Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

Review of
Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder
(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012)

The Heterodox Yoder has its origins in Martens’ graduate work at Notre Dame. Since then, the author has been teaching Christian ethics at Baylor University.

In this book, Martens attempts a survey and reinterpretation of John Howard Yoder’s writings. Martens departs from some standard and sympathetic interpretations of Yoder’s work by scholars like Craig Carter and Mark Thiessen-Nation. Martens faults these standard accounts of Yoder for focusing mainly on his classic texts, The Politics of Jesus, and Witness to the State. In defending his critical assessment of Yoder, Martens makes a point to take all Yoder’s writings into account. Though still somewhat sympathetic with Yoder, and admitting his indebtedness to him, Martens uncovers a trajectory in Yoder’s thought which he finds troublesome, and ultimately leads him to label Yoder as heterodox.

Martens’ criterion for orthodoxy is “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” (p.2). Traditional interpreters of Yoder would argue that the central thrust of Yoder’s writings was precisely to preserve “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ against the acids of Constantinianism, modernity, or any number of other threats to Christianity” (p.2). Martens begs to differ.

In his introduction Martens suggests that a good way to understand Yoder’s lack of orthodoxy is to examine his way of doing theology as found in his Preface to Theology (2002). In this work, Yoder outlines different modes of doing theology, and specifically rejects the mode of “dogmatic theology” which he defines as “the interpretation of the statements made by or implied in the classic Christian creeds” (p.2). Instead, Yoder adopts the mode of “historical theology” which is concerned with how Christian convictions came into being. His approach to doing theology throughout his corpus is “inductive and historical,” watching how theology evolved in the early Christian church (filtered through the sixteenth-century Anabaptists), and from that drawing conclusions about how to do theology (p.3). This sounds like an “Is-Ought Fallacy” to me, and Yoder’s historicism has all the marks of full-blown relativism. But I won’t pursue these philosophical points here.

So, yes, Yoder wants to affirm the particularity of Jesus Christ as affirmed by the early church, but his anti-creedal and historicizing approach leads to a radical reinterpretation of the theology of the early church primarily in ethical or political terms. Indeed, “the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a form of secular sociology (at worst)” (pp. 3-4). This, according to Martens is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this unorthodox interpretation of Jesus has been very influential in the Mennonite church today, as I will suggest by way of conclusion later.

Throughout his writings, Yoder wrestles with the question of how Christians relate to and witness to the world (p.12). Indeed, as Martens observes, Yoder is haunted by the charge of sectarianism and his desire to make the gospel relevant and communicable becomes “overriding and, at times, obsessive” (p.139). At one point he suggests the use of “middle axioms” which help to translate the gospel message into language that the world will understand (p.75). But he finds problems with this approach, and in the end middle axioms are rendered obsolete (p.136). Indeed, we already see the shape of his final thinking in his earlier book, The Christian Witness to the State (1964), where “the implicit witness of the church is elevated to direct witness” (p. 136). Then in The Politics of Jesus (1972), the gospel of Jesus is translated into political language, language that the world already understands.

By the end of his writings, Yoder is no longer worried about the church communicating a message, according to Martens. Instead, gospel witness has been transformed into the church itself being witness by virtue of its modelling a new political reality. No need for evangelism! The medium is the message (p. 136). In his “New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm” (1997), Yoder says “actions proclaim.” Again in a later work, “First fruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People” (1997), Yoder introduces the sacraments as “marks of the church” that make evident the unity of the message and medium of the first Christians. But, by the end of this essay, Marten’s argues, the sacraments are no longer marks or attributes of the church but “sample civil imperatives” (p.137). For example, baptism is no longer discussed as “a sign of [a believer’s] cleansing from sin,” but as a reconciliation between Jew and Gentle, male and female, etc.. In other words, baptism is fundamentally about the political ideal of egalitarianism (p. 137). The eucharist is all about socialism. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit now functions as the ground floor of democracy (p. 138). Thus essential elements of Christian faith and practice get translated into thoroughly secular terms, which of course the world does understand.

So, what is the culmination of decades of theological and ethical reflection on the part of Yoder? We end up with “a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm” (p.142). Indeed, Yoder falls in line with modern theologians who have reduced the gospel to a secular ethic – Kant, Harnack, Ritschle, and Rauschenbusch (p. 142). What is so misleading is that the language of Yoder and some of these theologians often “seems” orthodox. They use the same concepts as orthodox Christians, but the meaning has changed in a fundamental way. Christ as Lord and Savior is translated into political terms, and no longer refers to a person’s inner transformation and willingness to be make Christ king of his or her life. Key dimensions of orthodoxy, such as spiritual development, divine mystery, propositional confessions of faith, “are as important as wrapping paper” which can be thrown away once the package itself is opened, to use Yoder’s own metaphor (p.144). Martens does not want to call Yoder a heretic, though he admits that Yoder was openly critical of orthodoxy and worked hard to differentiate himself from its concerns and claims (p.144). Instead Martens chooses the softer term, “heterodox,” though in my opinion there is very little difference between being heterodox and being heretical.

Reading Martens’ critique of Yoder has raised two questions for me, that I believe merit further research. First, to what extent has the Mennonite church today been influenced by Yoder? Martens doesn’t really pursue this question. I certainly found Martens’ survey of Yoder’s thought helpful in understanding trends within some segments of the Mennonite church today. All too often I hear the gospel being largely reduced to political and social causes. Like Yoder, many in the Mennonite church seem to be embarrassed about using biblical language to describe sin and salvation. We are so preoccupied with being relevant, with being understood in today’s society that we like to secularize biblical language. Jesus is no longer a divine Saviour who died for our sins, but a moral teacher and an inspiring example to follow. We prefer to talk about sexual health rather than the biblical commandments regarding sex. The “spirit of God” is reduced to a democratic majority vote! We are embarrassed about evangelism as proclamation. Like Yoder we have made the medium the message. Our actions are supposed to convey our message. The creeds are not important – we like to question them.(1) Like Yoder, many Mennonites today see them as mere wrapping paper to be discarded at our convenience. And thus we have confessional anarchy in the Mennonite Church today. Martens suggests that Yoder would have been comfortable with the label, heterodox (p. 144). Many Mennonites today would seem to view being heterodox as a badge of honor. We are Yoder’s disciples, it would seem.

If the above analysis is true, if Yoder has influenced the Mennonite church more than we realize, then we need to pay attention to Martens’ suggestion that the trajectory of Yoder’s thinking has led us in a direction which “can cripple and corrupt Christianity in very troubling ways” (p.147). And this leads to my second question. Are we as a Mennonite church open to hearing this prophetic voice in the church? Will Paul Martens’ critique of Yoder be read and carefully considered? Will we pay attention to other writers who have provided warnings about the direction of Yoder’s thought? Martens himself identifies two such writers, A. James Reimer and Tom Finger, the former arguing that Yoder essentially ignored “theological orthodoxy,” and the latter that Yoder almost uniformly eliminates any form of the transcendent from his theology (p. 143). Are we listening?

In a footnote Martens refers to another essay that created quite a stir in Mennonite circles – Steve Dintaman’s 1992 short essay, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” (p.147).(2) Martens refers to this essay in the context of reflecting on his own experience of eventually recognizing the dangers of reducing the Christian faith “into just another form of ethics or series of practices” (p.147). Martens expresses long-standing sympathy with Dintaman’s analysis of the spiritual impoverishment that results from a Yoderian interpretation of the Christian faith. This prompted me to reread Dintaman’s essay as well as a series of follow-up essays published three years later.(3) Dintaman expresses surprise at the volume and the intensity of positive responses his earlier essay generated. He received some eighty letters, in addition to phone calls, personal visits, and letters to the editor in the magazines which carried his essay.(4) Of course, there were also negative reactions, afraid that Dintaman’s critique rested on “a total embrace of Luther and/or pietism and/or evangelicalism.” (5) But perhaps, as Dintaman himself suggests, there is another way – a marriage of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism. That is surely at the heart of the Evangelical-Anabaptist networks that are currently forming in North America. Are we listening to the prophetic voices in the Mennonite church today?

