On the day of Stockwell Day's election as leader of the Canadian Alliance, newspaper readers learned in detail (many for the first time) about the Livingstone Church in Red Deer, Alta., and its place in a "cross-border grouping called the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies." We learned that such Pentecostals believe in faith healing and speaking in tongues, as Mr. Day presumably does, but that comparing Red Deer's Livingstone Church to Benny Hinn's televised evangelism would be like "comparing apples and oranges," according to Mr. Day's pastor. If many readers had no clue who Benny Hinn is, that wasn't the reporter's fault. For years Canadian news media have virtually ignored the growth of religious fundamentalism in Canada, because most Canadian journalists are small-l liberal rationalists who regard religious fundamentalism with a mixture of puzzlement and distaste.
Most book-length portraits of my profession make no mention of religious affiliations.The only clue in one new study, Les journalistes canadiens by David Pritchard and Florian Sauvageau, come from sections on the political views of journalists (we rate 135 on a scale from a "very progressive" 100 to a "very conservative" 200). When asked about how we make difficult decisions about news coverage, more than 80 per cent of us said we relied firstly on "my own ethical principles." What those ethics are based on was a subject untouched by the survey.
All of which helps to explain why the news media tended to shy away from discussing religion during a Canadian Alliance leadership campaign that contained more references to Jesus Christ than any of the candidates.
Two years ago at a conference on Faith and the Media at Carleton University I tried to explain the mass media's habit of ignoring organized religion by discussing journalists' background and attitudes. And I referred to a 1966 editorial in Christian Week that described newsrooms in general as "not the most hospitable environment for people of profound religious convictions."
My own interest was finally triggered by the re-election of an openly evangelistic mayor in my own city of London, Ont. Dianne Haskett, who refused to proclaim Gay Pride Week, was fined, and then voted back into office. At the Carleton conference, I tried to warn my fellow journalists not to ignore the power of religious forces in a cautionary parable. Here it is:
In the city of London there once was a Mayor who believed that it was possible to be both a Christian and a politician. In this city there was also an association of homosexuals. And it came to pass that these people petitioned the Mayor to proclaim Gay Pride Week and the Mayor refused, saying that to do so would violate her Christian beliefs. The homosexuals therefore went unto the Human Rights Commission to smite the Mayor, and the Commission did so, levying a fine of many thousands of shekels.
Now it came to pass that shortly after this an election was called in the city of London and the Mayor, to show her unhappiness with this decision, decided to stand for re-election but to absent herself from the campaign. And so she departed from the city and went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, or some such symbolic period of time, refusing to speak to the scribes or to spend a shekel on advertising. And the scribes mocked her.
But lo and behold, on the day of the election the Mayor was returned to office by a vast multitude, vanquishing her opponents even to the point of losing their deposits. And the Mayor journeyed back to the city in triumph from the desert, and proclaimed, "This is the will of God." And the scribes were much troubled and cried out, "What in God's name is happening?" Peter Desbarats is former journalism dean at the University of Western Ontario.