Michael Coren is the author of The Future of Catholicism, Why Catholics Are Right and Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage.
For much of its four decades on the air, 100 Huntley Street was a familiar address on the Canadian TV dial – a place where many people seeking a break from the cares of the world could feel they’d found a refuge. The show was founded by the late David Mainse, whom I knew well, and who, over the quarter-century that he hosted the show, made viewers feel welcome in one of the country’s most hospitable living rooms.
Although a product of a traditional Pentecostal background, David was a kind, tolerant and forward-looking man. I remember him calling me in Britain in 2001, when my father died. He didn’t want to preach, only to tell me he was there for me. That combination of simple kindness, unalloyed by sermonizing, was typical of David’s Christianity, and under his guidance, 100 Huntley Street was far less political, less angrily conservative than its American TV counterparts. I was not the only one who thought so. Tony Campolo, a leader of the American evangelical left, once put it this way to me: “In the United States, every Christian television door was closed to me. But when I came to Canada, everyone at Huntley called me right away.”
That open-door policy was not to last. I had been a regular guest host of Huntley when, in 2015, I publicly endorsed equal marriage. Soon after, an e-mail arrived from the show’s producers. “It is felt that with the high public profile you have in relation to gay marriage … we have to part our ways.” I responded that I’d never mentioned the topic on their show, and would never do so, out of respect for what I knew was their position on sexuality. The response: “People know what you think.”
In fact, had viewers known the full extent of my thinking, they would have had even greater cause for concern – concern about their community’s own survival. For I am convinced, as are many believers, that Christianity is challenged as never before.
But the challenge comes not from popular hostility – no matter how much Christians might see themselves as a persecuted minority. No, to my mind, the threat facing the church is the very real prospect of public irrelevance. So many Canadians have turned away from Christianity. And yet, they are longing to turn toward it, if only Christians will stop judging them – and listen, instead, to their fears, hopes and longings for a better world.
Whenever I discuss my faith publicly, the response is startling. When I argue that Jesus demands us to struggle for peace, to welcome the marginalized, to embrace the LGBTQ2 community, to reverse economic injustice, to smash down the doors of prejudice and oppression and to confront climate change, I am inundated with e-mails.
Not e-mails of anger or derision. Rather, they are missives expressing nothing less than fascination – tinged with delight – that this could be what Christianity is really about. A man as establishment and traditional as William Temple, who 75 years ago was Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “Socialism is the economic realization of the Christian gospel.” How true his words ring today.
Party politics do not have the hold they once enjoyed. Traditional notions of social action have become clouded with cynicism. In the wake of their failure, we all – like it or not – harbour a faith-shaped vacuum deep in our being. What the good Archbishop knew then, we ought to know now with even greater certainty: If Canadian churches want to fill the pews with people longing for a truly better world, if religious leaders want to become a force for change once again, the way forward is absurdly easy: Be Christian – merely Christian, no more or less – and you will, by definition, be revolutionary in the truest, most pristine sense.
Many Christians would disagree with me, of course. Indeed, there is a battle raging and roaring for the soul of Canadian Christianity – between what we can broadly describe as the church’s left and right flanks. And those on the right are winning the day.
Insisting that the star of Bethlehem light up the public square
Just a few weeks ago, Doug Ford, brother of the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, became leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, three short months before an election that will determine the direction of Canada’s most populous province. Although Mr. Ford does not appear to be religious himself, he swept to victory – employing the same divisive playbook that helped propel his brother to power in 2010, and that handed Donald Trump the White House in 2016 – with the zealous support of Christian conservatives.
Among them was Paul Melnichuk, who, in the run-up to the leadership race last month, stood on the stage of his Prayer Palace megachurch in suburban Toronto, a beaming Mr. Ford at his side, and intoned to his followers: “This is a man surely the Lord has visited in the ninth season” – the critical hour of temptation – “and granted him a dream, a vision, for the people in this land, in this province, for the glory of God.”