1. See my essay, “Question-focused Christian faith” on my blog,
1. Dintaman’s essay appeared in: The Conrad Grebel Review 10 (Spring 1992): 205-208; Mennonite Reporter, Oct. 19, 1992, 8; Gospel Herald, Feb. 23, 1993, 1-3; Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 5, 1993, 6-7; The Mennonite, May 11, 1993, 11-12.
3. “Revisiting ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,’” The Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995): 1-22. The essays here are written by Steve Dintaman, J. Loren Peachey, editor of the Gospel Herald, Richard Showalter, president, Rosedale Bible Institute, and Mitchell Brown, pastor, Evanston Mennonite Church.
4. Ibid., p. 2, 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.


A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. 500 pages, Paperback

The title of Jonathan Haidt’s book is well chosen. This is a book that touches on ethical reasoning, political analysis, and religious faith. There is, however, an ambiguity in the main title. The “righteous mind” can refer either to a mind that thinks about that which is right, or it can refer to a self-righteous or dogmatic mind. Haidt intends both meanings. The overall thrust of this book is to explain how and why liberals and conservatives are so divided about politics and religion, and also how this divide can be overcome. What is missing from title of this book is that it is written from the perspective of evolutionary social psychology.

As a philosopher, I found Part I of this book most intriguing – “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.” Haidt is here challenging much of the history of philosophy that presumes that we are fundamentally rational creatures. For example, Plato assumed that reason ought to control the passions. This kind of thinking was reinforced during the Enlightenment which postulated a universal and objective reason. According to Haidt, we are not as rational as we think we are. We are governed more by intuition and instinct than by reason. Here we must be careful not to see intuition and instinct as inferior to reason. Both are “cognitive” according to Haidt. There are two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. Intuition refers to the hundreds of rapid, effortless decisions and moral judgments that we all make every day (p.53). Many of these are automatic. Only some of them surface as full-blown emotional responses.

Haidt provides a useful illustration to help us understand these two kinds of cognition. He first used this analogy his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Try to imagine a rider on a huge elephant. The rider symbolizes the rational part of human nature, our controlled processes, including “reasoning-why.” The large and lumbering elephant stands for the automatic processes of human nature, including emotion, intuition and all forms of “seeing-that” (p. 53). For Haidt, it is our automatic processes that run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years (p. 53).

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and can therefore help the elephant make better decisions. More importantly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (p.54). In evolutionary terms, once human beings developed language and began to communicate with each other, “it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” (p. 54). So, the rider serves the elephant. Reason is the servant of intuition. “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president” (p.106).

I think Haidt has got it right. We are not as rational as we think we are. We approach many new situations or new ideas with our minds already made up. This has huge implications for how we think about education, or how we think about influencing or persuading others, a subject that I have been preoccupied with for much of my career. We need to pay much more attention to the way in which our thinking is shaped by non-rational influences – social media, movies, culture, propaganda. We seldom change our minds because of rational persuasion. As Haidt puts it, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” (p. 57). At a personal level, we influence people more by displaying warmth and empathy than by rational argument.

Haidt’s analysis is also helpful in understanding churches. Every church has a distinctive culture that is simply a given. It is this pervasive church culture that determines not only the atmosphere of the church but also the decisions it makes. Decisions are largely made automatically in light of the culture of the church. It is very hard to challenge the culture of the church and the decisions that come out of such a culture. Rational persuasion is really of little value. Here again, one needs to learn how to talk to the large and lumbering elephant. Contrary positions need to be expressed with gentleness, and love, and prayer, and with lots of patience. Maybe over time, over a long period of time, one might bring about a small shift in church culture.

Our moral judgments too are not fundamentally rational in nature, according to Haidt. Here he draws on eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, who argues that morality is grounded in the emotions, though Haidt prefers to talk about social intuition rather than individual emotions. Emotions are only one type of intuition. Here again, the bulk of our moral judgments are intuitive, automatic, and elephant-like. Moral reasoning comes mainly after the initial intuitive moral judgments have already been made, and has the purpose of rationalizing our intuitions, and communicating them to others, particularly in terms of enhancing our reputation. Haidt comes very close to talking about moral intuitions as innate (pp. 153, 178, 325). Here his evolutionary theory gets in the way. As a Christian, I maintain that God has implanted in us certain moral intuitions, so that we instinctively know that some things are right or wrong (cf. Romans 2:14-15). Of course Haidt can’t admit this because he doesn’t believe in God. Further, he deals with morality at a descriptive level, and tries very hard to avoid prescription.

In Part II Haidt goes on to critique the dominant moral theories of a very small subset of the human population – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic Western societies (forming the acronym WEIRD). WEIRD societies favor the values of utilitarianism and justice. Haidt argues that there is more to morality than harm and fairness, the values favored by liberals. Other important values include care, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. These are values that tend to be emphasized by conservatives. Chapter 7 attempts to justify these values as part of an evolutionary process – adaptations for human flourishing. The value of care evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. The value of fairness evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. The value of loyalty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. The value of authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. The value of sanctity evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of facing threats of various kinds, and has the effect of binding groups together. The value of liberty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of resisting bullies and tyrants.

Part III involves an extended treatment of the groupish tendencies of human nature. Evolutionary theory has more recently accepted the notion that natural selection can work at multiple levels, and can include both individuals and groups. Religion plays a key role in creating community, an essential component for human survival. Contrary to the current crusading atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Haidt is quite sympathetic with religion.

The book ends with a final look at the increasing polarity between liberals and conservatives, arguing that in part these polarities are genetically based. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left” (p. 365). People whose genes have given them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with grand narratives of the right. What to do about this polarity? Haidt pleads with both sides to listen and learn from each other. In fact the two sides compliment each other. A healthy society needs both liberals and conservatives. But he especially urges liberals to recognize that conservatives are better at creating and preserving moral and social capital that are essential to any society. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy” (p.342). I admire Haidt, a former liberal, for having the courage to say this. I also appreciated his observation that liberals tend to be more dogmatic and narrow-minded than conservatives. So true, but all too often denied by liberals!

I conclude with some comments about the evolutionary perspective from which this book is written. As a Christian I am not entirely hostile to evolutionary theory. I am quite willing to go where the evidence leads me. I believe scientific evidence and biblical revelation point to a position of theistic evolution. Haidt, though more sympathetic to religion than most atheists, in the end interprets religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion gives expression to our social nature (ch. 11), and captures the sacred (higher than I) dimension of our value system (pp. 173-4). At times Haidt is very careful to provide empirical support for his evolutionary theory. But especially when dealing with religion as a means of creating community, his analysis becomes increasingly speculative. It seems his evolutionary framework drives his interpretation, with or without empirical evidence.

This book provides a good example of how scientific theory relates to empirical evidence. Ultimately, theory needs to be grounded in the empirical. But we can never approach the empirical without some theoretical framework. Hence, the hermeneutical circle. How do we get out of this circle? First, by admitting that there is a problem. Further, a good scientist will always be open to having his/her interpretive framework challenged by empirical data that don’t quite fit the interpretative framework. The danger for a scientist who adopts an evolutionary theory, is that he interprets empirical data from the perspective of his assumed evolutionary perspective, and then lets nothing change his interpretive framework.

Let me give one example. Haidt is very careful to ground his interpretation of moral cognition as intuition in examples. So far, so good. Intuitions are then interpreted as adaptations of the human animal that have evolved over time, and that then become entrenched as automatic moral responses to certain situations. Again, this conclusion seems to be grounded in evidence. But there is a bit of an interpretive leap of faith here. As a Christian I interpret these moral intuitions as innate, as instincts that God has implanted into human nature. This interpretation is surely as plausible as an evolutionary interpretation. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, Haidt at times flirts with the notion of innateness. All that is needed to convert his interpretative theory into a Christian theory is to add the notion of God. Of course, I need to provide some additional evidence for preferring my interpretative framework, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. Haidt clearly doesn’t want to adopt my Christian interpretive framework, because he is so thoroughly committed to his evolutionary interpretive framework. What would change Haidt’s mind? As we have already seen, rational argument will not be of much help. But perhaps the rider might look into the distant future, and entertain alternate scenarios, and this might eventually nudge the elephant closer to a genuinely religious interpretative framework.

