Bridging divides… and scandals

Last week I joined a group of religious leaders, politicians, and journalists at McGill University for a conference that aimed to “advance an ongoing conversation about a constructive and positive role for religion in Canadian society.”

In addition to being motivated by the desire for people of faith to be “more outward-oriented” and relevant to the “issues of the day,” the conference steering committee placed a strong emphasis on the need for “a new level of maturity” and “civility” when religious beliefs, values, and principles are appealed to in public policy debates.

As reported by religion columnist Douglas Todd, it was a mature and civil conference. There were speakers who identified with the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh traditions, as well as no faith tradition, and everyone seemed to get along.

Having said this, I was left with two lingering questions.

First, I wondered whether the agreeable tone would have been maintained in the presence of more self-identified secularist and atheist voices—i.e., those Canadians most worried about opening the door to religious voices in the public square. The title of the conference was “Bridging the Secular Divide,” but it actually seemed to be more of an opportunity for interfaith bridge-building (of course, that too is a worthy pursuit).

For example, most participants seemed to share the view that there have been—and there still are—barriers to people of faith expressing their full identity, motivations, and convictions in the realm of politics. Perhaps the context of the conference elevated this sentiment, given recent controversies in Quebec over restrictions on religious dress, not to mention the recent introduction of a Charter of Secularism in the National Assembly of Quebec.

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Peter Stockland moderates a keynote session featuring Daniel Weinstock and Bill Blaikie

There were lots of helpful suggestions for overcoming the challenge posed by these barriers. Political philosopher Daniel Weinstock urged religious adherents to grow “democratic thick skin.” Member of Parliament John McKay shared his “top 10” rules for political engagement. And Canadian Council of Churches General Secretary Karen Hamilton insisted that “we can be listened to when we all come together as faith traditions.”

I’m not sure, however, that these suggestions get at the heart of the challenge. And this is the second question I am still reflecting on a week later: Are misunderstandings of—or disparaging attitudes toward—religious beliefs, values, and principles the main barriers that need to be overcome? Is religious language the gap that needs to be bridged?

I am not convinced that people of faith struggle to be heard in public policy debates primarily because of attitudes toward religious language or even religion per se. Rather, I wonder whether the more significant challenge is the deepening distrust of institutional voices of all kinds in Canadian society.

On the train ride home from Montreal I skimmed the Globe and Mail’s online news headlines, and was bombarded with a litany of scandals involving several Canadian Senators, the Mayor of Toronto, a former Ontario Premier, a former Montreal hospital administrator, and a Harvard university dean (and that was just the home page!).

Indeed, digging a little deeper into the news on any given day, we can read about troubling activities involving not only governments, but hospitals and schools. Not to mention banks, construction companies, and other businesses. Not to mention the media and other elements of civil society, including, of course, charities and churches.

What institution hasn’t been touched by scandal in recent times?

No wonder Canadians are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that the organizations they belong to, or identify with, represent or speak for them. The deepening entrenchment of individualism is surely helped along by the disenchantment that results from the behaviour of institutions.

More to the point, no wonder the Government of Canada is no longer keen to consult institutions (including their own!)  as they develop new laws and policies. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the new reality that individual citizens command, and demand, as much (or more) respect and authority than organizational figureheads, representational bodies, and so-called experts.

No wonder the Prime Minister hasn’t been able to find time in his busy schedule to meet with religious leaders who have spoken out in recent years on issues like climate change and poverty. If Canadians aren’t listening to leaders like these, why should he?

What does this mean for MCC’s approach to advocacy? In my view, we need to recognize that the bigger divide in Canadian society is found between individuals and institutions rather than secular and religious voices. This is the crucial disconnect that needs to be bridged.

I don’t think we need to leave our faith convictions at the door when we enter the offices of Parliamentarians and civil servants. If we want to be heard, however, we need to continue to nurture the trust of MCC’s supporters—and the broader public—before we knock.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

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