Reconsidering liberal Christianity

Rev. J.S. Woodsworth  Liberal Protestantism revisited
Rev. J.S. Woodsworth
Liberal Protestantism revisited

I read in the New York Times recently about an increasing attention being paid by American academic researchers to the history of liberal Christianity. The article says that in the U.S. the dominant story for decades has been about the rise of evangelical Christians. The Times reports that decades ago evangelicals “began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.”

The Times says, however, that now “a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.” The Times describes this as a “mainline moment.”

Liberal religion

Historical books with the following titles are making their way onto reading lists: Matthew S. Hedstrom’s Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century; Jill K. Gill’s Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left; and Leigh E. Schmidt’s The Rise of Liberal Religion. This is significant because sooner or later historical research usually finds its way into popular consciousness. Continue reading Reconsidering liberal Christianity

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

By Dennis Gruending

Reginald Bibby (Art Babych Photo)Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.

Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.

Continue reading Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

Bev Oda ignored CIDA, betrayed KAIROS

By Dennis Gruending

Bev Oda, minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)A year ago I wrote stories about the Conservative government’s ham-handed bullying of the Canadian ecumenical social justice group KAIROS. The story is now in the news again in a way that would be comic if it were not so nasty. It provides yet another glimpse into the ideologically driven spitefulness of the government, not to mention the lack of competence and truthfulness on the part of Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Let’s begin with some background. KAIROS is an ecumenical human rights and justice organization that acts on behalf of 11 of Canada’s churches and church-based organizations. It includes under its umbrella the Anglican, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, as well as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers and others. Continue reading Bev Oda ignored CIDA, betrayed KAIROS

Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion

By Dennis Gruending

update_aa.jpgThe much-anticipated Munk Centre debate in Toronto between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and writer Christopher Hitchens has come and gone. A sell out crowd of about 2600 people paid up to $500 each to sit in plush seats at Roy Thomson Hall and hear the two debate whether religion is a force for good in the world. The adversaries were civil to one another inside the hall, while out in the streets about 60 protesters braved the cold to criticize Blair’s support, while he was prime minister, of an American led invasion of Iraq. “Don’t fete him, arrest him,” one woman was quoted as saying about Blair. The event was widely covered, especially by the British media, including the BBC and The New Statesman, which also provides a full video and print transcript on its website.

“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well,” Hitchens began. “And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea … Salvation is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.” That got a laugh. Blair later responded, “I do not consider the leader of North Korea a religious icon.”

Blair began his presentation in a more qualified way than Hitchens. “It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion,” he said. “It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half the healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith-based organisations, saving millions of lives. A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations. There is the fantastic work of Muslims and Jewish relief organisations . . . So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive, it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does.”

Blair, of course, shocked many by converting to Catholicism in 2007, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister in Great Britain. He has created a foundation that seeks to close rifts between the world’s dominant faiths. Hitchens, an atheist, wrote a book called, God Is Not Great, in which he elaborated on why he finds religion a superstitious and destructive force.

A post-debate vote showed either that Hitchens had won, or perhaps, in the words of a British reporter for The New Statesman that “Toronto is a rather secular place.” Sixty-eight per cent opposed the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world and 32 per cent supported it. Hitchens probably had the easier task because, as the same British reporter wrote: “It is just much easier to highlight all the bad things humans have done in the name of religion – and even get some laughs – than it is to explain the good faith can do, to individual souls as well as the world.”

Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

By Dennis Gruending

truth_to_power_cover_275.jpgI return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and usually I drop in at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt. I attended boarding school there in the 1960s and I retain a respect and fondness for the Benedictine monks. I spent several hours on my 2008 visit with Father Andrew Britz, the former editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904. Andrew, ill with Parkinson’s disease, asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor between 1983 and 2004. Our collaboration has resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary.

The book delves into debates and issues that have raged in Canadian church and society for the past twenty-five years: birth control, abortion, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, ordination of women, the church’s treatment of homosexuals, fundamentalism, ecumenism, sexual abuse, economic injustice, environmental abuse, and militarism. Andrew was, and remains, deeply committed to his church but he was fearless in speaking truth to popes and prime ministers, capitalists and clerics. His efforts were often not appreciated by those in power, not to mention some of his more traditional readers. There were discreet and at times public complaints about him to his abbot but Andrew’s monastic community protected him and allowed him to speak courageously. He called the church to a new age in the service of humanity.
Continue reading Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

Joe Gunn, public justice, Canadian churches

oe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public JusticeNote: Joe Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, an Ottawa-based ecumenical group advocating for social justice. He has worked for churches and church organizations, mainly Catholics, in Canada and Latin America, and he was director for the Social Affairs office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). In March 2010, he delivered the Sommerville lecture in Christianity and Communications at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario. I am, with Gunn’s permission, providing here an excerpt from that speech.