Let me say a bit more about Haidt’s approach to morality. I find his position with regard to the nature of morality rather confusing. As an evolutionary social psychologist he is operating primarily at a descriptive level. His six foundational moral matrixes are descriptions of the values that people in fact do appeal to. As already noted, liberals tend to focus on liberty and equality. While conservatives have a broader moral matrix that includes loyalty, authority, and the sacred as importance values. But, as is the tendency of social scientists, Haidt doesn’t limit himself to description. He flirts with prescription. For example, Haidt argues (at least implicitly) that we ought to think in terms of all six moral foundations. He argues that liberals, especially, ought to be more open to conservative values. He decries the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. The book concludes: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out” (p. 371). Yes indeed, but this comes very close to being a prescriptive conclusion. Haidt is saying that we ought to get along. Here again I believe Haidt needs to draw on Christian insights to overcome his confusion with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. In the Christian canon of Scripture, God clearly issues prescriptions, the best example of which are the giving of the 10 commandments. But these commandments are not given arbitrarily. They are in fact given to us for our own good (Deut 6:3, 18). They work. If you want a healthy society, follow God’s laws. Or to draw on Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, God created man and society so that they have evolved in such a way that following the six moral matrixes will in fact lead to a healthy, well functioning society.

And what about the issue of moral relativism. Haidt is in fact very confusing here. At times he quite specifically adopts a relativistic stance (p.368). At other times, he quite specifically says he is not a relativist (pp.132-3). He wants to say that his six pillars of moral values are in fact the right way to make decisions. He comes very close to saying that these are objective moral values that all human beings should adopt. He correctly suggests that while these values are objective and universal, the way they are applied to different cultures will in fact be different (p.31). Here again I agree. There is some truth to situational relativism. But let’s not be so hesitant to admit that there are some core values that are built into nature that all people everywhere ought to follow. Again, I prefer a Christian interpretive framework which maintains that God created the world in such a way that the following of certain norms will in fact lead to flourishing societies.

As a philosopher, I often have difficulties appreciating books written by social scientists. As a Christian I also frequently have problems with overly dogmatic assertions of evolutionary scientists. I did not encounter these problems in reading Jonathan Haidt. Despite its confusions, this book deserves to be read.

God in the Classroom: a Review Article

December 22, 2011

God in the Classroom:  The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada’s Schools

Lois Sweet

Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997, ISBN 0-7710-8319-X

pp.xv + 272,  $29.99

This is an important book which is bound to prompt much fruitful dialogue on the relation between religion and schooling in Canada.  The author, a journalist by profession, won an Atkinson fellowship in 1995-6, which gave her the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Europe) in order to gain first hand experience as to how religion is handled in our schools.  As well she was able to discuss the matter with a wide variety of Canadians of many beliefs and backgrounds.  The publication of this book was preceded with a five-part series in the Toronto Star as well as a two-part documentary on CBC-TV’s “The National Magazine.”  Both drew a huge response, a sign that Canadians are hungry for more discussion of this issue.

Sweet admits that she would never have dreamed that she would write a book like this a decade ago (p.9).  She describes herself as a secularist, but one who has come to recognize the significance of the religious experience (pp.213, 11).  Her book is prompted by a concern about our society which has somehow lost sight of the spiritual dimension to life (p.6).  And religion is denied and/or ignored in our schools (p. 239).  Sweet describes her son, now at university, discovering for the first time that Western civilization was based on religion.  “Nothing in his previous thirteen years of study had given him an inkling of that” (p.213).  A tragedy, indeed, and somewhat odd, given that schooling in Canada evolved from a decidedly Christian bias, as Sweet explores in Chapter 2.

It is this neglect of religion in our state-maintained public schools that has prompted a growing number of religious groups to set up their own schools – there are about 1,200 religiously-based schools that belong to the Federation of Independent Schools in Canada (pp. 6, 27).  Clearly the formation of religious schools is one way to address the problem of the neglect of religion in education, which is the overriding concern of the book.  But a major thrust of the book is to reject this option.  What Sweet proposes instead is a serious overhaul of our public school system.  Her central thesis is that given the pluralism that now characterizes Canada, we need, somehow, to accommodate religion in our public (common) schools.

Sweet defends her two-pronged thesis by drawing on the anecdotal experience of students, teachers, parents and educators.  The many stories are fascinating and at times moving.  This book will therefore appeal to a lay-readership.  But I would hope that academics will still read the book, even though there is little here by way of drawing on theoretical treatments of the problem.  Even when referring to experts in the field such as John Hull and Will Kymlicka, preference is given to comments made while interviewing them in person.  And there are no footnotes.

What reasons lie behind Sweet’s rejection of religious schooling as a way to bring religion back into education?  Chapters 4 & 5 record her impressions from visits to a number of religious schools (Sikh, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical).  A primary concern is that such schools are socially divisive and foster intolerance (ch.1).  Sweet also worries about the indoctrination that occurs in religious schools.  She is also very concerned about the lack respect for children’s and teacher’s rights in such schools (ch.9).   “[P]arents don’t have the ultimate authority over their children,” according to Sweet, “there is a need for the State to act in the interests of children” (p.178).

Sweet is further concerned that these religious schools will destroy our state-maintained system of public schools. Indeed, she also rejects the separate school system, i.e. Roman Catholic schools which are fully funded in several Canadian provinces (pp. 48, 103, 108f, 122f, 248, 252).  The ideal for Sweet is one, and only one system of state-maintained public schools.  But this will require a radical overhaul of the secular orientation that now pervades these public schools. We need somehow to bring religion back into the classroom.  If this is done, Sweet maintains, many religiously moderate parents would be much less motivated to put their children into independent religious schools (p.239)

However, according to Sweet, reintroducing religion into the classroom cannot involve the initiation of children into a particular religious dogma – an approach that was in fact rejected as unconstitutional in a 1988 Elgin County court case (pp. 13, 33).  Instead of indoctrination, we need multi-faith education about religion, along the lines of a 1994 memo from Ontario Ministry of Education (pp. 218ff.).  Sweet also recommends that a certain limited number of holy days of each Canada’s recognized religious groups be recognized through school closings where numbers warrent, using them as points of discussion (ch.10).

And above all, schools must take seriously the cultivation of religious literacy (pp. 10, 228, 239).  We need to acknowledge religious difference, and actually educate children about those differences in the classroom.  Here Sweet draws on comments made by John Hull in an interview in which he describes the approach of religious education in Great Britain (pp.224-8).

The journalistic approach taken in this book has its dangers.  While every effort is made to be fair, and the generalizations made are most often accurate, biases do emerge.  For example, much is made of the supposed denial of rights of children in religious schools in a chapter which begins with an emotively laden description of a spanking of a first-grader at an Alberta school (ch.9).   But, to link this episode with ritual genital mutilation, and to suggest that such physical abuse is responsible for violent criminal behavior in later life is simply absurd (p.170).  Contrary to Sweet, children at religious schools are generally loved for and cared for, and are viewed as having all the basic rights that she so much prizes.  Clearly there are different understandings of what is required to bring up children to be moral citizens, and we must be careful not discount the approach taken by religious schools, when, by her own admission, a major concern of many parents is precisely the failure of our public schools in this area (pp. 6, 64, 98).

