Tuesday, October 30, 2007

It's time to get real about religion and society

A column that appeared in the Sept. 7 edition of The Uniter:

Canadians, without knowing it, were the model of religious tolerance prior to Sept 11 having built a natural resistance to extremism by doing something that may seem strange to many today: embracing religion and belief as legitimate and immovable viewpoints in society. This seems so odd because, in the five years since those horrible events, we've done the exact opposite.

Historically, when compared to the U.S., Canada has had a much lower percentage of population that identify with more fundamentalist views of faith. In particular, the percentages of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians has been many times lower than our Southern neighbors. In Canada, the largest Protestant denominations are the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada, both relatively liberal churches. In the U.S., the largest group is the Southern Baptist Convention, which is quite conservative.

When comparing the histories of evangelical and fundamentalist movements in Canada and the U.S., you see a similarly stark difference. These movements have run through harsh extremes of boom and bust, at times sweeping the nation, and at times being driven underground. During the revivalist years of the early 20th century, mass public congregations were held in the streets of major cities. People were reacting to perceived changes in society that required a complete change of purpose and lifestyle. After the Tennessee vs. Scopes "monkey trial" where evolution won out over a foolish presentation of creationism (even by the movement's own standards), fundamentalist Christianity shamefully sunk into an underground that wouldn't resurface until the 1970s, another period where moral values were apparently going too far astray. During that hiatus, a time where their views were ridiculed and suppressed in the mainstream sphere, they focused, became institutionalized with their own education centres and community organizations, and built a core organizing strength. Ignited by Gerry Fallwell's Moral Majority initiative, fundamentalist Christianity reared its head as a well-entrenched network that was ready and able to capture conservative sentiments of the time and actuate them into political power; from that followed Ronald Reagan.

In Canada, there has been little if any such marginalization, no boom and bust; we've ridden the moderate way. Flashpoints that mark defining moments of decision haven't come to fruition in the same manner. Canada has a liberal tradition that has always been more comfortable with pluralism, and many in Canada do trace heritage to some form of religious group, even if they don't always practice. Without a large and defined government or a public to unite against, fundamentalists never built the architecture that turns religious views into outward activism: no threat, no problem.

This system began to attract attention from countries around the world that were dealing with mass migrations of religious citizens into their countries, such as France and Britain. How was it that we were able to keep fundamentalism at a low? Well, our simple solution was beginning to be heard, and implemented...until Sept 11.

Now, it seems too risky to be tolerant of any views that have anything to do with the views of terrorists. Canada's discourse has not, as it should have, focused ever more on its strength of letting believers believe along side people who didn't believe, feeling no outward, public ire between the two. Religion is now the scary element that threatens a liberal pluralistic way of life: an entirely untrue assumption. It is perceived simply as the illogic that is making the world seem so out of grasp for the logical crowd. Yet, this precious logic isn't seeing the value in a very strategic move back to boldly accepting and embracing faith as our history has dictated.

Canada need not take that deep of a look into its stated values and its past to find a way to, once again, be the leader in combating terrorism and its root, extremism. Embracing different religions and ways of life...is that not near the definition of multiculturalism?

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