Monday, April 27, 2015

What is Going on with Christianity: Part IV

We live in a post-Christian age ... or, so that is the burden of the argument I have been making.  By a "post-Christian" age, I do not mean a time beyond or after Christianity. Christianity clearly still exists; it is the most popular (bad wording but you get my drift) religion in Canada and will be fore the foreseeable future. We live clearly, too, in a time of increased religious diversity and increased skepticism about matters of faith, but that, in my view, is not all that defines post-Christianity. Instead, it is defined by an ability to conceptualize morals, public order, the good life, etc., without recourse to Christianity, or, indeed, to any faith. In Canada, this mode of conceptualizing a good society, life, public order, etc., is connected to small-l liberalism and individualism. It is heavily influenced by consumerism and an ethics of self-gratification but this is not all there is to individualism.

In a coupe of previous blogs, I tried to show that both Christians and their often secularized critics misjudge what it means to be living in a post-Christian age and so end up making mistakes about the character and nature of (a) contemporary culture (which Christians see often as some form of hedonism) and (b) the relative strength and character of Christianity. Instead of seeing a culture of hedonism or a culture of Christian oppression, what we have is a situation where people are trying to work out a new system of relationships between state, church, and civil society. Having lost their formerly privileged position (or, much of it) Christians can not longer "call the tune" on a host of matters and so seek to find some way to maintain their autonomy (their ability to call their own shots, at least with regard to how they treat other people). This is what, I am trying to argue, things like faith tests at Crandall of Trinity Western University are all about or the desire to have TWU lawyers accepted to the bar even though TWU denies the applicability of the rule of law at their own institution by rejecting Charter rights.

What I would like to do in this blog is to look at how Christians are going about establishing a new relationship with civil society and the state. I won't necessarily take a side on this because my goal is more historical than anything else. I seek to map out the parameters of an important cultural-religious change in Canadian society and what it can mean. In my next blog, I'll flip the equation over and look at it from the other side: how secular movements appropriate and re-code Christianity icons (e.g., holidays). In this one, my focus is on what Christians are doing.

I want to talk about this issue both because I strongly suspect that Christians in Canada will approach this matter in a drastically different way than Christians in the US will and have. This is important to note because Canada is not the US. Polling, in fact, and as I think most of us know, shows that Canadians think differently about a host of social issues than their American neighbours. There is nothing wrong with this and we don't have to argue about who is right or wrong. Canada and the US are different countries and so we would expect that Canadians would look at the world differently than Americans. And, nationalism being what it is, we would expect that both Canadians and Americans would think that their ways are right. We need, therefore, to bear in mind that there is no one in Canada trying to argue for something like a defense of bigotry law similar to what has been introduced in a number of US states. Equality in marriage is a by and large closed case. Yes, there are a few people who will argue against it and a few people who will argue that killing gays is just part of the culture of people in Uganda so we should say nothing about it, or who might look longingly across the border to Indiana ... but they are few and far between. Their political influence is very small and it is unlikely to get any larger. It is, for instance, difficult to argue that gay and lesbian marriage will cause the collapse of civilization ... since, well, we have a fair number of empirical test cases right in front of us and civilization still seems to be here. What goes on in the US is not, then, what is going on in Canada and it would be wrong to confuse the two. It would be wrong, for instance, to see Christians lining up (or, let us be accurate, some and perhaps a minority of Christians) behind bigotry in the US and assume that the same thing goes on in Canada. It doesn't.

What we are seeing in the US is an effort  to use the legal infrastructure not to impose "Christian values" on society because that can't be done. The fact that so-called "defense of marriage" acts were heaved over and over and over again, I think, convinced extremist American Christians that  legislation  (even if grafted onto the state constitution) ultimately would not stand up to the Bill of Rights. IOW, there was no way that they could force the rest of society to accept their views. They tried various legal shenanigans to avoid the Bill of Rights (a "state issue", e.g.), but in the meantime struck upon what must have struck them as a better idea: if we can't force our ideas on society, we will make it legal for us to carry out our ideas even if other aspects of society rejects us. Thus, we cannot prevent gay and lesbian couples from marrying but we can try to make it legal to discriminate against them and, hence, maintain their status as second-class citizens. The logic here seems to be this: we might not be able to remake society in our image but we can at least ensure that we don't have to accept equality. (I strongly suspect that they will ultimately fail in this because I believe American courts really do take the Bill of Rights seriously regardless of the political orientation of the court.)