A fundamental weakness arises from Sweet’s reliance on a traditional distinction between indoctrination and education.  She admits there is controversy regarding proper definitions of these terms (pp.149f), but unfortunately she rather dogmatically trots out the usual mantras concerning what these terms means. Indoctrination involves narrow initiation into a particular religious tradition.  Genuine education, by contrast, involves tolerance of dissent, autonomous thinking and behaving, and the celebration of diversity (pp.102, 159).  But, Sweet is forced to admit that the graduates from religious schools which she interviewed have become confident, critical and open citizens, who actively contribute to society at large.  The basic problem with her analysis is that she fails to do justice to the fact that nurture into a particular tradition is a necessary foundation for growth toward autonomy.  Narrowness necessarily precedes openness (see my Teaching for Commitment, Gracewing & McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

Interestingly, Sweet implicitly acknowledges this point in other contexts.  She is very sensitive to “the politics of recognition,” which Charles Taylor sees as the key to living in a multicultural society (p.14).  She tells a moving story of a Jewish mother who clearly identifies the seeming paradox – the more she helps her daughter to understand who she is, the better she will be able to live with others (pp.110f).  She is quite frank in acknowledging that we might have something to learn from the structure of schooling in the Netherlands where over 80% of all the schools are publicly funded religious schools (ch. 7; p.128).  Here it seems that recognizing differences has facilitated healthy integration as well as tolerance.

Sweet is also very cognizant of recent developments in epistemology.  She acknowledges that neutrality is impossible (p.7).  She realizes that there is an element of faith in every area of human study (p.212).  She approvingly refers to Postman’s End of Education in which he argues that schools have to serve some god – some story or narrative that provides a sense of meaning, continuity and purpose to life (p.150).  A secular system of education is still a value system that competes with those that are religious (p. 113).

But, these epistemological considerations as well as her sympathies with the politics of recognition support a system of educational pluralism.  However, as we have seen, Sweet is strongly opposed to religiously based schools.  And this makes the overall thrust of the book somewhat puzzling, because much of her analysis would seem to point in the direction of religious schools as a way of accommodating the interplay between religion and education

Even in the final chapter she gives us a glowing account of a unique Logos Alternative Program in Edmonton, Alberta, where five Christian schools operate under the public school umbrella.  But Sweet speaks favourably of this approach only because these schools are part of the public system of education and are housed in existing public schools which allows the children to interact with other children in the regular public program (pp.241-4).  In the end, she is still worried about their promoting “a limited kind of one-sided learning” (p.244).

What Sweet fails to realize is that the multi-religious approach to cultivating an appreciation for religion is not without its own problems.  Knowledge of other religious traditions does not in and of itself foster tolerance.  And she fails to face up to the fact that public (common) schools cannot ever make up for, or overcome, the lack of religious literacy and the religious intolerance that is fostered in the home.  The multi-faith approach to religious literacy, I would suggest is yet another expression of Enlightenment faith in universal reason. It rests on the assumption that it is possible to get an understanding of religion generally without becoming committed to a particular religion.  It allows us to participate in “the religious quest” while keeping religion at a distance (p. 8).  But this will hardly do justice to the concern of many religious adherents who value the importance of particular religious commitments.  And it is a fundamental error to associate all particular religious commitments with excessive sectarianism (pp. 17, 36, 165).

In the end, it would seem that Sweet is still captive to a secular faith-story which makes it impossible for her to go where the wind of her argument really carries her. And while she worries about the indoctrination that occurs in our public schools when religion is systematically avoided (pp. 211ff., 222), she fails to worry enough about the liberal educational tyranny that is still inherent in her multi-faith approach to religious education, and which she wants to impose on all citizens via a monolithic state-maintained system of education.

This is a preprint of an article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 19, #2, Oct. 1998, pp. 251-4. [copyright Taylor & Francis]; the article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values  is available online at:

Review of “Death of the Liberal Class,” by Chris Hedges, and “Hope in Troubled Times,” by Bob Goudzwaard et. al.

April 11, 2011

Review of

Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges (Alfred Knopf Canada, 2010)


Hope In Troubled Times:  A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, by Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst (Baker Academic, 2007)

If you are at all prone to depression, you should avoid both of these books.  Each of them devotes a good deal of space to showing how troubled the world really is.  Hedges focuses on the failure of the liberal class in our society, on their having been co-opted by corporate power elites.  Goodzwaard et. al. provide a detailed description of worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, and widespread terrorism.

Hedges identifies the pillars of the liberal class as the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions (p.10).  He has a very exalted view of the liberal class.  “In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve.  It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality.  It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue.  It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite” (p. 9).  But the tragedy is that the corporate state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims.  The liberal class has itself sold out to the corporate power of capitalism.  It is now anemic, decayed and frightened, unable to function as it was meant to.  The book is a long catalogue of the betrayals and failures of the liberal class.

But this raises a central question.  Why has the liberal class degenerated in the way in which Hedges describes in painful detail?  Why did it become such a helpless victim of corporate power?  Why did it sell out to the forces of global capitalism?  Surely such a colossal failure should make us begin to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberalism itself.  Michael Sandel has suggested that liberalism’s “vision of political discourse is too sparse to contain the moral energies of democratic life” (Democracy’s Discontent 1996, 323).  Indeed, there are problems with the very foundations of liberalism.  What is the basis of the moral values espoused by liberalism?  I would suggest that without a transcendent foundation, the moral vision of liberalism collapses. 

One can begin to see this when one looks at who is included in the liberal class.  Along with journalists and academics, Hedges includes the church.  Now this is interesting! Liberals are typically very hard on the church.  The church is most often associated with the Christian right, which has been recently demonised by Marci McDonald in The Armageddon Factor:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010).  So how can Hedges include the church in the liberal class?  Clearly he has a very particular segment of the church in mind – the liberal church that is preoccupied with such liberal values as tolerance, rights, equality, diversity, and inclusivism.  But, as many a survey has shown, the liberal church is on a downward spiral.   And this again raises the question, why? Is there perhaps also a weakness in the very foundations of the liberal church?   Indeed, the foundational weaknesses of the liberal church are parallel to the weaknesses of liberalism.  Without an affirmation of orthodox Christian doctrine, the moral vision of the liberal church is in fact hollow, and the church will not be able to withstand the forces of power elite within a society.

Hedges’ book concludes with this pessimistic analysis.  “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity” (p.196).  The only ray of hope, and it is slim indeed, is for individuals to engage in acts of rebellion.  But, how can the individual stand up against the collective powers of corporate capitalism?  And is not the call for individual resistance simply another expression of faith in the very liberalism that Hedges has found to be anemic and decayed.  And again, what are the moral foundations of such resistance? 

It is here where the analysis of Goudzwaard et. al. has so much to offer us?  I found the final section of this book dealing with hope most inspiring.  After a careful treatment of the problems of the world, you have an equally careful analysis of the theological underpinnings of hope.

While some of the problems identified in this work are the same as those identified by Hedges, the analysis of these problems is very different.  Goudzwaard et. al. talk instead about ideologies and idols.  Indeed, a fundamental tenet of liberalism, its belief in the inevitability of progress, has itself become a problem (pp. 24-5).  Thus we find that many of today’s problems seem to have developed immunity to our well-intended solutions.  “They have become like viruses that resist medicine or like pests that have developed a defense against pesticide”  (p. 31).  This book analyses four areas of spiraling problems in our world today – revolution, nationalism, global capitalism, and violence/war.  In each case we find ourselves becoming “more or less trapped inside the cocoon of an extremely narrow, reduced view or perspective that considers acceptable only the solutions that fall in line with the way Western society defines its further ‘progress’” (p.25).  Indeed, the language of “obsession” or even “possession” becomes appropriate as persons or societies place their faith or trust in things or forces that their own hands have made (p. 27).  But, unfortunately, these idols that we ourselves have made cannot deliver.  The gods we have created have betrayed us.

