Monday, July 31, 2017

Andrew Scheer, Faith and the Media, or How Should the Media Cover Religion in Politics?

How should journalists approach Andrew Scheer's religious faith? That was the question posed by Paul Adams on iPolitics in June.

The election of Scheer, a devout Catholic and social conservative, as Conservative party leader “has raised a tricky question for journalists,” Adams wrote.

“How should they cover his religious beliefs, if at all?”

It’s a fair question. Here in Canada, religion has traditionally not played much of a role in politics, and candidates are not required to prove their religious bona fides when seeking office.

But many politicians are religious, and bring their faith to work. For Canadian journalists, this puts them on shaky ground.

Few reporters have any background or knowledge in religion—it’s not a required course of study in journalism schools. As a result, many are uncomfortable asking questions about faith, not knowing where to begin.

And so Adams’ question is welcome; at least he is acknowledging that the subject is worthy of attention.

But it did prompt me to wonder why it wasn’t also asked of the Prime Minister, when he became leader of his party. Trudeau is also a Catholic, but I could not find a similar article about how to cover his faith on the iPolitics website.

And why is that?

One answer is that Scheer is a social conservative, and many people are deeply suspicious of that kind of religiosity—including some journalists. It also makes them uneasy when someone is outspoken about their religious beliefs.

And Scheer has not been afraid, in the past, to talk about his faith.

In 2014 he stated that faith “is an important part of my life. [Faith] can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person's faith is welcomed.”

While his faith has influenced his work as a politician in areas such as voting against gay marriage and being pro-life, if he should be elected Prime Minister Scheer  has said he would not re-open those issues, nor would he impose his beliefs on the Party.

He would, however, allow MPs to “bring forward legislation and to make statements to bring up topics that they care deeply about, either on behalf of themselves or their constituents.” This could, presumably, be a backdoor for legislation on things like abortion.

Not wanting to rely on other reports, I reached out to Scheer’s office several times asking to interview him about how his faith would impact his work as leader. I was advised he would not be available.

I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, I’m not surprised. In the past, politicians had little to gain from talking about their faith to the media, as the experience in Great Britain of former Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron showed.

Farron, an avowed Christian who led his party for two years, resigned from his positon over what he felt was an inability to reconcile his faith with politics.  

“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith,” he wrote about how the media had often queried him about his beliefs, especially around gay marriage.

“I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience,” he said, admitting “sometimes my answers could have been wiser.”

The result was he found himself “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader,” even if he was “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.”

He went on to say that “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

Which brings us back to Adams’ question. How should journalists report about Scheer’s faith, or the faith of any other politician?

My answer: With respect, with knowledge, and with the same evenhandedness they would bring to anyone else about any other subject.

As for politicians who say their faith is important to how they do their jobs, they also need to respect the honest inquiry of journalists about how religion may influence the way they vote.

For journalists and politicians to act any other way would diminish both journalism—and faith.

From the July 29 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Of Saints and Sacrifice: The Story of the English Plague Village of Eyam

There’s a new way to become a saint, Pope Francis says.
In addition to the traditional three ways to sainthood—being martyred for the faith, living a life of heroic Christian virtues, and having a reputation for strong religious devotion—the Pope has added a fourth: Sacrificing your life for others.
According to the Vatican, to follow this path to sainthood people need to freely and voluntarily offer their life in the face of certain death, show Christian virtues, and have a reputation for holiness.

And you need to be Catholic, too, of course—none of the categories apply to non-Catholic Christians.

The news about the new path to sainthood came along about the same time I heard about a group of Christians who voluntarily gave up their lives to save the lives of others.

In this case, it happened over 350 years ago, inthe English village of Eyam.

In September, 1665, the local tailor in Eyam received a bolt of cloth from London. At that time, London was dealing with a terrible outbreak of bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death.

The cloth was infected with fleas carrying the plague—which nobody knew until people started getting sick. This included the tailor, who was dead in a week.

Understandably, the 350 or so residents of the village wanted to flee to avoid the plague.

But the new minister, William Mompesson, convinced them not to go. He preached a sermon pleading with them to stay to prevent the plague from being spread to other towns and villages.

He added that if they stayed he would stay, too, doing everything he could do alleviate their suffering.

According to the stories told about the event, the residents of Eyam agreed it was their Christian duty to stay quarantined until the disease had passed. They sealed themselves inside their village and awaited their fate.

A stone boundary was created around the town—nobody from inside was allowed out, and nobody from the outside could come in.

They made arrangements with other communities to leave food and other supplies on the stones; money washed in vinegar (believed to disinfect the coins) was left on a well outside the village for payment..

After a year, the plagued burned itself out, but not before killing over 250 people in Eyam. This included the wife of William Mompesson. The cemetery was so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields.

According to historical reports, the brave actions of the villagers prevented the plague from being spread to other placesbut at a terrible cost.

In a BBC interview, Dr. Michael Sweet, a disease specialist at the University of Derby, said the decision by the villagers to quarantine their village “significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen. Without the restraint of the villagers many more people, especially from neighbouring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease.”