Mr. Ford’s own speech to the congregation that day, delivered in front of a giant video screen displaying the address of his website, concluded by beseeching them to “go online and register your family and friends, because that’s the only way we can make a change in this province.” In return for that support, he added, “I can guarantee you we’ll make sure the church has a voice. All the time. All the time.”
Among the promises Mr. Ford has made should that voice be unleashed in June’s provincial election: to readdress if not remove the province’s sex-education curriculum, which attempts to talk to students frankly, and without judgment, about sexual activity, gender identity and sexual orientation; to allow anti-abortion protesters closer access to legal clinics; to deep-six a carbon tax; and to give Christian doctors the right to refuse referrals in cases of abortion and assisted dying.
Mr. Ford’s political colleagues Andrew Scheer, Leader of the federal Conservatives, and Jason Kenney, who heads the United Conservative Party in Alberta, are, unlike Mr. Ford, intensely religious – both strict Roman Catholics. Yet while they claim to respect the separation of church and state, each is viscerally uncomfortable with much of the social progress that Canadians now take for granted. The star of Ford and both these men, whether it originates in the sky above Bethlehem or not, is solidly in the ascendant.
And they are far from alone in framing the “Christian” way forward as one that veers defiantly rightward – defiantly away from, and counter to, the social liberalism of many Canadians.
Christian Elia is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL), an organization that regularly defends conservative Christianity. “Actual Catholics,” he says, “by following Church teaching and defending these teachings in the public square, do so because we honestly believe that we have a Christian world view shaped through 2,000 years of scriptural study, tradition and magisterial teaching that ought to be shared.”
“Actual Catholics.” Presumably, liberal Catholics do not qualify, being, as they are, among the very forces coalescing to ensure, in Mr. Elia’s words, that “the public square is increasingly being closed off to those of us with so-called conservative, religiously formed opinions” on marriage, abortion, gay rights and assisted suicide.
Mr. Elia’s is a difficult analysis to accept. Take the case of his fellow CCRL board member Tanya Granic Allen, who publicly fretted during the PC leadership debate that educating children about “anal sex” was taking their focus away from mathematics. When she ran for the Ontario PC leadership, Ms. Granic Allen was treated generously by most journalists, who gave her ample time and space to flesh out her platform, and who seldom asked challenging questions about her reactionary views on abortion rights and LGBTQ2 equality. Perhaps buoyed in part by that easy ride, she had the votes, come the party convention, to be a kingmaker for Mr. Ford – who is currently frontrunner to become Ontario’s premier.
But we hardly need to wait for Mr. Ford’s election to witness conservative Christian ideas finding their voice in Ontario politics. MPP Sam Oosterhoff, who used Facebook to denounce provincial legislation enabling same-sex couples to adopt children as “disrespectful to mothers and fathers,” is already an MPP, and at the age of 20, the youngest member of the Ontario legislature. He is also an unapologetic champion of evangelical conservatives.
Among Mr. Oosterhoff’s own biggest champions is conservative Christian firebrand Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, and also, it turns out, another enthusiastic backer of Mr. Ford. In part because “two million Ontario children are being experimented on, as we speak, with radical gender sex education,” Mr. McVety urged his followers into the public square by providing a video guide to help them complete online voter forms during the PC leadership race. Then, upon Mr. Ford’s victory, he issued a tweet connecting the celestial and earthly dots as he saw them: “Praise God,” he wrote, “for the incredible victory of @fordnation …”
Mr. McVety’s invitation for people of faith to inject their beliefs into politics provides a mirror, of sorts, to Christian leaders’ mounting calls for politicians to openly fight for and defend issues close to the hearts of conservative Christians. Interim describes itself as Canada’s life and family-issues newspaper. “Many leadership candidates and other politicians will try to court pro-life and pro-family voters indirectly,” Interim editor Paul Tuns says. “But these voters want someone to champion their causes.”