But there is room for hope according to Goudzwaard et. al.  The good news of the gospel is that after Jesus’ resurrection, “one can speak about evil only as a temporary counterpower, one whose effectiveness depends solely on enticing and seducing people with things like money, power, and the longing to survive” (p. 172).  These seductions occur in the hearts of people, and the hearts of people can be changed.  Idols can be smashed.  Ideologies can be individually and collectively undermined.  We are not at the mercy of fate or evil underground forces.  “In our view, this simple insight into the fundamentally limited scope of evil throws the door wide open to genuine and living hope” (p. 172).  Here it is important to note that this hope is not just a human creation.  We are not left to our own resources.  Instead, this hope rests ultimately in the God whom Christians confess and who has already fundamentally conquered the power of evil through his Son.  “Jesus is therefore worthy to hold ‘the whole world [including our future] in his hands’” (p. 172). 

What we need to do is to make sure that we see the bigger picture, and in so doing unmask the gods of our times – economic growth, technological progress, the free market, and even democracy (p. 181).  The Christian believes in instead in justice, love and truth, and he or she knows that these belong to the basic nature of reality itself (p. 182).  The Christian does not get caught up in the dead-end spirals of the idols and ideologies of our time.  Instead, with God’s help Christians move slowly, and patiently, and step by step, upward to a better way.

Fortune Obligates

January 30, 2011

 Is it right for some people to be rich while others are poor, or should there be equality? Opinion is sharply polarized on this question.

Much of the conflict in the world to­day is rooted in opposing answers given to the above question. This is at the heart of most wage disputes in our coun­try, with appeals made to either equality or justified inequality, whichever happens to be to one’s advantage in this dispute.

In many coun­tries there is growing conflict, largely due to the disparity between a wealthy minority and a very poor majority. Some are warning us that the disparity between the wealthy nations of the West, and the underdeveloped Third World countries will eventually lead to world conflict. The question I have raised, therefore, cries out for an answer.

One would expect the Scriptures to supply an answer to such a fundamental question, but unfortunately Christians do not agree on what the Scriptures say about equality or inequality of material goods. Some point to the basic principle of “just desert” running throughout the Scrip­tures, as providing support for inequal­ity. “A man reaps what he sows”  (Gal. 6:7).   “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”  (II Thess. 3:10).  The parable of the talents is often interpreted as suggesting that he who is faithful in little, will be given more responsibilities and more reward (Luke 19:11-27).

However, others point to Scripture passages that seem to favor more equality. Jesus encourages a rich young man to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21).  It seems that many in the early church did sell their possessions, “had everything in common,” and “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-5).  Paul quite ex­plicitly refers to equality as an ideal (II Cor. 8:13).

How do we reconcile these two em­phases in Scripture?

I believe it is possible for Christians to learn something from non-Christians who are struggling with the same prob­lem. Some recent writings on the prob­lem of justice have helped me to see the Scriptural answer to the question I have raised from a fresh perspective.

John Rawls and other philosophers have argued that “nature” itself is not just in its distribution of natural capaci­ties. Some individuals seem to be born with all the advantages; others, with various handicaps. Therefore it is surely unjust to distribute benefits in society simply on the basis of achievement or merit, because this gives an unfair ad­vantage to those who have been born “lucky,” just as much as it gives an un­fair disadvantage to those who have been born with certain handicaps. Rawls, therefore, argues that the distri­bution of natural talents should be re­garded as a common asset. Those who have been favored by nature have an obligation to improve the situation of those who are less fortunate. Another writer sums up this principle in the phrase, “fortune obligates”.

Rawls’ stress on the arbitrariness of nature’s distribution of gifts and oppor­tunities is helpful, although we may want to reinterpret this from a Christian perspective. It is God who determines where we are born, and it is God who distri­butes gifts and opportunities. Most of us are born with normal abilities. We, in North America, live in a land of plenty and in the midst of abundant opportun­ity. Have we earned this? No! “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7)  Everything we have is a gift, a result of a “divine lottery,” if you will. Therefore we should be very careful not to become proud about our abilities and gifts.  It is simply wrong to give ourselves all the credit for what we achieve.  It is also wrong to feel that we are entitled to the advantages that we enjoy. 

Further, those of us who have been given an undue share of God’s blessings have an obligation to share with those who have been less fortunate. Fortune obligates. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48). We owe some­thing to those who have not been as richly blessed as we are. Generosity is not an option, but an obligation.

Again and again in Scripture, we find that God has a special interest in the dis­advantaged, and God calls on the advan­taged to help the disadvantaged. What follows from this? If the rich share some of their wealth with the poor, and the poor receive from the rich, then there will no longer be as much inequality between them. There is no way we can escape this conclusion. Paul is crystal clear on this point as he encourages the Corinthian church to be generous: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (II Cor. 8:13).

 Paul, in this same context, describes the meaning of the Incarnation: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”  (II Cor. 8:9). As followers of Christ, should we not similarly become poor, so that others might become rich, or at least equal?  

(This blog first appeared as a “Personal Opinion” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald,  Dec. 19, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)

Review of Marci McDonald’s, The Armeggedon Factor:The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010)

September 9, 2010

I am not exactly a fan of the Christian right. I was therefore surprised at my growing negative reaction as I read McDonald’s well-researched and engaging description of the rise of the Christian right in Canada.

Christian nationalism is generally seen as a unique feature of United States politics.  McDonald gained first hand knowledge of the Christian right in the U.S. during her journalistic forays in the United States. After returning to Canada, McDonald was surprised to discover that Christian nationalism is also growing here.  The Armageddon Factor seeks to document the phenomenon of evangelical Christians who are convinced that Canada has a special role to play in the world, before the final conflagration, the Armageddon, when God will claim ultimate victory in history.

McDonald makes a convincing case for a U.S.-like Christian right emerging and flourishing in Canada. Chapter 1 begins with a description of a day-long fast and prayerfest called TheCRY on parliament hill in the summer of 2008, patterned directly after a U.S. pro-life rally that drew fifty thousand Christian youth to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., only a week earlier. The agenda of TheCRY is “much broader and far more radical: nothing less than restructuring Canada as a devoutly Christian nation governed by biblical literalists according to principles selectively plucked from the Old and New Testaments” (p.15).  In this first chapter, McDonald also draws attention to Stephen Harper’s election as prime minister in January of 2006.  She argues that Harper provided Canadians with the first clue that they had a born-again prime minister when he capped off his victory speech with a three-word closing, “God bless Canada,” the equivalent of a televised thank-you to evangelical Christians who played a key role in electing him to office (pp. 17, 19). Chapter 1 also highlights the political careers of Preston Manning and Stockwell Day, the evangelical forerunners to Harper.  McDonald concludes the chapter with a suggestion that the religious right is here to stay as a political force, its presence being guaranteed “by a four-year spree that saw conservative Christians establish half-dozen new organizations in the capital” (p.49). 

The chapters that follow provide a careful description of these new organizations of the Christian right.  Chapter 2 describes the work of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and its role in trying to get Bill C-43 through parliament, a compromise bill on abortion, which was eventually defeated by a Senate vote in January, 1991. Brian Stiller, the first head of the EFC, orchestrated legal interventions on behalf of a handful of cases headed to the Supreme Court after Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982 (p.55).  Also described in this chapter is Charles McVety’s Canada Family Action Coalition, a grassroots Christian lobby devoted particularly to fighting against pornography, homosexuality and same-sex marriage (pp.65ff). Three blocks from the Parliament Buildings, another key player in the capital’s evangelical infrastructure is ensconced in a penthouse suite of an office tower that is home to Conservative Party headquarters – the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) (p.85).  This think tank is part of the Colorado-based empire of James Dobson, who has supported its Canadian branch to the tune of $1.6 million over four years (p.86).  Here it should be noted that many of the Canadian organizations of the Christian right have American connections and American financial backing, a point carefully documented by McDonald.

Chapter 3 is devoted to describing the work of Preston Manning’s Centre for Building Democracy, launched in Ottawa in the spring of 2006.  The aim of this center is to help train politicians, using a strategy advocated by Jesus, “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” – in other words, be “shrewd” (p. 108).  Then there is the work of Rob and Fran Parker’s National House of Prayer (ch. 4). Chapter 5 begins with a description of Ron Luce’s Texas Ministry, Teen Mania, a multi-million dollar operation, devoted to mobilizing teens to get politically active (ch. 5).  For nearly a decade he has filled stadiums across the continent with more than twelve million teens for “Acquire the Fire,” and its new, more militant sister show, “BattleCry.  He is expanding his $1.4 million Canadian operation, recruiting Faytene Kryskow who sees herself as a modern-day Joan of Arc, a fiery crusader with an ability to get the younger generation fired up for conservative causes (p. 149).