This is not what has gone on in Canada. In Canada, extremist Christians have not tried to introduce laws that allow them to, say, refuse service in a restaurant to a gay couple (or, rent to gay couple, etc.). And, while a small group of Christians in Canada might argue for this position, I doubt the majority (the vast majority) will. Why? There are actually a number of reasons why this is the case. (A) It is not at all clear that a majority of Canadians Christians opposes equality for GLBT Canadians. (B) The issue is largely viewed as settled in Canada and I sense no strong desire (even among those who have concerted views on this subject) to revive it. (C) Extremist Christians lack the political clout in Canada that they enjoy in the US. (D) Bigotry is generally viewed as bad form by most Canadians. In other words, the reasons why Canadian Christians (even of the extremist bent) will not follow their American neighbours into the legal morass that they have waded in Indiana and other places is not simply pragmatic (if they had the numbers or if given the change....). It is principles. Canadians see the world differently than Americans and will behave differently.

What Canadian Christians have, therefore, tried to do instead is to create parallel institutions. They already have these to some extent. My church, for instance, runs a social programme that mirrors, in important ways, those programmes run by community centres. It provides food  to the needy; hosts community breakfasts and dinners (like, say, the Lion's Club or Rotary); runs youth groups; has a ball hockey league, supports a small Christian academy, and the like. These parallel institutions have been there for a very long time but went unnoticed -- back in the day -- because the state acted, in many ways, very much like the church. Christian academies existed, to be sure, but were not needed (to the same degree) when the public school system operated by Christian principles, taught that Christianity was good and progressive, etc. Parallel institutions become necessary (or, necessary on a much broader scale) only when public institutions no longer maintain a Christian face.

Here is the difference: where the American tactic (or, one tactic) is to create a legal situation where Christians can discriminate against people they don't like without repercussions, and hence, maintain their position in the public sphere; the Canadian position has been to let the public sphere go  and build institutions that are separate from it. The American approach does this: don't like gay people. No troubles. We'll make it legal for you to treat them as second-class. The Canadian approach, on the other hand, goes like this: don't like gay people? Sorry, not much we can do about that. But, what we can do is build a small private institution where you can go on disliking gay people and surround yourself with others who feel the same way you do.

Now, I am exaggerating to prove a point. There is much more to Christian parallel institutions than anti-gay sentiment. What I am trying to do (without making a moral statement about the merits of either approach ) is to highlight how Canada and the US are following different paths to post-Christianity. The American one is intended to maintain some semblance of control over the public sphere or at least isolate Christians from the requirements of the constitution and public law. The Canadian approach has been to say, sorry, we can't and won't do that. Instead, we will build separate institutions that stand outside the purview of the public sphere and the Charter.

Now, obviously, no one is outside the law in a society that is based on the rule of law. But, post-secondary institutions like Crandall and TWU have tried to avoid Charter equality requirements by refusing on-going state funding. They apply for grants (and, anyone can apply for grants; there is no religious means test that is applied to them and, I have argued, should not be) but even here they have been careful. Crandall, for instance, forewent traditional municipal grants because they were garnering bad press. The effect (I am not sure about the intent) is to isolate the institution from public control to an even greater degree. In effect, the argument Crandall makes goes like this: we serve a particular constituency and its beliefs, we do not take state money, we are not a public institution, the state cannot and should not be in the business of telling private institutions what their religious beliefs should be (public institutions ... sure, but not private ones).

So far ... so good ... except ... what happens when the students at those private institutions graduate? I once happened to be at a service where a person from a religiously-oriented university was speaking. The argument he put out was that sending your kid to this type of institution was a choice that you would make if you were had concerns about the influence secular institutions might have on your child. Fair enough. I don't actually debate that and generally agree with this type of description. The problem, of course, is what happens next. Parallel institutions work to a point and that point is specific: the point at which one needs to earn a living in secular society. The Christian economy (the economy of parallel institutions) is not broad or deep enough to accommodate many people. Hence, most Christians will need to work in civil society and, from what I can tell, most want to and it is at this point that things have gotten tricky.