And Mr. Tuns finds no shortage of politicians he says are doing just that. In Ms. Granic Allen, Mr. Ford and Mr. Kenney, as well as in former federal Conservative leadership contenders Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, Mr. Tuns says, “religious conservatives have found champions.” Champions, it seems, in something like a zero-sum game, in which social progress is defined as defeat, plain and simple, for individual Christians. “Many pro-life and pro-family Canadians see their way of life and their values under attack,” he says, “and they will strongly support candidates who either share their values or simply speak up for them.”
It would be wrong, however, to assume that there are no prominent Christians in progressive circles. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her partner are committed members of the United Church – I’ve preached at their church when they were present – and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, were she not a politician, would likely have pursued Anglican ordination.
Still, such a public embrace of Christianity is the exception. There are numerous Christians in political life and in the media, but it’s too often seen as gauche, politically clumsy or plain embarrassing for progressive believers to discuss their faith, or even simply to mention it, in the public square.
That’s partly owing to fear of blowback from a jarring coalition, however cleft, of angry atheists and right-wing Christians. I suspect it comes as well from a reluctance to be lumped in with American Christian politicians and their crass obsession with what seems like perfunctory prayer and Christian nationalism, not to mention their determination to use the levers of political power to wage all-out war on a range of liberal issues that even many Christians consider settled.
Propelled by Christian fear, the middle ground disappears
Too bad, because there is a middle way. Richard Coles is a Church of England priest who is openly gay and also a former member of the pop group the Communards, which had a series of hit songs in Britain in the 1980s (and whose name was a nod to the socialist revolutionaries of the Paris Commune) Hardly a typical priest, he is now a beloved BBC personality, and has never compromised on his beliefs.
“Part of my vocation,” he says, is “to go to places where I can almost uniquely go because of the peculiarities of my curriculum vitae, to try to witness there to the love of Jesus Christ, to seek out those in need of his love and give them the good news and simply to be a person with a public commitment to a life of faith in a place where you don’t often see it.”
Nor are such more-forward-thinking Christians without friends and allies. Roman Catholicism constitutes Canada’s largest Christian denomination; and while the Church remains solidly conservative on the issues of contraception, abortion and gay rights, Pope Francis is the most liberal and forward-looking pontiff in half a century – a genuine champion of the poor and dispossessed, and of planet Earth itself. The United Church, meanwhile, is decidedly on the left, a sort of liberalism or social democracy at prayer. The Anglican Church elected its first openly partnered gay bishop in 2016, and its Niagara diocese chose its first woman bishop earlier this month.
Still, forging a middle path on matters of faith and social justice – one nurtured by conversations of goodwill and openness among Christians – is anything but a given in Canada right now. The recent death of Billy Graham provided something of a test case. Known as America’s Pastor, to many people, he was also Canada’s Chaplain; his following in this country was enormous, and the mourning here that followed his death was sincere and widespread.
But so was the anger at anybody who exposed the man’s faults. I wrote a column praising Mr. Graham’s many qualities, but also pointing out that he had made repugnant anti-Semitic comments in what he thought was a private conversation with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office; had called for the bombing of civilian targets, including dikes, in North Vietnam (a war crime, by the way); was deeply opposed to Christianity’s acceptance of LGBTQ2 people; and, at the age of 93, was still campaigning against equal marriage. He had apologized for the taped “Jewish conspiracy” rubbish, and also for calling AIDS a punishment from God – but he maintained, to the end, his homophobia, his bellicosity and his rigid theology.
That, one would have thought, was sufficient grounds for at least a conversation about the man’s Christian values.
But there is none so angry as a fundamentalist scorned, and Mr. Graham’s Canadian supporters told me in their hundreds how appalling and heretical I was. Yet, there were just as many Canadian Christians who thanked me for what I had written, who wanted the non-Christian world to know that conservatism and Christianity are not interchangeable, and who lamented that their more progressive brand of the faith was so seldom highlighted. Christianity is not united, and never has been.
