Saturday, October 12, 2019

Why So Little Attention Paid to Religion During Elections? Two Scholars Weigh In.

The best thing about being a religion reporter is being able to interview smart people like Kevin Flatt and John Stackhouse, like I did when I recently asked them for reflections on why religion is getting so little attention from the political parties during this election (2019).

The worst thing about it is not being able to use all the great information they give me—like with my Oct. 12 Free Press column about the lack of attention being paid to religion in the current election. So I’ve reprinted here what they shared with me on that topic. Enjoy!

Kevin is an Associate Professor of History and Department Chair, History, Politics, and International Studies, at Redeemer University College.

John is Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies & Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University.

First up, thoughts from Kevin about why we aren’t hearing much about religion during this election. Could it be partly the fault of the media?

“First, one of the main factors shaping news coverage is the attitudes and inclinations of journalists, who, as a group, tend to be fairly irreligious and rather uncomfortable with overt displays of religion in political arena, especially conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic), which is the variety most likely to be politically significant in Canada.

“In fact, on average, journalists are one of the most politically and socially liberal groups in Canada, and one of the least religious, which shapes what they collectively see as important and worthy of attention, and whether religious elements in politics are framed negatively or positively.

“This is turn shapes the views of the electorate and the messaging of politicians with a net effect of suppressing overt discussion of issues linked to religion and a ‘closeting’ of any conservative religious views that might have political implications.

“(Witness all of the suspicion directed at Scheer for his views on moral issues, the relative silence about Trudeau's politically inert progressive Catholicism, and May's embarrassed backtracking after she mentioned Jesus in an interview.)

“Scheer's views raise red flags for journalists, but Trudeau and May get free passes, as does Singh, for somewhat different reasons.

“For some empirical research on these topics, see David M. Haskell's book
Through a Glass Darkly: How the News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals (Clements Academic, 2009) The book is now a decade old, but I'd bet good money that the main findings would still apply today. Similar conclusions have been reached by research in the U.S.

“Second, there are certainly fewer religiously active Canadians today than in, say, the 1950s, and partly as a result we don't see religion functioning as a kind of politically potent identity group the way it did a century ago in Protestant-Catholic tensions (which overlapped with English-French tensions) and resulted in a tendency for Protestants and Catholics to align along party lines.

“Other identities—region, language, urban/rural, immigrants vs. native-born, economic situation, education level—generally seem to be more important when it comes to many political issues.

“Third, it would be a mistake, however, to conclude that religion is irrelevant in Canadian politics.

“For one thing, the religiously unaffiliated (especially atheists) are in fact a ‘religious group,’ in the sense that their worldview and values affect their political choices just as is the case for Canadians engaged in a traditional religion.

“Political choices typically come down to being choices about values, and the hierarchy of values; thus, since worldviews (whether religious or secular) shape people's values they will always be politically relevant.

“This is especially so when it comes to explicitly religious issues: you can bet that religion is playing an important role in provincial politics in Quebec right now, for example, with religious minorities alienated from the governing party by Bill 21 and the deeply secular majority energized.

“But it is also true for other issues where there are deep worldview-based divides in the Canadian electorate: abortion, some sexuality issues, educational choice and parental rights, etc.

“Again, the true range of opinions and depth of disagreement among the electorate on these issues is often obscured by the high level of secular-progressive consensus among most mainstream journalists (on this, see Jonathan Kay's recent piece on the lack of substantive discussion of abortion in Canadian elections).

“This mutes the political effect of such divisions and drives it underground, but does not eliminate it. And the right confluence of circumstances can bring it to the fore.

“Fourth, my impression is that religion has actually become a stronger driver of partisan alignment in recent decades. John Stackhouse says evangelicals and conservative Catholics don't agree even among themselves on many political issues, and that is true. But they agree more than they used to, both within these groups and between them.

“Research done by the Evangelical Fellowship in the 1990s found that the distribution of the evangelical vote across the parties was not that different from the general vote distribution, albeit with a slight conservative lean.

“But more recent research seems to suggest that conservative religious views are now a much stronger predictor of voting Conservative, and religious non-affiliation a stronger predictor of voting for left-leaning or progressive parties.

“This may reflect a consolidation of views among evangelicals and conservative Catholics, but I think more likely it reflects the fact that since the 1990s that Liberals have taken harder and harder progressive lines on several social issues.

"In the 1990s, you had pro-life Liberal MPs and Liberal MPs (and leaders) opposed to same-sex marriage; today, neither of these views are even acceptable in the party, and in the past few years Liberal governments seem to have been working to eliminate such views from respectable society at large (e.g. the Canada Summer Jobs debacle, the Wynne sex-ed curriculum in Ontario).

