There's a book in the Bible called Numbers that begins with God ordering a census of people wandering in a wilderness. Why the Almighty wanted the mathematical count seems to come down to the issue of nation-building. Numbers were going to be needed for Moses and his leaders to understand all that would be required to create community and the structures that would nurture and sustain it. Canadian church leaders have sunk their teeth into that truth and protested the Conservatives' plan to end the mandatory long-form census.
Protecting a harmonious society, care for the poor and vulnerable, and safeguarding religious liberty are at the heart of their complaints. Like Moses's nemesis the Pharaoh, the federal government has turned a deaf ear.
Church leaders representing 76 per cent of Canadians (according to a 2003 Statistics Canada report) have written eloquent protests, all to no avail. For example, Anglicans said removing the mandatory long-form census would place the government in danger of overlooking the value and complexity of charitable work. Anglican officials reminded Industry Minister Tony Clement how the science of charity works: "In spiritual terms, this loving human response comes by the Grace of God, but in practical terms, it is emboldened and upheld by reliable information and sound methodologies. Statistical information has to help transform thought into action in profound and life-giving ways."
Their point is that, in order to prove a hunch that Canadian children are living in poverty, or that homelessness is increasing and requires a response from church budgets in terms of money and personnel, statistics are critical. Churches need to know how many teenagers are in the demographic pipeline, what kind of postsecondary education participation is part of their neighbourhoods, or how necessary English as second language classes may be. Author and theologian Eugene Peterson has observed, "counting and list making and rosters are as much a part of being a community of God as prayer and instruction and justice."
Catholics and Evangelicals reminded the government that strengthening the nation's identity comes from good information that helps build and protect a harmonious society. They argue that religion and ethnicity are such sensitive issues that they won't show up on voluntary submissions. "It's a sad day for Canada, and it is one that could dramatically affect religious liberties," blogged Rick Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has used census data to gain intervenor status at the Supreme Court to show that their moral voice on cases involving child pornography, abortion and religious expression is representative of a significant number of Canadians.
Catholic school boards worry that low-income renters - whose first language is often not English - will remain hidden and fail to receive the resources they need. Underreporting of low-income households is a problem for the social welfare agencies funded by the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto. The archdiocese relies on Statistics Canada data "to see how we can best be pastorally available to people," said research director Suzanne Scorsone. "Where do you send the pastors who speak Mandarin or Spanish or Polish? Where are the growing populations? And how do we plan for the future?"
So while Christians seem to be at risk of losing the scientific data they need to do their social efforts, teaching about giving information to God will go on. That's what people do when they pray. An important part of prayer is the practice of letting God have your information. Somehow, conclusions emerge in that mysterious practice, conclusions leading to discovery of self, purpose and meaning. Counted or not, that kind of activity has got to be a good thing for nation building.
Lorna Dueck is the executive producer of Listen Up TV .