While these chapters make for a fascinating read, the language is often strident and McDonald’s strong antipathy for evangelicals and for Stephen Harper sometimes skews her analysis.  These chapters carry the feel of conspiracy theorizing, and often appeal to guilt by association. Motivations of people are constantly called into question.  Some of the examples used to illustrate the evils of the Christian right are obviously selectively chosen and can be easily undermined by providing counter-examples. Another important question needs to be brought to the fore.  Why shouldn’t the Christian right lobby the government?  More on that later.

Two additional chapters are devoted to education, another key contributor to the growth of the Christian right in Canada, according to McDonald.  Christian schools, home-schooling, Christian colleges and universities, and specialized schools training future government workers all come under critical scrutiny.  Chapter 6 is entitled, “In the Beginning,” and is devoted to proving that evangelicals are anti-science, even rejecting the well-established theory of evolution. The chapter begins by raising a question as to whether the Harper government’s lack of support for basic research funding in Canada might be related to Secretary of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear’s personal belief in creationism.  But this is to engage in speculative causal analysis.  Indeed, this reader wondered how a chapter devoted to creationism even relates to the central topic of this book.  But McDonald uses any weapon available in order to highlight the dangers of the rise of the Christian political right in Canada – these people are ignorant, bigoted, and anti-science. No matter if many evangelicals reject the idea of a 6-day creation, and accept instead theistic evolution, a stance quite prepared to accept the findings of science.  But such nuanced distinctions don’t serve McDonald’s objective, and so all Christians who believe in creation are lumped into one category – naïve and narrow-minded 6-day creationists.

Chapter 7 begins with a recurring theme of the book – the Christian right’s opposition to same-sex marriage.  The opening scenario is Murray and Peter Corren’s 1999 human rights complaint against B.C’s Ministry of Education for “systemic gender discrimination.”  After describing the opposition of various evangelical groups to the ministry’s introduction of the controversial new curriculum to combat discrimination in British Columbia schools, the chapter broadens to a critique of all Christian schools, home-schooling, Christian colleges and universities, as well as a specialized school training “The Joshua Generation,” patterned after Patrick Henry College in the United States which is devoted to “raising men and women of faith who, because they love God, refuse to sit silently by while their nation hates what He loves and loves what He hates” (p. 233).  Trinity Western University opened its Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa in 2002, where political internships on Parliament Hill are part of the training program.  Of course, this is described as an evangelical conspiracy to shape Canadian politics.  Strangely, the work of Murray and Peter Corren, part of a well-heeled gay lobby, are spared any critical scrutiny by McDonald. 

And what is the alternative?  State-run schools and universities with their own political agenda, grooming the next generation of leaders?  Every public college and university that I know of includes in its mission statement something to the effect of training the next generation of leaders.  Why then are Christian colleges and universities singled out as part of a right wing conspiracy?  And how good a job are public colleges and universities doing in educating future leaders?  McDonald herself cites a senior policy adviser in the External Affairs department being appalled when some of the country’s most promising young diplomats were caught smuggling contraband and accepting bribes (p. 238).  No wonder MPs welcome interns from Trinity’s Laurentian Leadership Centre because they know they are going to get students who are not going to show up for work nursing hangovers (p.240).

McDonald isn’t finished yet!  Chapter 8 focuses on the rise of Christian media in Canada, sometimes resorting to in-your-face challenges to government bodies regulating the media.  Chapter 9 documents Harper’s attempts to redress many years of Liberals “stacking the bench with left-wing ideologues” (p. 278).  Changes were made to the makeup of judicial advisory committees that vet nominees for the 1,100 federal court posts (p.282).  Vic Toews, newly appointed justice minister, appointed people to these committees, many of whom were long-time Conservative loyalists who made no attempt to hide their party ties (p.283).  And the result was a flurry of appointments of lawyers to the bench with clear right-wing leanings.  The Christian Legal Society also has become more active in fighting right-wing battles (pp.285ff).

 Chapter 10 focuses specifically on “The Armageddon Factor,” and shows how the dispensational theology of the Christian right has led to unqualified support for the state of Israel.  The final chapter documents yet more Christian right organizations (the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Association for Reformed Political Action), providing further evidence that the Christian right is “Here to Stay.”  Indeed, even the Liberal party is courting the evangelical vote, though perhaps appealing more to the evangelical left which does indeed exist as McDonald notes (p. 351).  However, overall, the center of gravity of politics in Canada has shifted noticeably to the right (p.353).

 I have already stated that I am not that sympathetic with the Christian right.  And yet, as should be apparent, I am also not entirely sympathetic with McDonald’s critique of the Christian right.  What such ambivalence suggests is that there is a need to spell out more carefully exactly what is right and what is wrong about the Christian right. I believe this is basic weakness of McDonald’s book.  She assumes that the Christian right is terribly, terribly wrongheaded and dangerous, but she doesn’t really justify this assumption.

 There are some aspects of the Christian right that I support, as I believe every Christian and indeed everyone should. Morality matters.  There are some moral standards that need to be upheld within a society. Moral relativism is wrongheaded, and when it becomes too widespread, will lead to the decline of the health and stability of a society. The dignity of all persons, the sacredness of all human life, integrity, truthfulness, marital faithfulness and sobriety are key to the well being of a society.  Murder, theft, dishonesty, unfaithfulness in marriage, and excessive alcohol and drug use are morally wrong, and again if these become widespread within a society, this will eventually lead to the decline and fall of that society.  There is abundant historical evidence to prove these generalizations.

 And what about the more controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage?  I will focus on the last two items, because these are in fact an overriding theme in McDonald’s book and clearly one reason she is so strongly opposed to the Christian right.  I concur with the Christian right that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, and contrary to biblical teaching. I would hasten to add, though, that homosexuals still need to be treated with dignity and that their basic rights need to be protected in the same way that any person’s rights should be protected. 

 Now clearly not all people, including McDonald, agree with this assessment of homosexual behavior and gay marriage. What do we do about this? What should not be done is to label as fools, meddlers, or fanatics, anyone who does not hold a liberal position on these matters. Unfortunately, this is what McDonald does, at least implicitly.  Disagreements about such matters need to be treated with respect within a liberal democracy.  This is at the heart of liberalism.  Indeed, this is the genius of liberalism, a stance I believe McDonald would identify with. What she fails to realize is that liberalism can become illiberal, as Jeff Spinner-Halev, has pointed out in his Surviving Diversity:  Religion and Democratic Citizenship (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).  There is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, and McDonald’s book is a sad example of the same.  Liberal fundamentalism is as wrong-headed and dangerous as conservative fundamentalism. 

 What is needed instead is a more accommodating and generous attitude towards people with whom one differs.  We need to live together, despite our deep differences.  Here we need to read John Rawls, particularly his later writings, where he attempts to take more seriously the fact that there are deep moral and religious differences within a society.  Given these deep differences, we need to find a practical compromise with regard to controversial issues such as homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.  Christians need to put more emphasis on protecting the basic rights of homosexuals, and the gay lobby needs to be less demanding about having everyone agree that homosexuality is alright or about acquiring the status of “gay marriage.”  Surely the notion of a “civil union” should be adequate in recognizing gay rights.

 More generally, we need to dialogue and engage in careful deliberation when we encounter deep differences among the citizens of a democracy (See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, Harvard University Press, 1996). Unfortunately, McDonald’s critique of the Christian right fails in this regard. She simply assumes they are fundamentally wrong.  Indeed, her book sounds too much like a tirade against the Christian right.  Unfortunately, the Christian right also often fails in terms of engaging in careful deliberation and dialogue on these issues.  And here I am beginning to articulate my disagreement with the Christian right and my sympathies with McDonald.  While I agree with part of the moral agenda taken by the Christian right, I disagree with the way in which they often go about lobbying for their moral stance.  But, even here we need to be careful.

