Saturday, December 30, 2017

Faith Groups and Change to Government Summer Jobs Program: "A New Era We're Into"

“Canada Summer Jobs program will no longer fund anti-abortion, anti-gay groups.”

That was the headline on a report by Global News earlier this month which detailed changes to how the federal government will provide funding to non-profit groups, businesses and public sector employers that want to hire students.

According to the report, which quickly caught the attention of religious groups, organizations wanting government funding next year through the program must attest they respect, among other things, reproductive rights, sexual orientation and gender expression.

In the explanation for the program, applicants are told that reproductive rights include “the right to access safe and legal abortions.”

The form goes on to say that “the objective of the change it is to prevent Government of Canada funding from flowing” to organizations that don’t respect these rights.

The objective of this change is to “prevent Government of Canada funding from flowing to organizations whose mandates or projects may not respect individual human rights, the values underlying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and associated case law.”

The government also wants to prevent youth “from being exposed to employment within organizations that may promote positions that are contrary” to these rights and values.

The form notes that being “affiliated with a religion does not itself constitute ineligibility for this program.” However, all groups must sign the attestation to be eligible for funding.

Religious Reaction

The reaction from religious organizations was swift and critical.

“We're deeply concerned that this new policy violates the Charter guarantees of religious freedom, thought, belief, opinion, and possibly, association,” says David Guretzki, Executive Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

“It is also contrary to the long tradition of cooperation and collaboration between religious organizations and governments in Canada,” he adds.

The change could have a serious negative impact on the many thousands of Canadians who depend on services from local charities, since many of them are faith-based, he adds.

Barry Bussey, Director of Legal Affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, an umbrella group for 3,300 Christian charities, is also disappointed.

For him, it’s a “a rejection of the legal rights, enshrined in the Charter, that religious communities and individuals hold to express their religious commitments in public service. These rights are relied upon to run private Christian schools, summer camps, soup kitchens and other welfare agencies.”

“I have a problem with that, when the government is making funding subject to whether groups agree with its ideas,” he adds.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is also concerned, and is “trying to see what can be done [about the stipulations] with other like-minded groups,” communications director Deacon RenĂ© Laprise, told the Catholic Register.

The Campaign Life Coalition, a pro-life organization, has initiated a petition opposing the new rules.

On its LifeSite website, senior political strategist Jack Fonseca blasted the government for what he called a “blatant anti-Christian bias.” 
“This is a jaw-dropping act of discrimination against faith-based employers and non-profits,” he stated, noting that it signals a “special contempt for Christians.”
Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, told the Register that Catholic groups must not sign the attestation, “even at the risk of rejection.”

In addition to the effect on religious organizations, concerned was expressed about business owners whose own individual beliefs might make it hard for them to attest to the government’s requirements.

Impact in Manitoba

In 2016, the most recent year for which information is available, at least 138 religious groups in Manitoba received funding from the program to hire 151 students.

Although the groups were mostly Christian, there were also Jewish and Muslim organizations that received funding.

Religious groups that received funding included churches, synagogues, ministries for youth, summer camps, evangelistic groups, thrift stores and senior’s homes.

Among the groups were the Salvation Army, the Manitoba Islamic Association, Union Gospel Mission, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Living Bible Explorers and Calvary Temple.

Part of a Shifting Context

For pollster Angus Reid, the change to the summer jobs grant program is another illustration of the way Canadian society’s view of religion is changing.

Based on surveys of Canadian attitudes towards religion, he says there is a “lack of deep support for religious freedom and religious diversity,” in this country.

A recent survey found a “relatively tepid support for the very concept of religious freedom,” he says, noting that when asked if the freedom to practice beliefs makes Canada a better or worse country, only 55% said “better.”

The result, he says, is that political leaders could “sense an advantage in limiting the special status enjoyed by these organizations,” including in things like limiting their access to government funding.

It could also include restrictions on allowing people to claim a charitable tax exemption for giving to religious organizations, or withdrawing government support for religious schools.

“The fate of religion in Canada ultimately depends on public attitudes,” he says, adding that recent polling shows that 45% of Canadians are against giving religious organizations special tax status.

“The same pattern is evident on opinions about religious schools and about regulations that would curtail the right of religious-based hospitals to opt out of assisted dying,” he says.

It all adds up to religion being slowly squeezed out of the public square, he maintains.

In the not-to-distant past, religious leaders were called upon to help make public policy. Today, he suggests, they are increasingly being “elbowed out of policy debates.”

But instead of just being ignored, now the discussion is about whether “they have any right to be in the public square at all.”

For Reid, a practicing Catholic, this is troubling.

“How far is Canadian society willing to go to allow religious groups to practice their religion as they wish?” he asks.

“This is a new era we’re into,” he states. “Religious groups need to pay attention.”

What does he think religious groups should do? 

They should “come together to lobby government, to tell their own stories” about how they are creating value for Canadians through their various services, he says..

“Right now the narrative is largely being defined by the secular world.”

And if groups can’t come together—then what?

“Then it will be a dark chapter for religious freedom in Canada,” he says.

From the Dec. 30, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Unitarianism: A Place to Believe, Not Believe and Anything In Between

Have you given up on your religion, but still hunger for a spiritual community?

Are you unsure if there is a God, and wonder where to find people who feel the same way?  

Or maybe you’re an atheist—you don’t believe in God at all. But you still want to be with others to debate and discuss the big issues facing the world today.

If you said yes to any of those scenarios, then Winnipeg’s Unitarian Universalist Church would like to welcome you.

“We’re a place where people are encouraged to believe what they want to believe, or not believe at all,” says Reverend Meaghann Robern, minister at the church.

“There’s a mix of beliefs here—no God, one God, a mix of gods,” she adds, noting that member’s beliefs also change over time.