But it’s near impossible to see, in too many Canadian churches, the spirit and purpose of “the way” founded by a Galilean Jew living in occupied Palestine two millennia ago. Jesus himself said not a word about homosexuality or abortion, was far more concerned with justice and acceptance than with order and structure, warned the rich of the dangers of their wealth, praised and loved the poor and marginalized, and rejected the existing religious establishment. The Gospels sing rather than shout, and that song is of a shockingly different and liberated society, a world turned upside down from the one that Jesus lived in and that, in many ways, we live in still.
Conservative Christians do reach out to the poor on an individual if not structural basis. But for all that, they see Christian love more in terms of a moral code, emphasizing what they refer to – albeit incorrectly – as the traditional family, the sanctity of the unborn and consequent evil of abortion, the sinful nature of homosexuality, the immorality of assisted dying, the reality of spiritual warfare and the decline of Christian order and virtue.
What they lack is an understanding, or acceptance, of the need for more systemic change. Yes, they might have a deep faith that permeates all they are and do, and in that regard sometimes put other Christians to shame. Yet, underlying that absolute commitment to religion is a clinical, harsh code of right and wrong. They would do well, instead, to heed the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran martyr to Nazism: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Some are Protestant and embrace the literal truth of the Bible; others are Roman Catholic and look to the teachings of the Magisterium (the all-powerful teaching office of the Catholic Church). So we now have a strange unity – a strange ecumenism – where conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics have more in common with one another that they do with the liberal members of their respective churches.
This is nothing less than a startling development, one that Canadian poet and novelist Maggie Helwig, who has served as an Anglican priest in downtown Toronto since 2012, describes as “a different kind of protest movement” – one “based in a kind of panic fear about a situation in which Christianity is no longer hegemonic.” The result, she says, is a theology that “mobilizes the worst authoritarian and punitive tendencies in Christian theology” in the face of what its adherents have to come to define as “terrific existential danger if certain rigid boundaries are transgressed.”
A parallel world with its own laws and logic
For liberal Christians, aware that many Canadians have come to define all Christianity as a movement propelled by rigidity and negativity, the frustration is profound.
And the challenge, says Jocelyn Bell, editor-publisher of the United Church Observer, is manifold. “Liberal voices do get heard, and among them are many committed liberal Christians,” she says – but those same people often do not share the fact that their opinions are informed by their faith.
Equally testing, she says, has been the passing of an era when “it was much more common for a news reporter to contact the moderator of the United Church of Canada for an opinion on an issue of national importance.” The upshot, in her view? “Liberal Christian leaders today have to work harder to make sure their voices are included in the conversation.”
“The scandal of the evangelical mind,” in the words of Mark Noll, one of the most respected historians of the evangelical world, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” It wasn’t always that way. The early Protestant movement prided itself on being the thinking branch of Christendom. The Puritans established universities in colonial America. And 17th-century British dictator Oliver Cromwell – who cut off the king’s head, and banned Christmas (too wasteful, too papal) – employed faithful John Milton as one of his secretaries.
While in Catholic circles, a belief in intellectual excellence still exists (although it’s far stronger among Jesuits and Dominicans), evangelical culture has retreated from the world – and, perhaps more disturbingly, is working to erect a parallel one that is run according to its own laws and logic. Which is why we see a new wave of Christian high schools and colleges, and the inevitable debates. Witness the battle between Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. and various law societies over that Christian college’s desire to start a law school whose students must agree to forgo sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage.
Or take the example of the Trudeau government’s decision to require groups seeking funding for the Summer Jobs Program to affirm their respect for a woman’s right to choose. The decision went to the epicentre of the church-state relationship (while also, it’s worth noting, making small-l liberal Christians feel almost anonymous). An attempt to prevent tax dollars ending up in the hands of extreme anti-abortion groups was clumsily handled by the government, and thus played into the persecution complex so relished by the Christian right.