 After all, evangelical Christians are citizens of Canada.  Surely they have every right to vote, to be engaged in politics, and even to seek to influence politicians.  But how does one do this?  Unfortunately, politics is messy.  It involves power and power struggles.  It involves brokering between various networks lobbying government.  Here a question arises:  Should Christians be involved in such lobbying and power struggles?  If you really care about the moral fabric of a society, it seems irresponsible simply to do nothing.  This is the stance typically taken by Mennonites.  But is this purist mentality realistic, given the nature of politics and given what is at stake in society (cf. John Stackhouse’s, Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World, Oxford University Press, 2008)? It is here where I struggle with my Mennonite convictions.  If politics is messy, should Christians not do some compromising in order to bring about the greater good?  And if so, is the Christian right not justified in organizing in various ways, seeking to shape politics in the right direction?  And is not McDonald’s sharp critique of the Christian right again quite unjustified?

 But McDonald isn’t entirely even-handed with regard to her criticism of lobbying on the part of the Christian right.  As already pointed out, McDonald does not criticize the lobbying of the gay community. Nor does the extensive lobbying of industry or the business community come under critical scrutiny.  Interestingly, she compares the parliamentary gamesmanship and guile of Harper with that of William Wilberforce’s battle to abolish the slave trade in nineteenth century England (p.98).  Indeed, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada hosted a special screening of Amazing Grace, and Preston Manning urges evangelical activists to study Wilberforce’s strategy in order to get a Christian agenda passed in Canadian parliament.  Yes, Wilberforce knew the tricks of the political trade and used them to get his bill passed, but surely the larger question that needs to be faced is this – was not his cause a noble one?  Does McDonald really want to criticize what Wilberforce accomplished or even how he accomplished it?

 And yet, there is surely something wrong with the way in which the Christian right seeks to accomplish its goals.  Perhaps they care too much!  Perhaps they go too far in getting organized and lobbying for their cause!  Perhaps James Davidson-Hunter is right – Christians are not out to change the world.  They are simply committed to being a faithful presence in this world (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2010).  But, this error of the Christian right, if indeed it is an error, does not deserve the vitriol often displayed in McDonald’s book. 

 But, then again, maybe there is still something that deserves McDonald’s passionate critique.  Indeed, I want to suggest by way of conclusion that it is helpful to read this book as pointing to a deeper problem.  Perhaps McDonald’s critique is more a commentary on the degeneration of politics generally than a critique of the Christian right.  Politics in the U.S. and Canada has degenerated into theatrics, power intrigues, lobbying, and biased appointments.  The Christian right’s behavior is simply an example of this more general problem.  Republicans and Democrats stoop to these undemocratic tactics.  Canadian liberals do it. Why shouldn’t the conservatives do it too? 

 And yet, I expect more from politicians who claim to be evangelical Christians.  Indeed, I am embarrassed by the manipulative antics and the dishonesty of Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day. Perhaps it is this failure to live up to Christian moral ideals on the part of the evangelical Christian right that drives McDonald’s critique, and here I concur.

On Unions

September 5, 2010

 (This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 30, 2008, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Unions must adjust to today’s hard realities.”  The original article is slightly revised here.) 

 I once was a member of a union.  Thankfully, I am now semi-retired and no longer have to be a member of such an organization.  We didn’t call ourselves a union.  Instead we referred to ourselves as a professional association – the “Medicine Hat College Faculty Association,” which in turn was a member of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association.  

 The only problem was that we weren’t very professional and we spent very little of our time and money on professional activities.  Like all unions, we were there to get the best deal for ourselves – the best wages and working conditions for the least amount of work. 

 We weren’t even very successful at that. Our wages were low as professionals go, and because our workloads were so high, those of us who were conscientious felt badly about having to make compromises in teaching just so we could survive.   I for one took early retirement because of the stress of a heavy workload.

As you might expect, the failure of our union caused some of us to resent the frequent increases in dues needed to support the growing union bureaucracy, both at local and provincial levels.

One thing that a Westerner notices when moving to Ontario is that the union mentality is more entrenched here than on the prairies.  Even colleges and universities have “real” unions – at least they are honest.  There are strikes and picket lines.  Lengthy union negotiations or breakdowns in talks regularly make news headlines.  Buzz Hargrove (and now his replacement) keeps appearing in the news, especially since GM motors recently announced the upcoming closure of its Oshawa truck plant. 

But, there seems to be a problem.  There is plenty of evidence that both the market and the environment simply cannot sustain current levels of truck production.  It should have been clear long ago that truck production was not sustainable.  The present oil crisis wasn’t born yesterday.  Both GM and the CAW should have been sitting at the table years ago to craft a sustainable vision for the future.  This obviously didn’t occur, a fault shared equally by both GM and the CAW.

Lest the reader imagine that I am still an Albertan red-neck, let me assure you that I am anything but that.  I recognize the historical contributions of unions.  But I think there is a need to adjust to the hard realities of today. 

I am very much aware of the possibilities of worker exploitation.  In the case of GM workers, however, I would argue that they are suffering exploitation at the hands of both the CAW and GM.  Workers should have expected and received better treatment from both parties.  Similarly, Canadians should have expected more from their government than blindly subsidizing ill-planned auto-plants. 

I am also sensitive to the fact that power corrupts, especially consolidated economic power.  But the corrupting tendencies of power also apply to large unions.

I am as concerned as anyone about the dangers of global capitalism.   But I don’t hear Canadian union leaders expressing concern about their fellow workers in other countries where workers are indeed being exploited.

It is obvious that capitalism needs a conscience, a topic that I have written about previously.  But, the need for a conscience also applies to unions.

Maybe the answer is found here.  All of us need to work at developing more sensitive consciences.   We need to spend more time identifying and countering the selfishness and greed that exists in every one of us – and that includes the employer, and the worker, and the union leader.  We need to work at loving our neighbor as we love ourselves – and our neighbor includes the business manager, and the worker in the factory, as well as workers in distant lands.  We need to work at developing ways for management and workers to engage in more co-operative and constructive conversations with each other. 

We also need governments that ensure that both industries and unions think in terms of future realities rather than shaping themselves around short-term profits or high salaries. We need governments that are looking out for all citizens equally and for the long term.   We need citizens who are careful how they vote!

Against attack ads in politics

July 13, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 1, 2009, p. A11, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Political attack ads are an affront to our society”) 

Once again the Conservative party is using attack ads against the leader of the Liberal opposition.  These ads have prompted a spate of critical editorials (and columns) in the Record. But to my mind they don’t go far enough.

The current attack ads against Michael Ignatieff might not work as they did against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, it has been argued.  These attack ads might backfire.  To describe Ignatieff as “arrogant and elitist” resembles “childish name-calling.”   One editorialist has described the Conservative advertisements as “the most offensive smear ads I’ve ever seen,” appealing to some of the worst prejudices in this country – anti-Americanism.  Another has highlighted how this “gutter campaign” will only foster more disrespect for politicians.  Why would anyone want to make the necessary sacrifices to enter politics “only to have your character sullied and your motives misrepresented.” 

I agree with all of this.  But, we need something more than a clinical analysis of attack ads.  To analyze their effectiveness, or to assess whether they might backfire is not enough. We need to question the very use of attack ads in politics.  We need a critique of smear campaigns, period.  While these editorials (columns) sometimes hint at this, they fail to explicitly address the much more important question  – is it right to use attack ads?  I believe there are four reasons why the use of attack ads in politics is very wrong.

First, such attack ads represent a failure in logic.  Any student who has taken an introductory logic course knows about the ad hominem fallacy.  Never, never, attack the person with whom you disagree.  When critiquing someone, you must be careful always to focus on the issues themselves.  A person’s motives and demeanor in delivering arguments are completely irrelevant to the arguments themselves.  Conservative hucksters need a lesson in logic.