“You don’t have to believe in the same thing the whole of your life,” she says.

Unitarian Universalism—or UU, as adherents refer to it—is a liberal religious tradition that began in 1961 with the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist churches.

Instead of creeds of doctrines, UUs are united by a shared set of seven principles: A belief in human worth and dignity; a commitment to justice and compassion; the acceptance of others; a free search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience; the promotion of peace and justice; and respect for all existence.

In Manitoba, the UU movement traces its origin back to Christian freethinkers in the late 19th century who wanted a more liberal form of religious expression.

The church itself was founded in 1904. They moved into their current building on Wellington Crescent in 1997.

Canada-wide, there are about 3,800 UUs in 46 congregations. In Winnipeg, about 200 people call the local UU church home.

I met three of them a couple of weeks ago.

Lorie Battershill is a retired teacher who has been attending the church for 3 ½ years.

Unlike churches she attended before, Battershill likes how the UU church allows people to “develop their own theology and beliefs and come to whatever conclusions they want in life.”

She became attracted to UU when traditional Christian views about things like heaven and hell didn’t make sense to her anymore. 

She likes that the church is a “place where you can ask questions” about God, yet still feel welcome and accepted.  

Mya James, a high school student, has been attending the church for much of her life. 

“I like the youth group, I feel connected to them,” she says of her decision to attend the church. “This is the most important group in my life. We’re very close.”

As for her own beliefs, she is still figuring out what they are and who she is. “I think I have time,” she says.

Jim Gardiner works for the city of Winnipeg. He has been a member for 12 years.

“This is a safe place, with healthy relationships where people are accepting of others,” he says.

Gardiner grew up in the United Church, but has no hard feelings about it.

“There are people here who felt pushed away by their churches, but not me,” he says.

What he likes about the church is that it is allows people to believe different things.

“There are four people in my family, and we all think differently spiritually,” he says. 

“The community embraces that, and blesses that. It gives us a gift of being able to explore our spirituality.”

When I ask what they call themselves, Battershill says “Christ-follower.” 

Gardiner feels his belief system is a mix of Christianity, Buddhism and Indigenous spirituality. 

Mya prefers being known simply as a UU.

“People here can have multiple identities,” says Robern, noting that while UU came from Christianity, it’s important for her to also share teachings from other religions.

“We’re a community where we practice what it is to be human, to be better human beings, and to heal the world,” she says.

Or, as Gardiner puts it, “the longer I have been here the more my need to put my finger on what exactly I need to believe has decreased, and the more my need to take care of this world and others has increased.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Evangelical: Time to Lose the Label?

For many people today, there is no worse company than Monsanto. In their view, it is the face of corporate evil.

In a 2015 U.S. survey of the most hated businesses, Monsanto ranked fourth from the bottom. People write, blog, do social media and even march against it.

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether Monsanto and its products are as bad as people say. What’s undeniable is the company has an image problem.

And there’s pretty much nothing it can do to change the situation, except maybe one thing: Get rid of the name.

Which is what could happen next year when another major agri-business company, Bayer, will absorb Monsanto.

While they plan to keep its products, word is they plan to eliminate the Monsanto name from the corporate lexicon—in hope of a fresh start.

Something similar is being proposed in the world of religion for another brand in trouble: Evangelicalism.

In an article titled “A Suggestion for Younger Evangelicals: Lose the Label,” Tom Krattenmaker, author of the book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians, writes that the word “evangelical” has to go.  

“I am convinced that ‘evangelical’ no longer means what it once did,” he says.

“And for the Jesus-following religious people it’s supposed to describe, it’s doing more harm than good.”

The original and intended meaning of the word, he notes, is “the good news of the gospel and the life-transforming power of Jesus.”

Created as a counter to the dour fundamentalism of the early 20th century, evangelicalism was a movement of “theological conservatives who smiled, engaged the culture, and were happy to share their faith,” he says.

But all that has changed today.

These days, evangelicals in that country are the scolds, known for their angry criticism of the culture—like getting upset over the lack of a “Merry Christmas” on a Starbucks cup.

But the worst thing is how American evangelicalism has become synonymous with the Republican Party, and for how they supported Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

As a result, Krattenmaker says, for most Americans “the public face of evangelicals has become a snarl, not a smile. And the prospect of interacting with them is the opposite of ‘good news.’”

And that is why he says it’s time to dump the name.

“Given the baggage it’s taken on, the term is probably not salvageable. The effort to redeem it is probably not worth the cost in time and energy.”

Author and evangelical preacher Tony Campolo also feels that way.

According to Campolo, many Americans have come to view evangelicals as "homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, militaristic."

“We're heading in a direction where we can't even use 'evangelical' anymore," he states.

“We need to come up with a new identify, because the identity we have in the general populace, has in fact disintegrated," he states.

But if the word “evangelical” is dropped, what might replace it?

One suggestion is the oldest of all: Christian. 

That's what the 80 year-old Princeton Evangelical Fellowship at Princeton University did. In fall it announced it was changing its name to the Princeton Christian Fellowship.

“We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda,” explains the group’s director, Bill Boyce.

But some, like Ron Sider, President of Evangelicals for Social Action, want to fight to keep the brand alive and vibrant.

“Over time, we can help the larger society come to a better understanding of what an evangelical is,” he says.

Of course, not all evangelicals in America are like those who support Trump and vote Republican. And evangelicals in Canada are very different from their American counterparts.

But many in this country, like in the U.S., don’t distinguish between the two. What tars evangelicals in the U.S. also sticks to them in Canada.

So: Can the name be saved? Maybe, with some deliberate and focused effort. Or perhaps, like with Monsanto, the hill is just too steep to climb and the name has to go.