What wasn’t made clear by those complaining of being victims of liberal “discrimination” was that many of these same people would be the first to refuse to hire openly gay students – or even straight students living with a partner to whom they are not married. It all seems so ugly, and lacking in the gentleness demanded by the rebel Jesus.
Indeed, perhaps nowhere is the modern-day Kulturkampf more pronounced than on the issue of abortion, a litmus test on which Catholics and evangelicals have forged a common ground against all liberal comers. It is a tragic intransigence, because here is an area where common ground is not only possible, but desirable.
All Christians, and most people for that matter, would like to see abortion rates decline. That could be achieved, and has been achieved, by making contraceptives readily available, by insisting on modern sex education in schools, by reducing poverty, by funding public daycare and by empowering women more generally.
And yet, Catholics insist on remaining opposed to “artificial contraceptives” and, alongside their Protestant allies, lead the campaign against frank and healthy sex education, while framing state-funded day care as an attack on the family and a form of social engineering. As for abortion itself, the Christian right wants it defunded, and ultimately – however much they may deny this publicly – banned and criminalized.
For, make no mistake: Such ideological tussles are anything but abstract debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The Halton Catholic District School Board, west of Toronto, last month passed a motion that bans it from facilitating financial donations to charities that support, “either directly or indirectly, abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, or embryonic stem-cell research.” Under the ban, the Hospital for Sick Children, the United Way and Doctors Without Borders would become charities non grata.
Indeed, for many Catholics, the loathing of abortion, no matter the circumstances, trumps even the most basic of Christian virtues. In 2015, in The Prairie Messenger, a Catholic newspaper in Western Canada, I wrote supportively about a 10-year-old Paraguayan girl who had been denied an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. I was promptly fired (albeit amid profuse apologies from my editor, who cited external pressure). Which in turn prompted Lifesite, the Canadian anti-abortion movement’s most prominent media platform – and one of the most influential conservative Christian sites in the world – to announce that they were “glad that the Prairie Messenger will no longer be a mouthpiece for Coren’s misplaced notions of compassion and love.”
Imagine: compassion and love for a pregnant 10-year-old having no place at the Christian table.
And yet, who is welcome at that table? Donald Trump, a man who lies on a near daily basis, who has given comfort to racist thugs, who has admitted to sexual assault and is by all accounts an adulterer. As with Christians in the United States, conservative believers in Canada are more than happy to defend the man.
And why not, they ask. He opposes a woman’s right to choose (after years of claiming otherwise), has fired every member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, has renewed his call to ban transgender citizens from serving their country in the U.S. military and has promised to vigorously appoint “pro-life judges.” To a number of his religious supporters, he is a new Constantine, the deeply flawed emperor who allowed Christianity to flourish in ancient Rome: As Mr. Trump proudly champions all that is selfish and mean, these Christians accuse his opponents of being “demonic.”
The complexities of Scripture and the simplicity of love
Liberal Christians point out the contradiction in all this. And point out, as well, the dangers of turning to Scripture as a defence of right-wing moral codes. Genesis, after all, implies that human life begins when a baby takes its first breath – after birth, of course – which is a bit tricky for the pro-life crowd. When life in the womb is referred to in the Bible, it’s more figurative and communal than direct and specific, which is the case for so much in a book regarded by all serious Christians as inspired, but which many of us accept was never supposed to be read as a pedantic guide to daily living.
In any case, defending life is a complicated affair. As the Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister has said: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.”
Or what of Christians who would deny equality to LGBTQ2 people – in a world where homophobia leads to persecution, family rejection, self-harm and even suicide? It’s another of those subjects that, while of concern to Christians on both sides of the aisle, is hardly touched on in the Bible. The Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah is less about homosexuality than about hospitality – protecting one’s guests and neighbours, and loving God rather than oneself. Remember, it features Lot offering up his teenage daughters to a rape mob in place of his angelic guests! Hardly family values.