“And of course the NDP takes an equally hard line on these issues (the Greens have been a bit more gentle, though their preferences are clear).

"I’ve heard from many evangelical and Catholic voters, who used to vote Liberal or NDP . . .  that they feel like the only party that where they would even be welcome as supporters is the Conservatives. This isn't so much because they prefer the Conservatives in terms of fiscal policy, health care, etc., but because of rhetoric and policies related to abortion, education, identity issues, etc.

“Again, something quite similar has happened in the US with Republicans and Democrats, though there of course are other things going on there that don't apply in Canada.

“Fifth, and finally, given that immigrants to Canada tend to be much more religiously committed than other Canadians (interestingly, a plurality of them are Christians, typically with quite conservative religious views), and large-scale immigration seems likely to continue and probably increase for the foreseeable future, there is going to be a potential for religious dynamics to play an important political role in our large urban centres.

“This is anecdotal, but I've heard that enrollment at private Muslim and Christian schools in the Toronto area has skyrocketed since the Wynne sex-ed curriculum was introduced into the public schools (subsequently largely kept in place by Ford's government).

“Folks who are willing to make the major financial sacrifices to put their kids into private schools that reflect their religious values because they feel unwelcome in the public schools are also at least potentially willing to have those values shape their voting patterns. This may be a significant political liability for the Liberals and NDP moving forward, though it would be a very tricky thing for the Conservatives to capitalize on it.”

Next up, John suggesting another reason religion gets so little attention at voting time is because there isn't a religious bloc politicians need to cater to. 

“Religion isn’t discussed by politicians in Canada . . . not because it doesn’t matter, but because it does.

"It matters in two respects, in fact.

“First, religion matters to religious people, of which there is a significant minority in Canada, but different sorts of religious people want different things from politics and political parties, including people within the same religious traditions.

“For instance, churchgoing evangelical Protestants and Catholics take their religion seriously, but have no uniform views on most key issues.

“There isn’t a single evangelical or Catholic policy position on global climate change or indigenous issues or child poverty or overstretched education and health regimes—so there’s literally no point mentioning them or appealing to them as blocs, since they aren’t blocs.

“Second, religion matters to nonreligious people because many of them fear that religious people are fanatics determined to force everyone else to conform to their peculiar preferences, whether shariah or dominionism or conservative Catholicism or whatever.

“Therefore, since there is nothing to be gained by appealing to religious communities in toto—since they don’t agree on policy issues and therefore can’t be expected to line up with this or that party on this or that issue—there is much to be lost by appealing to one or another of them.

“(Witness how many people get jumpy whenever the Conservatives come within a mile of appealing to traditional Christians). For this reason, Canadian politicians steer clear of religion.

“I don’t think the absence of explicit religious language or appeals to religious people is a mark of secularism, or indifference, but of remarkable political pluralism within religious groups and anxiety among the non-religious.”

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Hidden Life No More? New Movie Coming About Austrian Conscientious Objector and Martyr Franz Jägerstätter

Many people know about Claus Von Stauffenberg, the German officer who led an unsuccessful plot to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944.

After the attempt failed, he and other plotters, including theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were arrested and executed.

Some know about Sophie and Hans Scholl, two German university students who were motivated by their Roman Catholic beliefs to oppose the Nazis regime.

Together with some other university students, they created the White Rose movement, publishing leaflets expressing their opposition to the regime.

They were arrested by the Gestapo and executed in 1943, along with four other members of the group. 

We know about these people because of the many movies, books and documentaries that have been made (including the 2008 movie Valkyrie, with its controversial selection of actor Tom Cruise to play Von Stauffenberg.)

But scant attention has been paid to Franz Jägerstätter. But with a new movie about him by Terrance Malick coming out in December, that should change.

Jägerstätter, who was born in 1907, was an Austrian Roman Catholic who found Nazism incompatible with his Catholic faith. When he was called up to military service in 1943, he declared himself a conscientious objector—despite being warned by friends that he was throwing his life away.

As they predicted, he was arrested and thrown in prison. But he was undeterred.
From his cell, he wrote: “I can easily see that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the Nazi Folk community, and is also unwilling to comply with all the demands of its leaders, will thereby forfeit the rights and privileges offered by that nation.” 

But, he went on to say, “it is not much different with God: He who does not obey all the commandments set forth by him and his Church, and who is not ready to undergo sacrifices and to fight for his kingdom either—such one loses every claim and every right under that kingdom.”