Again, I am not asserting that this should or should not be the case ... merely describing the situation that exists. As students from religious-based institutions graduate and want to move into civil society, they are asking that their credential be accepted and treated as equal to all other credentials. In one sense they have a case: what does it matter where someone obtained their credentials. The test is can they or can they not do the job? Moreover, surely freedom of conscience allows you, me, or anyone else to get our credentials wherever we happen to want.

The short answer -- and the answer that Canadians are grappling with is "yes ... but ...." The "yes" is attested to in the previous paragraph. The "but" part is rooted in questions about the operation of civil society that cannot -- and, in my view, should not -- be simply passed over as matters of choice (a question to which I will return shortly). The question is the degree to which institutions that actively discriminate against some citizens should be accredited. The issue is that they set a bad precedent. A certain percentage of people might be willing to accept this for GLBT but what happens if Jews are put on the list next? Or, Black Canadians or Native People or men who don't cut their hair a certain length? This has not happened and so the question is hypothetical, but the point merits at least some attention. If we, as a society, are willing to draw the line ... why are we willing to accept institutional prejudice against some people but not others. Its OK to discriminate against gays but not Jews?

The other issue is that faith-test institutions -- if they provide access to the public sphere -- are not really functioning as parallel institutions. Rather, they are operating as parallel paths to the same end. And, this might be the real problem that Christians need to address. If one's BEd led nowhere but teaching as a Christian academy or one's law degree led nowhere but working a general council for the church ... I doubt many people would care very much. People would care, but ... not as much as they care right now. Instead, those people who operate parallel institutions are arguing that the can and should lead to success in secular civil society. And, you can see the difficulty. Christians have, in effect, choices that are denied other people (if religiously-based faith-test institutional certification is accepted). An extreme evangelical Christian can attend either TWU or ..., say, Dal. But the gay students can't. His option is Dal but not TWU. Hence, the parallel institutions operates not just as a parallel institutions (which, as I said, if that was all it did, I doubt most people would care) but starts to operate as a privileged path to a career that is denied other people and ... and this is the key ... it is denied other people on grounds other than their merits or skills or abilities as a student, worker, whathaveyou.

You can see, then, that the parallel institutions start to run into some argumentation problems. What began as a defense of choice and an argument about merits and skills and abilities ... ends up defending institutions that deny choice (limiting choices, as it were, for some people but not others) and which make decisions about admissions on criteria that include things other than skills or abilities.

What does this tell us? Well, I am not convinced that it tells us that Christian institutions are ipso facto bad institutions. That is a decision, I think, best left up to you.  What it tells us as we look at this transition to a post-Christian society is that, for Christians, one way of grappling with this transition (constructing parallel institutions) is fraught with difficulties and plagued by questions that cannot be easily answered. The reason for this, I think, is that Christians have elected to defend their parallel institutions using the language of rights. Thus, what we see is an oddly interesting convergence in the parallel course that Christians set out with secular civil society. Not only does this parallel course seek the same terminus but it employs the same discourse (rights; individualism) in order to justify itself.

I don't want to say that rights are bad. Anyone who reads this blog knows I don't think that. What I do want to say is that I find this an odd and interesting point at which Christians have arrived. In their efforts to avoid secular institutions they have embraced the language secular civil society even while that very language and the logic that stood behind was, in fact, something they opposed when it came to equality for gay and lesbian Canadians. This is not theoretical or a logical extension of an argument. It is going on right now in cases where TWU argues that its law and B.Ed. students should be accredited.  You, I am sure, see the problem. You cannot create an institution that denies equality claims rooted in individuals and Charter rights at the same time that you claim those rights for yourself. Most people will, I think rightly, be skeptical about the degree to which you are actually committed to those rights and will suspect that there might be some hypocrisy lurking behind the discourse.

What this means, I think, is that post-Christianity has created problems for Christians not simply because they have lost authority in civil society and with the state. They have before and recovered and might do so again. Who knows? The problem is that their efforts to adapt to post-Christianity fails to grapple with what is actually going on in that culture and is built around a love/hate relationship with secular civil society that appears as contradictory. Said differently, Christians may adapt to post-Christianity but the current course on which they have set themselves seems intensely problematic because it may actually sustain the very cultural trends they (Christians) dislike.
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