what state neutrality means, what diversity means, and what constitutional guarantees mean. The fact that the constitution guarantees the right of individual choice in religion does not mean that the state is imposing any religious view on people. In fact, it is the strongest guarantee we can have against the imposition of religious views on the population. I can see how someone watching what is going on in Indiana or Arkansas can have concerns and real ones. Those are things that Christians need to address. But, Canadians also need to recognize that they don't live in the US, that the stakes are different here, public policy is different, and political culture is different. 

2. The most vocal critics of Christianity often don't know a lot about Christianity. I can't fault them for that either because those people who speak in the name of Christianity often do a very poor job of it. There is a need for Christians to speak up against what the use of constitutional guarantees of "religious freedom" in the US to turn (or, try to turn) some people into second-class citizens. But ... I also can't let the critics of Christianity off the hook because they can ask questions. I  was surprised, for instance, by people who I had known for years, with whom I'd gone to parties or passed time talking about the Jays or worked with, started to refer to me as some sort of medieval cleric. "Have you learnt nothing about me in the years you have known me? I wanted to ask. Do you really think I'm attempting to regenerate the burning of heretics?" In other words, the debate (and in my telling, I am the good guy, you might have noticed) became falsely polarized. It was no longer about an individual's right to practice their religion but about something vaguely ominous that threatened others. 

3. Finally, neither Christians or members of other religions are doing anything wrong by using the established mechanisms of citizenship to try to address their concerns. I can disagree with them. You can disagree with them or with me. I frequently do. I think these doctors who are trying to establish the right to deny medical treatment to patients on the basis of their own values are just plain wrong. But, the fact that they are using the courts to put their case forward is not, in itself, wrong.  The judicial system is what we use to adjudicate disputes in a society built on the rule of law (and, I like the rule of law). They are doing nothing wrong with putting their arguments forward at election time or even trying to make election issues of them. That is a right of citizenship and I'd be concerned if someone  tried to deny them that right. I would, frankly, worry about the precedent it set. It would be, in my view, a step away from democracy. 

Now, I hasten to add, that Christian citizens also have a requirement to respect the law and to behave in a decent and mature way. Christians need to very carefully consider the implications of their actions but I'll get to that in another blog. 

What we have then, as one of the characteristics of living in a post-Christian society is a confusion about what Christianity is all about, individual rights, and citizenship rights and the proper way to put items on the public agenda. We can disagree, I say again, but Christians -- even loud-mouthed Christians -- have that right and they are doing nothing wrong with using it. The real problem, however, is that this confusion prevents us from engaging in a more constructive dialogue. It leads us to do dumb things, too (I suspect those people who used heightened language and referred to my daughter's group as the return of the Inquisition would love to take those words back) but it prevents us from understanding the character and nature of rights and the right to practice one's faith in a diverse society. The end result, oddly, is that we misconstrue the very individual rights that have come to substitute for Christianity as the centre of the Canadian value system. 
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