When the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – do speak of homosexuality, it is condemned with other transgressions such as combining different cloths, eating the wrong foods and having sex with a woman when she is menstruating. As for St. Paul’s rejection of homosexuality in the New Testament, it is concerned with straight men using boys, usually young teenagers, for loveless sex, a practice common in Greek and Roman culture. And while Jesus doesn’t speak of the subject, it’s worth rereading his affirming and loving response to a Roman centurion who cares deeply for his slave. Many theologians are convinced that this is an account of a gay partnership.
The progressive Christian approach is to understand Biblical teaching through the prism of love, to regard the Bible as a living document that on certain subjects speaks differently to different ages. It is to acknowledge that the writers of the Old Testament knew little if anything of committed, loving same-sex relationships. As Ms. Helwig notes, “The radical left theological tradition, which goes much further back in Christian history” imparts a message of deep humanity, one in which “we don’t need to be afraid of the ‘other’ or, finally, of God, that God is constantly drawing us all into the vast mystery of love, and that we are, despite our many human failures, deeply, existentially safe. So we can be vulnerable, and open, and comfortable with difference and uncertainty.”
In an era of science – and inequality – Christianity must smarten up
“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware, an English convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, and who for many years was a lecturer at Oxford University. “God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
That wonder is troubling for the complacent, who want their faith neatly packaged in catechismal certainty. But being born again is not the same as being born yesterday, and questioning is not the same as doubting. As scientific knowledge expands and public attitudes change, Christianity today must either respond intelligently and constructively, or retreat into an ever-shrinking, more hostile ghetto.
For Canadian Christians (and here, it is not solely the conservative among them) the newest battle front is assisted dying or, as opponents prefer to call it, euthanasia. Unlike abortion and homosexuality, this is more a work in progress, a conundrum whose resolution is still undecided for many people. Not for all, however.
Last year, German Roman Catholic Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a hero to conservative believers, paid a visit to Canada. Once here, he delivered a public speech in which he described as “tragic” Canada’s moves toward a (it must be said: eminently sane, tightly controlled) policy of assisted dying. His comments were warmly lauded by the Christian right, who welcomed his introduction of moral triumphalism into an issue that is profoundly nuanced and complex.
To liberal Christians, it seemed that once again those on the right of the church care most about people just before they are born, and just before they die. In between, not so much. In the process, those conservatives betray their indifference to economic systems that exacerbate suffering across the lion’s share of our time here on Earth.
There was a time when Christian social conservatives in Canada held to an economic gospel, when they were prepared to believe that the desire for more socialistic policies was compatible with conservative views on life and sexuality. Like so much that involves benevolence and mercy, that position has been largely suffocated. As Protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics rally round right-wing politicians, they trade away kindness and generosity in exchange for a guarantee that Canada’s legislatures will call a halt to social progress.
Canadian Christianity is bisected, and – as the absolute numbers attest – in trouble. And while no faith should be measured exclusively by its headcount, without worshippers, there is no community, no money and, for that matter, no church.
The coming years will see a new generation of believers assuming positions of influence and authority in our churches and in our society. Those leaders will have the option of building walls or building bridges, of extending the circle so as to include as many people as possible or standing at the corners of their creeds and repelling all they see as a threat. Of lending a hand to the marginalized and needy, or withdrawing it once and for all.
James E. Wallis Jr. is a Christian writer and political activist, best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, a journal of the evangelical left. He writes: “Two of the greatest hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social change. The connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for, especially the new generation. And the first hunger will empower the second.”
Whether Canadian Christians will listen to Mr. Wallis – or, for that matter, to Jesus Christ – remains to be seen. Their decision will influence all of us, whatever our faith or lack thereof.
And it will determine whether our houses of worship, and our houses of politics, are places of division and discord – or living rooms where love is always welcome and compassion finds a home.
Through a glass darkly: About the art
John Edward Martin is a Hamilton-based artist who specializes in traditional painted stained glass. He designed and built this window in his Solar Temple Studio especially for Michael Coren’s story.