Anyone could be both a Nazi and a Christian, he added, “would be a great magician . . . I, for one, cannot do so. And I definitely prefer to relinquish my rights under the Third Reich and thus make sure of deserving the rights granted under the kingdom of God.”

On August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter was executed—beheaded—leaving behind a wife and three children. He was 36 years-old.

In June, 2007, the Vatican declared him a martyr. On October 26 that same year he was beatified in Linz, Austria. His feast day is May 21.

Jägerstätter's comments, written from his prison cell long ago, still speak to people today about the need to take stands against repressive and tyrannical governments—and their wars. 

“Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal Kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there,” he wrote.

"Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons—and the foremost among these is prayer.”

More information about A Hidden Life, Terrance Malick’s movie about Franz Jägerstätter can be found here.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Geez! Celebrating Aiden Enns and the End of an Era in Winnipeg

Winnipeggers gathered to say thanks to Aiden Enns on May 25—thanks for a job well done in creating Geez, a magazine described as protesting the "unholy alliance between church, state, market and military" that also celebrated the "spiritual dimensions of biking, energy efficiency and canning pickles."

This year Enns gave up the magazine to a new group of editors based in Detroit, as I wrote about in the Winnipeg Free Press in January.

In fact, it was my privilege to write about Geez three times, including being (I think) the first mainstream journalist to write about the magazine soon after its creation in 2005 (in the Winnipeg Free Press and Mennonite World Review).

Five years along, I had a chance to check in and see where things were at with the magazine. Helpfully, the editors of Geez posted a copy of my article in the Free Press on their website.

Together, the three articles offer a snapshot of the beginning, middle and end of Geez (in Winnipeg.)

Like Aiden, I’m sorry Geez never reached the level where it could be financially sustainable. Creating a publication is hard! He’s to be commended for taking it this far, and all the best to the new owners in Detroit as they look to take it into the future.

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Mystery of Titanic Proportions

I wrote this column in 2011, when I still worked downtown.

Every weekday morning, when I go to work, I am confronted by the mystery of life.

My life, to be precise.

It happens when I get off the bus downtown and pass by the Titanic posters at the MTS Centre Exhibition Hall.

For many, the photos of the great ship are just that: photos. For me, it prompts a deeper question: Why am I alive?

It's not an academic exercise; if not for a missed reservation for passage on the doomed ship, I might not be alive today.

The story goes like this. In 1911, my grandfather, also named John Longhurst, emigrated from England to Canada. Like many other emigrants starting a new life in a new country, he left behind his fiancée, Alice Bond—my grandmother.

The plan was for him to become established in Canada, then return to England so they could marry.

Early in 1912, he came back and they were married. Apparently, John was a bit of a romantic; he wanted to do something special for his new bride. And what could be more special than booking a honeymoon passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic?

But he was too late; the ship was full. Instead, he made a reservation on the SS Megantic, arriving in Quebec City six weeks later.

Passenger list from the Megantic, June 4, 1912; John
& Alice Longhurst are 6th & 7th from the bottom.

Had he been in time to book passage on the Titanic, it is likely that one, or both, would have died.

Because of a missed reservation, I am alive.

When it comes to averted tragedy, most people don't have a story as dramatic as the Titanic. But everyone can recall near misses of one sort or another, times when the course of our lives could have been completely altered,  or ended.

When that happens, many people offer thanks to God, Allah, Jehovah, their lucky stars or whatever universal power they believe in.

But sometimes another thought creeps in: Did a higher power really help us avoid that tragedy? Was it all planned to happen that way, right from the beginning? Or was it just luck or blind chance?

In my case, did God know the Titanic was going to sink, and so prevented my grandfather from getting a ticket on the doomed ship? Did he have a plan that involved not only John and Alice, but also my father, myself and my kids—all the way down the line?

And if that's the case, why did he keep John and Alice off the doomed liner, but allow so many others to sail away to their deaths?

Those are big questions on weekday mornings, especially before the first cup of coffee. And I'm not sure I have good answers.

One person who has given this a lot of thought is Bruce Epperly, a process theologian and author of the book Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.

In a nutshell, process theologians like Epperly believe God does not, and cannot, fully determine the experience of any person on the planet.

In this view, God does not determine the most important details of our lives. Instead, the future is as open for God as it is for us; neither knows exactly what will happen next.

For Epperly, this doesn't diminish God. Instead, it makes God "more alive, creative, and active than a God who has chosen the future in its entirety. A God to whom new things happen can respond to our prayers in ways that make a difference, operating within the causal relationships of the natural world."

This is an "open-source, open-system vision of the universe in which God and the world exist in a dynamic, growing and evolving partnership," he adds.