On October 17th, 1996, Canadians turned on their evening newscast to hear CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge begin with these words: “Good evening. A blistering attack on governments across the country today, from Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops. The issue is poverty. The bishops accuse governments of using the most vulnerable people in society as human fodder in the battle against deficits. And the bishops weren’t the only ones speaking out…”

The bishops were holding their annual plenary gathering in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before they began the meeting, however, the bishops of the Social Affairs Commission gathered with a roomful of local activists, including the president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. To the assembled media, the bishops released their pastoral letter at Hope Cottage, a church-run soup kitchen in the downtown core. People living in poverty spoke, so it wasn’t only the bishops who got the microphone. And after the press conference, the media accompanied the men in black to serve lunch and eat together at the soup kitchen.

Today there seems to be a big change in terms of the public voice of the churches. The Catholic Church has not been totally silent, but if you go to the “Documents” section of the website of the Social Affairs Commission of the bishops, only one text has appeared since March 2008. Today, the capacity and determination of the churches to work for social and ecological justice seems weak. Service to the world now seems less of a concern than doctrine and maintenance of a shrinking membership base among the largest, historical denominations. Economically, the mainline churches are suffering, with unfortunate cuts to church staff and budgets becoming widespread. Is this change happening in all the Christian churches? Is there still a role for conscientious Christian leadership in public justice in Canadian society today? And if so, how might it best be done?

Should Christians be engaged?

Citizens for Public Justice [the organization that Gunn leads] believes that “if religion is understood to be one’s ultimate commitment or life orientation, then it cannot be confined to private life, particular rituals or institutions.” After all, why argue for keeping Christianity or Islam out of public life, when other “religious” value systems like capitalism, liberalism or humanism are not restricted? To ask a person of faith to leave their beliefs behind as soon as a political discussion begins is like asking a lung to refuse to breathe in air. The real issue is how people of faith can and should contribute to a hopeful citizenship.

Not only do Christians have to get involved in public justice, then, but the proper way to advance on this path to holiness is by addressing the causes of suffering of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the Earth community.

Status of faith-based work for justice

A month ago I contacted the social ministry offices of Canada’s nine largest Christian churches and asked if they’d answer a few questions about their social ministries. Eight of the nine were more than pleased to do so: only the CCCB refused to respond. I received helpful replies from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Religious Conference, and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).

Among the nine church groupings in the survey, more than two-thirds have fewer staff resources today as compared to five years ago. Several organizations now use short-term internships filled especially by students. Increasingly, volunteers are mandated to serve on committees where staff once served. One respondent expressed disappointment that there were “few, if any” justice educational resources for church use in congregations, and expressed disappointment that there is “no capacity to draft briefs or make presentations to government committees.” When asked what had happened to budgets for this work of social ministry over the past five years, five of the groups reported that they had suffered decreases (some of even up to half), and two had no increase.

When asked about future expectations, six of eight churches that responded to this question expect decreased budgets in the short term future, with the larger groups at reductions of 9-10%, which are levels that could mean losing staff. One church office gave staff a week off without pay as a cost saving measure.

Finally, I asked the most difficult question: “Do you feel that your church office has increased, decreased or enhanced effectiveness in social justice ministries over the past five years?” Seven respondents answered. Three mentioned greatly decreased effectiveness, while two said things remained about the same. One respondent felt his church had “in practice, essentially abandoned its work on social justice” spending most of its time on internal issues and sexuality. This person added, “I suspect those who are passionate are working outside the formal church structures.”

Another revealing commentary was that, “With the sequential decimations of church office staff in all the important member churches of the CCC, there is nothing like the capacity there used to be to undertake substantial joint work compared to five years ago. We continue to rely on sister organizations for substantial policy work: Project Ploughshares, Citizens for Public Justice, KAIROS. . . but unfortunately, those partners are also vulnerable.”

The case of KAIROS

The situation of KAIROS having its funding cut by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has been in the news recently. What has not been well-covered is that official Catholic support for ecumenical social justice work through KAIROS has been curiously muted. Although both Development and Peace (D&P) and the Catholic bishops serve on KAIROS’ board, their financial commitment to the organization has diminished over the years. The Catholic bishops now give KAIROS $100,000, and all of that comes from D&P. Six years ago, they gave over $250,000. It is the faithful and generous contributions from religious sisters that maintain the Catholic contribution to this ecumenical social justice ministry today.

