Friday, October 28, 2005

When Cannibals Say Grace: Getting beyond the “religious” to the “what sort” questions.

The Centre for Faith and Media (CFM) just hosted a national media conference in Ottawa - - “How the Media Cover Religious Pluralism in Canada”. It was a superb event. With papers on diverse topics and involving many of Canada’s leading journalists from radio, print and television, leaders in statistics and various pundits from a variety of groups, discussion was at a high level and the whole thing most engaging; it was a pity some well-known journalists weren’t there; they would have learned a lot and added to the conversation.

The Executive Director of the Calgary based CFM, Richelle Wiseman did well to structure the event along “inter-faith” lines and there were Muslim, Jewish and Christian individuals in attendance as well as assorted atheists and agnostics.

Faith and belief are, after all, something everyone has whether or not they have faith in God or belief in some particular religious claim. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms doesn’t protect “faith” anyway, but speaks of “conscience and religion” (Section 2(a)) and “thought, belief, opinion and expression” (Section 2 (b)) so those who are squeamish about “religion” are just going to have to rethink their squeamishness and work with the categories that exist.

A look at the session topics for the two days indicates the level of thought behind the conference: “Defining Terms: Secularism and Pluralism”; “The Canadian Religious Landscape: How is it Changing?”; “The Religious Beat: What Journalists Need to Cover Religion”; Panels on “Whether Non-Religious Media are Hostile or Indifferent to Religion and Faith Issues” “A Look at Differences North and South of the 49th” ; “Muslims in the Media”; “Evangelicals in the Media”; “Same-Sex Marriage in the Media” and “Media Bias in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”.

Evening and main luncheon addresses were by Arthur Kent (CBC, NBC news correspondent and now award winning documentary producer, Bill Roberts (President and CEO of Vision Television) and Bob Abernethy (PBS correspondent, “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly”). These talks were stimulating and far from the usual “preaching to the choir” milquetoast with which one has become all too saturated.

The panel dealing with whether the non-religious media is hostile to religion had three experienced commentators on it. First, Lois Sweet (author of the important book God in the Classroom) gave a paper and then Joe Woodard (Calgary Herald) and Lloyd Mackey (Hill Times, Ottawa) responded with their own very different perspectives.

It was good to hear these three again and there were some useful exchanges following that session and I’d like to comment on one I was involved in. It is the focus of this blog.

Listening to Lloyd Mackey over the years I have admired his tenacity in raising religious stories from the tough perspective of Parliament Hill in Ottawa with its all too confident assumption that religious stories are irrelevant. From time to time, however, I have been concerned, and told Lloyd so, that he tends to look no further than Christian profession and church attendance to say “the Christian presence is certainly being felt in Ottawa”. It isn’t that easy.

In fact, I asked him, from the safety of a floor microphone, whether he considered that cannibals saying grace before a meal indicates that a good religious thing is going on? This elicited a set of polite giggles from the audience but a not altogether satisfactory response from Mr. Mackey.

The fact is that what we need is not a tabulation of who does or does not profess Christian commitment in Ottawa (which is sadly irrelevant) but what sort of influence on their work their religious beliefs play. Sloppy, ineffective or downright inaccurate articulation is nothing to celebrate.

Consider for a moment how the vast majority of Canadian Prime Ministers in recent decades have trotted out that they are “good Catholics” and then observe how they have played key roles in bringing into law things that serve only to attack the things their beliefs supposedly hold.

In such a setting, we absolutely have to get beyond the “I’m a Catholic” or “I’m a Christian” head-counting in order to see how it is with Ottawa and the Christian faith.

Ask not “Am I a paid up member of my religious denomination?” but “does my religious faith translate into effective argumentation for the common good?”

These are very different questions and the all too common tendency to focus on the first rather than the second has led to an altogether too sanguine view of the place of Christianity in relation to contemporary politics and culture.

For religious believers of all sorts in all walks of life the key task is to understand the nature of the contemporary state, its central terms and why their faiths all too often sit outside the existing systems due to the pre-emptive language exclusions of secularism (i.e. the wrong idea of “the separation of church and state” or “secular” or “faith” or “belief”).

Like kids with their faces pressed against a candy store window, the political ineffectiveness is sad and unnecessary. Conferences like this one will help the problem. It is too bad that more leading religious journalists were not in attendance. Perhaps next time?

CENTREBLOG: Volume 103
Iain T. Benson©