If Epperly is right, this means God didn't ordain for the Titanic to hit an iceberg and sink that terrible night in April 1912.

He didn't plan for John and Alice not to be able to get passage on the liner, nor for all those people to die.

God may not even have known the ship would sink at all.

Epperly's view is not conventional. But it's catching on as more Christians wrestle with the issue of suffering and pain in the world.

Is everything preordained, from beginning to end? Or are we, in Epperly's words, engaged in a dynamic relationship with God where we both react to events, both good and bad?

I certainly don't have answers to those questions. All I know is when I get off the bus each morning and see those photos of the doomed ship, I face a mystery of Titanic proportions.

From the July 23, 2011 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

May 2-3 Symposium in Winnipeg to Explore Past, Present and Future of Canadian Christian Journalism

Broadcaster Lorna Dueck to deliver opening address at free public forum, May 2

What was the state of Christian journalism at the turn of the millennium? What is it like today? What will happen to it in the future?

Those are questions that will be explored the Legacies and Learnings: A ChristianWeek Symposium, May 2-3 at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

During the Symposium, speakers and panelists will discuss the role played by ChristianWeek, a newspaper that existed in print from 1987-2014, in reporting about the church in Canada during that time; the state of Christian journalism today; and the landscape facing Christian journalists and communicators in the future.

Speakers are:

Lorna Dueck, well-known Christian broadcaster and commentator, CEO of Yes TV and host of Context with Lorna Dueck, speaking on the topic: Legacies and Learnings: Considering the Past, Present, and Future of Faith-based Media in Canada.

Gerry Bowler, a former professor of history at the University of Manitoba, speaking on the topic The Curious Case of ChristianWeek: A Brief History of a Medium that Mattered

And Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, addressing the issue of the future of faith in Canada through the topic None of the Above: Having No Religion in Canada.

Members of Canadian Church Press and the Anglican Editors Association will be holding their conventions in conjunction with the Symposium. 

"During its time in print, ChristianWeek made an important contribution to the church in Canada, reporting the good and the bad, always seeking to provide an honest look at how God was working in this country," says former editor Doug Koop and one of the Symposium's organizers.

"ChristianWeek still exists today online, and is still a window on faith in Canada. The question facing all of us is, what's the best way for it, and for other church publications and communicators, to be that window in the future? That's what we want to explore together."

The Symposium starts May 2, 7 PM with an open public forum with keynote speaker Lorna Dueck, and continues all day, May 3, at CMU, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg. 

The Symposium is made possible by support from Canadian Mennonite University, ChristianWeek and individual supporters across Canada.

Cost of the Symposium is $75 by April 15 ($85 after), including lunch on May 3 and breaks. Click here for registration information.  

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Religious Humour Goes Overboard with Comic Strip


On March 16 my regular Winnipeg Free Press column featured Man Martin, 59, the artist behind the religiously-themed Man Overboard comic. Since I couldn’t share everything he told me in those few words, here’s the transcript of my interview—replete with panels from the comic. Enjoy!

Tell me about yourself.

I am a novelist and high school English teacher living in Atlanta, Georgia.

What's your religious background?

I’m Episcopalian.

Are you a churchgoer?

Yes.  I like to call myself a “practicing Christian,” which implies that I still haven’t gotten it right, but I’m not done trying.

How important is faith to you?

It’s becoming more important as I age; nevertheless, I’ll confess my faith is about as weak as a reed. I struggle with it, and anticipate I'll keep on struggling, which is why it so often forms a theme in my cartoons.

What's your background as a cartoonist?

I realized my childhood ambition to be a syndicated cartoonist in the 1980s when Universal Press picked up my comic strip “Sibling Revelry.”  It appeared in a grand total of 36 papers until its demise.

Following that, I turned to writing fiction. It was decades before I began cartooning again.

When did you start Man Overboard?

About three years ago.  Originally, it was titled, “Inkwell Forest,” and was to be a conventional fairy-tale themed comic strip.  

When it finally sank in that the newspaper comic strip was heading the way of the dodo and the northern white rhino, I cut loose and began drawing about whatever interested me instead of worrying about trying to be commercial.

Why did you start the comic?

For years I’d been having intermittent dreams about drawing a comic strip, and would wake up thinking, “Maybe it’s time to do another strip.”  Then I’d say, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” Finally, I acted on my dreams and it’s been a delightful experience.

What or who are your influences for the comic?

Charles Schulz was my first love, but I think I’m very influenced by Jules Feiffer, R O Blechman, and Shel Silverstein.  