Not only financial support, but also political support has been waning. In early December, a memo sent to all the bishops reported, “the CCCB executive committee unanimously agreed that the Conference of Bishops will not embark on a campaign to pressure the government of Canada to reconsider its funding decision” concerning the cuts to KAIROS. The executive gave two reasons for inaction: “The international program of KAIROS has always been secondary for the CCCB,” and “The CCCB is not convinced that such a campaign will result in success.”

Contrast this response with that of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who stated on December 9 that, “The world needs more of KAIROS Canada. It would be an unparalleled setback for the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised if the voice and work of KAIROS in the global South is muted.” The board of Citizens for Public Justice echoed this concern in their letter to the prime minister, stating “CPJ is concerned that this decision may be another in the trend to discontinue funding of groups who raise questions about current policies, thereby silencing some of the diverse voices that are essential for a healthy public debate about international issues of justice and stewardship.”

New tone needed

While the recent voices of the Christian churches in Canada have been muted and maligned when they have engaged in the public sphere, public dialogue and political advocacy are still constitutive elements of what it means to be a person of faith. But it seems clear that this must now be done differently than in the past.

First, there is still a role to play in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the churches – I see no reason to cede hard won ground now occupied by the organizations like KAIROS that represent almost 40 years of struggling to live the Gospel faithfully in action. We cannot spend all our strength in attempting to maintain church structures for social ministry if these efforts make such demands upon our energy that we are not free to address the real social and ecological challenges that history places before us.

Secondly, lay people will have to lead the way in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the Canadian churches, and even start new movements. We should get over any assumption that the churches’ social witness has to be further clericalized in order to be valid. Laypeople of all sexes should be able to reclaim their social mission as well as their contribution to the emerging non-white church’s more inclusive voice.

Thirdly, the way we’ve designed the process of preparing and delivering church statements must change. Have you ever been asked your opinion on an issue, or invited to help develop an opinion in dialogue, study and debate with your church leadership? If we don’t involve more people in these processes, we can’t expect them to fully accept any eventual stances as their own.

Fourthly, we need to walk the talk before we squawk. The example of the 1996 pastoral letter on poverty suggests how a process was developed to draft a message with others, and deliver this text with the only people who could be the architects of their own liberation: people with a lived experience of poverty. Otherwise, the message would have lacked authenticity and credibility.

Fifth, it is important to ensure that the spoken word of the churches is delivered to defend the poor and vulnerable. It is crucial and not always easy to ensure that these words do not arise in order to promote the churches’ own interests and reputations, instead.

Sixth, any pronouncement has to be delivered with appropriate humility. Polls tell us that Christianity is the affiliation of 77% of Canadians, but only 17% attended a place of worship in the previous week. As some say, “Canada is a nation of believers, but not belongers.” A Christendom view of the world is no longer prevalent. A whole new role, perhaps a smaller role, for organized Christian religions is emerging.

Perhaps the situation offers possibilities for groups like Citizens for Public Justice and other lay associations to be more collaborative and helpful to churches that are desirous of recovering their voice on public justice issues. And perhaps we need to remind ourselves that large, unwieldy institutions don’t always have the genetic make-up to be prophetic. The cutting edge seems to flourish more easily on the margins, in smaller groupings that are more nimble, responsive, and enjoy fewer organizational constraints. Perhaps the Christian voice in public affairs today should best be presented in new tones – but we should not accept that voice being either muted or maligned.

Jason Kenney as St. Francis of Assisi (not)

By Dennis Gruending

St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis NotFormer Reform Party leader Preston Manning gathered members of the Canadian political and religious right for talk fest in Ottawa recently to strategize about how to win the nation for conservatism. Macleans magazine columnist Paul Wells wrote a piece about it called Hard Right Turn, which is where the Conservatives appear to be headed.  Another piece on the event that caught my eye was one by Lloyd Mackey, a journalist who writes mainly for evangelical Christian publications from his perch in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I find Mackey’s columns interesting because he has good connections in the Conservative Party and with a segment of Canada’s Christian churches. Mackey was close to Preston Manning and once edited the Reform Party’s publication. He has also written books about Manning and his father Ernest, the late Social Credit premier of Alberta.

Mackey’s report from the Manning Centre hobnob began by invoking St. Francis of Assisi, who early in the 13th century is said to have written one of history’s most famous prayers. “O Divine Master,” he wrote, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Mackey picked up on St. Francis’ line about placing the understanding of others above being understood yourself. He then applied this wisdom to a recent controversy enveloping most of Canada’s mainline churches and the Conservative government.