The current rector in Eyam, Mike Gilbert, said in an interview: "There was definitely that hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult to simply face it, It wasn't a nice way to die . . . it is almost overwhelming to think what it must have been like. I suspect fear stalked them every day of their lives."

Today Eyam is known as the “plague village.” There is a plague museum that tells the story, the well and a boundary stone can still be seen, and the graves of the plague victims inside the churchyard and surrounding area are testaments to the selflessness of the villagers.

History of full of many other examples where people faith put their lives on the line for others. And there are more recent ones, too, where Muslims, Christians, Jews and others put themselves in danger, or lost their lives, to protect people they didn’t even know.

At a time when so much of the news about religion seems unrelentingly negative or polarizing, it’s good to be reminded there are those who show another side of faith—and sometimes those people are called saints.

From the July 22 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Will Facebook Replace the Church? Mark Zuckerberg Thinks it Can

Will Facebook replace the church? If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future is correct, the answer is yes—it will.

In a speech in June, Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook’s online communities may be poised to replace organizations that used to bring large numbers of people together—organizations like churches.

"Membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter," he said, noting that participation in organized religion has decreased.

"That's a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else."

Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can help fill the gap. But it will need help from people who can organize these new communities.

"A church doesn't just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation,” he said.

To help all those non-churchgoers find new communities, Zuckerberg will use Facebook's artificial intelligence algorithm.

"We started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you,” he stated.

“We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50% more people join meaningful communities."

His ultimate goal is to convince half of Facebook’s two billion users to join Facebook communities.

"If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we've seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together,” he stated.

Bringing people closer together is so important that "we're going to change Facebook's whole mission to take this on."

Zuckerberg isn’t wrong; people are leaving organized religion. Between the “nones” and the “dones,” active participation is falling dramatically in North America and Europe.

But is Facebook the answer? Or does old-fashioned getting together still have something to offer?

That’s a good question to ponder in light of a new study about the health effects of attending a physical place of worship.

According to the study, published in May by medical researchers from various U.S. universities, “increased religiosity (as determined by church attendance) is associated with less stress and enhanced longevity” for middle-aged adults.

The results of the study, they went on to say, “underscore the potential importance of church attendance . . . as a mediator of health and lifespan.”

This latest research stands in a long line of studies that have found a positive relationship between attending religious services and good health. But what researchers don’t know is why. Is it the prayers? The music? The sermon? The coffee time after the service?

Two ideas suggested by researchers are the larger sense of meaning and purpose that religion provides, along with the social connections and support people feel from belonging to a worshipping community.

Of course, not all religious experiences are positive. Some forms of religion cause people to feel judged, guilty, depressed and oppressed. But overall, studies have shown that being religious has produces positive health benefits, both physically and mentally.

Can Facebook replicate what religion provides? I have my doubts. I like my online groups, but they don’t fill me with meaning and purpose. Plus, if I’m sick, or having a tough time, I might get lots of likes, comments and sympathy from my online friends, but who will show up to cut my grass, shovel my driveway, or bring me soup?

That’s hard for someone who lives across town, much more for someone on the other side of the world.

A number of years ago author and historian Martin Marty addressed the then hot topic of people saying they had stopped going to church because they were spiritual, not religious.

That was all fine and good, he said, but he warned: “Spirituality doesn’t bring you a casserole when you are sick.”

The same would be true for Facebook—unless Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for that, too.

From the July 15, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Rise of the Nonverts, or What's Happening to Church Attendance in Great Britain?

If a convert is someone who has been persuaded to change their religious faith, what’s a nonvert?

According to Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in Britain, a nonvert is a person who grew up in a religious home but who drifted away—who once identified with a religion, but now say they have no religion.

In Britain, the number of nonverts who experience what is called “nonversion” is growing.

Altogether, 48.6% of Britons now say they have no religion, according to data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 2014 European Social Survey.

“The striking thing is the clear sense of the growth of ‘no religion’ as a proportion of the population,” Bullivant told The Guardian.

“The main driver is people who were brought up with some religion now saying they have no religion . . . the rise of the non-religious is arguably the story of British religious history over the past half-century or so.”

In his report, titled “The ‘No Religion’ Population of Britain,” he notes that over 60% of the nonverts were brought up as Christians, mainly Anglican or Catholic.

Non-Christian religions have better retention levels; overall, only 2% of nonverts were raised in religious homes other than Christian.

According to Bullivant, the “nonversion” rate was 14% for Jews, 10% for Muslims and Sikhs and 6% for Hindus.

But what about people going the other way—converting from no-faith to being religious?

The news isn’t good on that front; the number of the non-religious who convert from no faith to faith is small.

Just over 5% of what Bullivant calls “cradle nones” report becoming Christians. Only 2% joined non-Christian faiths.

Or, to put it another way, for every person brought up in a non-religious household who becomes religious, 26 people raised as Christians became non-religious.

Other findings from Bullivant’s report showed that 67% of Britons identified as some kind of Christian in 1983; in 2015, it was 43%.

Over the same period, members of non-Christian religions have more than quadrupled.

