Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

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The Raw Nerve of Faith

September 7, 2009 Articles

This week the White House and Canada’s Supreme Court together touched a raw nerve. Both rubbed up against a debate raging in North America: what does it mean to be religious (in these cases Christian) and when does religion have legally approved space in which to live?

It happened this way. The White House gave clarification on what religious organizations are required to provide under the new federal health care (“Obamacare”) provision. Earlier it had required religious (mainly affecting Roman Catholic) agencies and organizations to provide medical coverage to its people in areas of birthing management, including abortion-related medication (“morning-after” pills). Ti revised its earlier policy and said the religious agency wouldn’t have to provide the coverage, but the insurance company would have to do it pro bono.

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that a Quebec family could not pull its children out of a course on religion and that the school course did not infringe on their constitutionally protected freedom of religion.

The nexus is this: religious freedom, a hallmark of western democracy, an idea fostered by nations with a Christian heritage, is central to its ethos and daily living. Whenever that is, or is felt to be infringed on, political and religious nerves are set on edge. This is what occurred both north and south of the 49th parallel.

My point is not to argue for the right or wrong, the good or bad of either decision. Each side in both countries have their arguments. The space the matters invade is this; when is my religious faith a viable contract with society and when is it extraneous? Is faith a privately held conviction, something specifically I practise (do or not do) or a community in which worship/celebration is held or is it something more than that?

That’s an insider’s question.

Now take it to an outside question.

The government or court and its constitution in effect by these two rulings have said, “You’ve got enough space for practise of your religion, beyond that you are invading the public square.” The White House, in its first version, did what secularism does with religious faith: they deemed the exercise of religion as that which you do privately or in a church/synagogue/mosque. By extension, a hospital run by a church community is by definition no longer religious and therefore does not have the right to be seen as a place where the free exercise of religion is allowed. As was noted, the ministry of Jesus would not be regarded as religious as he fed and healed those outside his faith community, beyond the Temple or synagogue.

The Quebec parents who objected to their children being taught a smorgasbord of religion, and by implication, “all religions are equally true and have the same value,” said their faith was not confined to home, church or private views. It is integrated into all of life, and because they as parents have the responsibility to train their children, by extension they should have preference to decide what they are taught about religion in the public sphere. The court ruled otherwise, implying that if children are not taught equally about all religions, they will grow up as religious pretzels, disfigured and ill equipped to live in a pluralistic and mosaic-configured world.

This issue isn’t going away. And it isn’t getting easier to resolve. The more multi-religious our countries become, and especially as Muslim presence increases, bringing with them a worldview in which there is no separation of religion and public life, the more this will befuddle those tasked with the responsibility of raising Solomon’s sword to settle the matter.

A way into the question of the relation of the two solitudes of religious faith and public square matters is to ask the question we have asked of the emerging secular state: is this about freedom of religion or freedom from religion.

During the early to mid 20th century main line liberal Protestantism got caught in acquiescing to a growing secularity. As Richard Neuhaus noted, “. . .others cheered on those Christians who were trying so hard to board the ship of the modern world of which they, the secular thinkers, were clearly now in charge.” Evangelicals did the opposite, withdrawing into their sectarian tents, waiting on a variety of theological hills for the parousia. Together these two sides of Christian world allowed the public square to be occupied by those who believed that freedom from religion was the right way. For those of us who lament that the debate took this swing, our absence helped fill the void we helped create.

Vacillating between whether religious faith in public life should be defined as from or of courts, politicians and managers of public enterprises struggle for answers.

The matters resorts to, “What do we mean by religion?” Is it private or public? Is it what we do in a house of worship, and in our homes, or is it how we practise life in all place of living?

Brian C Stiller