I have a recurring dream. In it, five of Canada’s best leaders speak with heart that their dedication to the public good and their courage to stand by it comes from their religious faith / spirituality.
They would have spent some time thinking about this question. I can name a few that I would like to hear: MP Rob Oliphant of the United Church of Canada, Governor General Mary Simon of Inuit Spirituality, Prime Minister Trudeau of the Catholic tradition of social justice, the Minister of National Defense Anita Anand, who is a devout Hindu, and Minister of the Family Ahmed Hassen of Islam.
I have long thought that religious values play a big role in societies. But an initial public discussion about them is not seen as polite, nor relevant to today’s issues. The modern feeling is that religious opinions are private. An open discussion about them would lead to polarization and division. Thus, a large and important cultural space is left empty. And we are the poorest.
Newspapers employed religious editors, universities had departments to study them all. But now, conversations about the values that underlie behaviors are too explosive to encourage. Classes on world religions in secondary schools are uneven and often taught by unqualified teachers. A qualified teacher would have extensive training and an attitude of critical appreciation.
This deficit of modern democracies, this generalized religious illiteracy, leaves a lot of room for extremism, the worst face of religion. Take a look at the American case. The separation of Church and State is claimed, but in the absence of civil and moderate exchanges, where learning and understanding are paramount, the discourse has been hijacked by the far right. Madness abounds, as in the case of vaccinations, conspiracy theories and wickedness. All religion has a bad reputation.
If we had more religiously educated citizens, including those who belong to none, we could have a civil debate on whether public funding of Catholic schools serves the common good and whether property and property income from churches, synagogues, mosques and temples should be subject to tax, and whether a teacher can wear a hijab.
I recently saw a provocative remark: “In the early days of Palestine, Christianity was a community of believers. Then it moved to Greece and became a philosophy. Then he moved to Rome and became an institution. Then it moved to Europe and became a culture. Then it moved to America and became a business.
There weren’t enough people who knew the basic teachings to prevent this sad trajectory, but it is worth studying.
Religion, says Daniel Maguire of Marquette University, has “renewable moral power.” When we are trying to create a good society, we need this moral power. One of the best Canadian public voices on religion has been that of Michael Coren of Toronto. Now an Anglican priest, he speaks frankly of his conversion to progressive values.
In Glasgow, during the climate conference, the international ecumenical religious community was very present. They led prayer vigils, were members of official delegations, joined marches, handed over petitions, spoke on panels and held side events. The Pope sent a powerful message, following his brilliant letter “Laudato Si” five years ago. Ahead of the meeting, 40 other religious leaders launched an unprecedented, suspended, framed appeal between the main plenary halls of the Scottish site. It was written “United for our Sacred Land”.
Eighty-five percent of the world’s population belong to a religion. Help in this great challenge of the climate crisis will come from them, activated by their different faiths.
We call on national media networks to facilitate such a conversation. It would inspire listeners, increase respect for our diversity, and perhaps even improve politics.
At the local level, we would like to hear from those who lead very generous lives and can explain why. Say, Reem Ali, Drew Monkman, Sheila Howlett, Larry Gillman and Jim Russell.