My mother always said I drew like James Thurber because most of the time my characters don’t have hair and ears seem more like an optional accessory. So I’d have to say Thurber too.

Do you do it for fun or to make money off it?

I just want to have fun and hopefully provide fun for others. I released a book, “Not Easy Being God,” last year, but so far that’s been my only attempt to monetize.  

The strip is available for free on Facebook, my blog (, and through email subscription. (Text OVERBOARD to 22828.)

It's more than a hobby and less than a career.  It's something I do.

What is the response?

People like it, and really makes me happy to see them share it on Facebook.  My fan base is growing, which is very rewarding.

You live if in the Bible Belt, then darn close to it. They take Christianity seriously down there. What's the reaction to the way you portray God, Jesus, the church and Christianity?

I live on the veritable buckle of the Bible Belt; oddly, though, no one has ever taken offense at my religious-themed cartoons.  

When they have taken offense, it’s been when I’ve attempted political humor.

Though sometimes I hurt others’ sensibilities, I never set out to, and it’s painful to get an email or message that such and such a cartoon rubbed someone the wrong way.  

Nevertheless, the only audience I’m beholden to is myself, and whatever strikes me as interesting, funny, or worth commenting on Tuesday morning is likely to show up in a cartoon on Wednesday.

Sometimes I may offend the reader, and for that, I apologize in advance, but if I have to avoid certain subjects for fear of crossing the line, then it just isn’t fun for me, and if it isn’t fun, what’s the point.

How did you come up with your image of God in the comic? (A play on the eye and pyramid in U.S. currency)

I chose it, because as images of God go, it is by far the weirdest and most preposterous. Showing God as a white guy with a beard isn’t nearly as goofy as showing Him as a one-eyed pyramid.  And when you’re a cartoonist, goofy trumps all.

Do people criticize you for how you draw God? Or Jesus?

Again, no one’s found fault, as far as I know, with the way I depict God, Mary, and Jesus. Indeed, some of my most loyal fans are clergy. I guess if you get the joke and see it’s all in fun, you stop and read.  If not, you skip over it.

Your comic assumes some knowledge of Christianity, biblical literacy, theology and history. Is that a challenge today when so few people know the Bible?

Maybe this is what accounts for peoples’ fondness for the cartoon. In an era when organized religion is on the decline, it’s reassuring for people of faith to see cartoons about subject matter uniquely familiar to them.

You are also critical of the church. Why? And what's the reaction?

For me, one of the great themes of Christianity is the astonishing way people just don’t get it.  Jesus can explain something in words of one syllable to his disciples, and they’re all standing around in slack-jawed stupefaction as they try to figure out what he meant.  

Right from the get-go, the early church began to break into schisms arguing about such earth-shaking trivia as whether bread can be flesh or if Mary was a virgin only when she conceived Jesus, or if she kept on being a virgin after that.  

This unfortunate tendency of losing sight of the main point is not reserved to theologians, disciples, and other crackpots; every Sunday, I am reminded there are two laws—only two—love God and love your neighbor, and every Sunday I’m back in church needing forgiveness all over again because I couldn’t do those two simple things.

You also take on consumerism, the environment, and ultimate meaning. Why?

Because those things are interesting to me and rife with absurdity.  The funniest material is mined from the most serious topics. As Flannery O’Connor said, “things are funny because they’re terrible, and terrible because they’re funny.”

Where do you get your ideas for religious ideas from? 

Same place everyone gets their religious ideas: personal experience, worship, scripture. The only difference is that in my case, religious ideas come out funny.

What, for you, is the role of humour and comics in communicating about faith?

I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea humor has a "role" in anything.  It seems to make humor subservient to some other purpose.  Humor needs no such excuse.  If it makes you laugh, grimace, or grunt, that's good enough for me.  Humor brings delight, what else would we ask from it?  It just so happens, our notions about God and spirituality are a wonderful source of humorous material.

Is there any topic you won't touch? (In the religious sphere.)

Telling a cartoonist there's a topic he can't touch is like wearing a sign that says, "Don't kick me."  As soon as I know something is out of bounds, I'm bound to go there.

How does the polarized political climate in the U.S. today affect your work? (

Sometimes I dip my toe into political humor, usually not very adeptly and sometimes to the actual pain of friends and loved ones. 

When I go to heaven, if there is such a place, and I meet God, if there is such a being, She's going to say she planted me during the most preposterous era of US politics, and She's going to demand to know what I, as a cartoonist, did with this wonderful opportunity. 

If my answer is "Nothing," I won't be able to meet her gaze. So from time to time, come hell or high water, I will do political humor.  Again, it's not my best work.  But the target is too big and juicy.