Second, attack ad campaigns debase politics itself.  They reduce politics to propaganda.  They put the citizen at the mercy of the hired manipulator.  Image is what counts, not a party’s political platform. Elections are now won by the party that runs the most vicious smear campaign.  This is a betrayal of deliberative democracy.  Conservative campaign managers need a lesson in democratic politics.

Third, attacking persons is immoral.  Ignatieff is described as “In it for himself.”  Who isn’t?  How about Harper?  But, more importantly, questioning a person’s motives is terribly wrong, unless his/her motives are directly relevant to the issue being discussed.  Distorting the truth is morally wrong.  Character assassination is wrong. The people behind these Conservative attack ads need a lesson or two in morality. 

Finally, these Conservative ads campaigns represent a failure in faith.  Harper should know better.  He is, after all, a self-declared evangelical Christian.  A fundamental tenet of the Christian faith is to treat people with respect.  Each person is after all, made in the image of God.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Get rid of slander of every kind.”  I am not suggesting that Harper himself invented these attack ads.  But they had their origins in the party that he leads.  He is ultimately responsible for them.  Harper needs a lesson in basic Christianity.

These attack ads are an insult to all rational, democracy-loving Canadians.  The very idea of using smear campaigns in politics should be vigorously denounced by anyone having a political or moral conscience. 

The citizens of Canada deserve better.  We need a “politics of civility” as has been suggested by Ignatieff.  We have the power to raise politics to a higher level.   The citizens of Canada need to punish the Conservatives at the next election for daring once again to run a gutter ad campaign.

Financial Crisis and the Ethics of OverConsumption

July 3, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Jan. 12, 2009, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We have no option but to change our overconsuming society”) 

 The news about our current financial crisis seems to be getting grimmer by the day.  Factory lay-offs and closures.  The auto industry struggling to survive.  Growing fears about losing one’s job.  Consumer confidence decreasing.  Recession.  What next?

 And what solutions are being proposed?  Encourage consumer spending.  Sales, and bigger sales.  Lower interest rates so that people will borrow to buy more.  Reduce taxes so that taxpayers will have more to spend.  Provide a bail-out to keep the auto-industry and its many auxiliary industries afloat. Why?  Failure here means thousands of workers unemployed, and therefore unable to buy things, thus further escalating the recession. 

 What I find significant is that both the cause and the cure of the current financial crisis are seen as tied to consumption.  Regarding cause, the media carry story after story about consumers who are limiting their buying to the basics.  The purchases of big ticket items are being postponed.  The SUV market has plummeted.  Even the market for corporate jets has gone into free-fall.  But of course, these cautionary responses only escalate the crisis, we are told.

  The solutions proposed again relate to consumption. We need to restore consumer confidence so that people will again buy new houses, new cars, new big-screen television sets, and more toys for grown-ups and children alike. Do we need all these things?  No.  But having a “healthy” economy is dependent on our buying things that we don’t really need.

 Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with all this.  We are addicted to consumption, but addictions are never healthy. Obviously some consumption is necessary, but not over-consumption.  One cannot live by bread alone.  The desire to consume more and more can never be satisfied.   Indeed, a preoccupation with owning things is dehumanizing.  Persons become mere “consumers” to be manipulated by retail advertising or by government encouragements to increase spending.  Over-consumption is also not sustainable.  It rests on over-production, and the exploitation of the environment and of people.  Surely there is something terribly wrong with 20% of the world’s wealthiest people consuming a massive 86% of the planet’s resources.

 But if there is something fundamentally wrong with over-consumption, then there must also be something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that rests on over-consumption.  Unfortunately noone is talking about this aspect of our current financial crisis.  Everyone simply assumes that the key to recovery is to restore consumer confidence so that all of us will once again consume more than we need.  We refuse to ask the more basic questions.  Should we, for example, let the auto-industry shrink because we simply have too many cars?  We refuse to see this crisis as a wake-up call to invest in public transportation systems that will be much more ecologically friendly.  We continue to evaluate our governments simply on the basis of their ability to get everyone spending money once again.  And what is curious here is that all the political parties agree on these spend-more solutions.  None of them seems capable of really progressive thinking on this matter.

 So, what is the solution?  For a start, we need to begin questioning what is universally taken for granted.  One possible guide might be E.F. Schumacher’s, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Schumacher would have us look at “Buddhist Economics” as an alternative to modern economic theory.  The essence of civilization, for the Buddhist, is not found in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.  Self-centredness and over-consumption are evils to be overcome.  Simplicity is a norm, and it is the only way to counter the violence against other persons and against nature that is inherent in modern economics. 

 Impractical, you might argue.   But, our present system isn’t exactly working very well either, is it?  And it never will be.  We need to rethink the basics.  We need to explore other alternatives.  We need an economic system that is stable, sustainable and more equitable.


June 6, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Aug. 21, 2009, p. A11, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We humans aren’t very good at regulating ourselves.”) 

We have heard all too many reports of Ontario drownings over the past summer.  Sadly, most of these deaths could have been avoided if the people involved would have been wearing life-jackets.  Now there is a call for a federal law mandating the wearing of life-jackets while on any watercraft.  It seems that we are not very good at regulating ourselves. We need help.  We need a government to make us do what we should have been doing on our own.

Repeated studies have shown that the use of cell-phones while driving increases the likelihood of accidents. And yet, drivers continue to use cell-phones while on the road.  One even sees cyclists using cell-phones!  You would think that the instinct of self-preservation, or the generally accepted expectation that we should not harm other persons would be enough to keep people from indulging in this dangerous practice.  But, no, we seem to be incapable of self- regulation.  Thankfully the Ontario government is stepping in and will soon prohibit cell-phone use while driving. 

There is an epidemic of obesity among children in Canada.  Much of it has to do with their eating habits.  But children keep eating fast foods.  Parents seem unable to change their children’s eating habits.  Indeed, parents themselves indulge in foods that make them fat.   So again, we seem to need government programs to encourage us to adopt healthier lifestyles and better eating habits. 

Not only individuals, but also organizations and institutions don’t seem to be very good at regulating themselves.  The food industry only eliminates trans-fats and other unhealthy products if the government introduces regulations.  Maple Leaf Foods and Walkerton are painful reminders of what happens when government inspectors don’t do their job or when there are too few of them.  General Motors was unable to regulate itself as it responded to unregulated consumer demand for big cars.  GM needed government interference to push it in the direction of producing smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.   The RCMP watchdog has just released a report that recommends that it is unwise to have the RCMP police themselves.  Then, of course, there is Wall Street and the financial industry that have brought on our current financial crisis, all because they were free to “regulate” themselves.

And yet we hear strident objections to any form of government interference.  We want small governments.  Industries prefer to be self-regulating.  Any controls on the financial industry are viewed with suspicion.  And at the personal level too we want to be free to make our own choices.  We don’t want any big Daddy telling us what to do.

There are of course ideologies and political parties that advocate self-regulation and hold on to this principle as an article of faith.  Fortunately, harsh reality has a way of keeping the excesses of such thinking in check.  Radical self-regulation just doesn’t work. Indeed, it self-destructs.

When will we ever learn?  We as human beings are not very good at regulating ourselves.  We don’t know how to handle freedom.  We are not quite as rational as we like to think we are.  Our institutions and organizations also don’t know how to regulate themselves.  We need help. 

But where will help come from?  We seem to need government to impose and enforce regulations both at individual and corporate levels.  But, here a very basic problem arises: The government itself is made of human beings who are not good at self-regulation.  Our politicians are not perfect.  Who will regulate the regulator?  

The checks and balances inherent in a democracy are certainly of some help.  Of more help is the widespread acceptance of moral principles such as honesty, justice, and care for other persons.  Even more important is living according to these moral principles.  Perhaps we also need the notion of a super-cosmic Regulator who not only knows what is right, but who will in the end hold all human self-regulators accountable.