Those who no longer identify with religions are younger on average—35% of the “nones” are under 35, compared to just 6% of that cohort who say they are Anglicans.

If there is any good news for religious groups, Bullivant says that after consistent decline the proportion of nones in Britain appears to have stabilized over the past few years.

“Younger people tend to be more non-religious, so you’d expect it to keep going,” he said in an interview.

“But it hasn’t. The steady growth of non-Christian religions is a contributing factor, but I wonder if everyone who is going to give up their Anglican affiliation has done so by now? We’ve seen a vast shedding of nominal Christianity, and perhaps it’s now down to its hardcore.”

And that may be another source of good news for religious groups, he suggests.

In an article in the Church Times, an Anglican newspaper in Britain, Bullivant noted that while many people have left Christianity, a “creative minority” of committed Christians remains.

This group is strongly committed, he said, and since they are “swimming against the tide” are often stronger in their faith.

This may lead to a rise in the number of people who are committed to religion in the future, he added, since they will be more intentional about bringing their children up in the faith.

What does this mean for Canadian religious groups?

Attendance at religious services is also declining in this country, as is affiliation with various religious groups—at 24% of the population, one of the fastest growing “faiths” is Canada is the nones. But will we reach the same levels as Britain? Time will tell.

In the meantime, one lesson that can be drawn out of the British experience might be for groups to consider pouring fewer resources into outreach and what Christians call evangelism, since it doesn’t appear to be working.

What might be more effective could be putting effort into shoring up current supporters—things like more family ministries, children’s programs, youth groups, creative ways to be relevant and community-minded, and provide more support for religious colleges and universities.

Maybe that way there will be fewer nonverts in the future.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Halo Effect, or What are Places of Worship Really Worth to a Community?

$1.5 billion—that’s how much Winnipeg’s places of worship are worth to the city.

For Steinbach, that figure is almost $134 million. Brandon is $90 million. Morden is $23.6 million, Winkler is $69 million. Portage la Prairie rings in at $31 million.

Those amounts are what’s called the “halo effect,” the value of the social, spiritual and communal capital that places of worship contribute to their communities through various kinds of services, events and activities.

The calculations come from the Halo Project calculator, which calculates the value of places for worship for cities across Canada.

The calculator is proved by Cardus, a think tank based in Ontario. The organization was inspired by studies in the U.S. to do similar research in Canada, starting in Toronto in 2016.

That study of ten congregations found that for every dollar of their direct spending about $4.77 of common good benefit—the “halo effect”—was generated.

Areas where the halo effect was felt included open space, educational programs, magnet effect (drawing people into a community for weddings, funerals, concerts, conferences and other events), individual impact and community development.

Additional value was produced through things such as working with refugees, soup kitchens, helping the homeless, job training, programs to treat substance abuse, programs for children, youth and families, community garden plots, hosting concerts and other events, counselling, recreational activities (gyms and playing fields), operating nursery schools and day cares, and volunteering in the neighbourhood.

"The value of religious congregations to the wider community is somewhere in the order of four to five times of a congregation's annual operating budget,” says Milton Friesen, who is the Social Cities Program Director for Cardus.

“This is money that governments don’t need to spend.”

For example, if a congregation with an annual budget of $250,000 should close, the Halo Project estimates a city or town would need to come up with about $1.2 million every year to replace what was lost to the wider community.

Across Canada, Cardus estimates that places of worship in 19 major cities produce an economic benefit of $19.9 billion. This includes $1.6 billion in Vancouver, $2 billion in Edmonton, $2.2 billion in Calgary, $489 million in Saskatoon, $6.7 billion in Toronto and $2.1 billion in Montreal.

For Friesen, this is a new way for Canadians to look at the value of places of worship. It shows they are “are important parts of the landscape,” and should not be “ignored when calculating the social capital of a community.”

This is especially true for those who think places of worship are getting a free ride when it comes to taxation—that they should pay taxes like any other institution.

“What is not considered is the value to others in the community, and the community itself as a whole,” he says of those who make that argument.

“Imagine what it would cost for cities to replace the value of what churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship are providing,” he says. “They could never afford it.”

Through the Halo Project, Friesen hopes to spark a “wider conversation about the role of religion in Canada,” including what places of worship offer economically, and to ensure “religion is part of the conversation” when talking about what they contribute to the social good in this country.

“We want to put better information into hands of those making decisions” about ways to serve the various needs of Canadians, he adds.

With many places of worship in danger of closing across the country today—especially ones located in downtown core areas, where some of the biggest social needs exist—the work of the Halo Project shows that if a place of worship closes, much more could be lost than many realize.

Sure, a historic church building might be saved if it is renovated and replaced by condos, but it’s a good bet the new residents won’t include a soup kitchen, youth drop-in or substance abuse clinic in the new building.

To put it another way, maybe the crisis facing organized religion today isn’t just a concern for those who are religious. The Halo Project suggests that all Canadians, including Canada’s politicians, might want to take note.

Find your community's halo effect at

From the June 30 Winnipeg Free Press.