Mackey describes how the topic arose in a conversation at Manning’s networking conference. “The subject, at that particular point,” Mackey wrote, “ was a recent conflict between a faith-based advocacy group and a government agency which had turned down funding for that particular group.” Mackey doesn’t name the group but it is KAIROS, the ecumenical justice and human rights organization, and the unnamed government agency is CIDA, which on November 30 suspended funding for KAIROS projects between 2009 and 2013. Mackey continues, “The speaker quoting St. Francis was trying to make the point that the advocacy group in question was more interested in getting its own viewpoint understood than it was in understanding the viewpoints of the people on the other side of the table.”

Mackey does not identify the speaker in this encounter either, but concludes: “He was putting forward the seemingly preposterous notion that an advocate should seek divine guidance in the quest of understanding an opposing viewpoint. And, if an advocate can get his or her mind around that humility-based concept, it could go a long way toward the accomplishing of goals that come out of reasonable compromise.”

Ah yes, but this does gloss over some other rather important details. CIDA’s removing of KAIROS funding is one thing. But Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, was not content to leave things rest there. Speaking at an international conference in Jerusalem on December 16, Kenney accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. This, one assumes, makes it rather difficult to turn the other cheek or to forgive someone seventy times seven. Kenney later insisted that he had not actually accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. His remarks, however, were recorded in audio and video. Listen to them here and judge for yourself.

KAIROS and its member churches have chosen not to go quietly into the night regarding the blowing up of their partnership with CIDA after 35 years of co-operation in the case of some of member organizations. The KAIROS response, however, has been quite conventional. The organization has asked people in member churches and organizations  — Catholic, United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, as well as the Mennonite Central committee and the Quakers – to write or send emails to their local MPs, the Prime Minister, and CIDA minister Bev Oda. Leaders from the KAIROS coalition also held a news conference on Parliament Hill, and member organizations have lobbied dozens of MPs, focusing mainly on the Conservatives. The delegation that met with Transport Minister John Baird included his former Sunday school teacher.

The Mackey article continues: “But my speaker friend who was interpreting St. Francis was exercising a different kind of thinking. Admittedly, advocates — and their sometimes symbiotically-linked cousins, absolutists — would find that difficult, particularly if their work and stances come out of a narcissistic mindset.” This is a rather odd non sequitur, but being called narcissistic is likely far less painful for KAIROS staff and member churches than being called anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, no one has applied an analysis of Franciscan precepts to Jason Kenney. One fine Franciscan line that comes to mind is: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.” Mr. Kenney is allegedly a devout Catholic so he should know all about the peace and love advocated by St. Francis. Kenney attended Notre Dame, a Catholic college at Wilcox, Saskatchewan, so he cannot plead ignorance on these matters. 

Kenney has been an MP since 1997. He used his contacts in the Christian right in 2000 to organize on behalf of Stockwell Day for his campaign against Preston Manning for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. Day won but suffered a self-inflicted meltdown and Stephen Harper defeated him in  yet another leadership convention in 2002. When the Harper-led Conservatives became the government, Kenney became a trusted attack dog, a kind of Churchill without the wit. Kenney was also given a key responsibility in winning over new Canadians and certain religiously identified groups to support the Conservatives.

Under Stephen Harper, with Kenney running interference, the Conservatives have clearly chosen sides in the Middle East conflict – supporting Israeli no matter what actions it undertakes. There is no subtlety here. Question the policies of the Canadian government and you will be punished. Question the policies of the Israeli government and you are called anti-Semitic.

Canada’s respected Rights and Democracy organization found that out early in 2010. The Conservatives appointed new board members who forced the resignation of the organization’s president Rémy Beauregard at a tense board meeting. Mr. Beauregard died of a heart attack later the same day. Conservative appointees to the board of Rights and Democracy accused the organization of being anti-Israel, a charge similar to that launched by Kenney against KAIROS. The research, if it can be described as such, for both of these charges may have arisen from one source – a right wing Israel-based group called NGO Monitor. In an investigative piece, Macleans’ Paul Wells reports that Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist, also runs NGO Monitor. Steinberg published an Opinion Editorial in the Jerusalem Post congratulating the Canadian government for its actions against both KAIROS and Rights and Democracy. Wells writes: “Steinberg’s list of organizations he regards as anti-Israel is long. In one publication he decries CIDA aid to what he calls ‘extremist political groups’ opposed to Israel, among which he counts Médecins du Monde, Oxfam, and the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada.”

Whoops! The Mennonite Central Committee? Extremist? I beg your pardon. These attacks are over the top. I am not a Mennonite but my wife is and I have often attended church with her. If there is any organization that exemplifies the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, it is the Mennonite Central Committee. Kenney may well find that he has over-reached by deliberately putting a stick in the eye of Mennonites, Quakers, Catholics and mainline Protestants. I am told the KAIROS protests will continue, with homilies, public meetings, lobbying, musical events, even a photo contest – all done quietly, gently, and firmly, in a Franciscan manner.