October 15, 2012
— Martin E. Marty
Canada is observing the bicentennial of a war we USA people call "the war of 1812," which we fought even before there was a Canada. While the media in that nation (formed in 1867) and ours are starting from scratch to teach us what the conflict was all about, a government-and-religion battle was shaping up over who gets to be prison chaplains in Canada. Alerted by friend John Stackhouse's blog, I followed through by checking other sources of the past week.
Sample headlines—you can find many more—include "Non-Christian Prison Chaplains Chopped by Ottawa," "Canada Cuts All Non-Christian Prison Chaplains," and, more editorially, "Vic Toews Offends Nearly Everyone. Again." Toews, in an understandable budget-cutting measure tried to solve the chaplaincy problem by announcing that the federal government "is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding." The surviving chaplains corps will be 100 percent Christian. An early story from CBC would have allowed Canadian Christians to boast that 88 percent of the nation's federal inmates were Christians, but that boast had to be muted when it was learned that only 37.5 percent behind bars were Catholic and 19.5 percent were Protestant. Muslims, First Nation peoples, Buddhists, Sikhs are to be ministered to, noted Corrections Canada, which could find only one percent or less of the prison population being Jewish—or Sikh. So, forget about them, or let the Christians minister to them, perhaps by finding volunteer and drop-in chaplains.
I have no solution to Canada's prison costs, and know that no one does. There can only be addresses to this problem, but Toews chose not the least worst but perhaps the worst way. His Ministry tried to solve the problem by imperially turning over prisoners of all faiths to the ministry or direction or fixing or tutelage of the biggest kid on the block, the Christians. Stackhouse posed thoughtful questions to Toews, some of which asked whether he was not turning religion into Christianity, and thus changing Christianity, its ministry, etc into something it is not.
In these cases I often quote George Santayana from Reason in Religion, and will turn most of the rest of my page over to him. "Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. [Which is what Minister Toew's politically-chosen Christianity would have to try to become.] Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in, and another world to live in--whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no—is what we mean by having a religion."
Mr. Toews, as he picked and chose one of those "worlds to live in" for Canada's ministered-to prisoners, turned the particulars of Christianity into something generic for Sikhs and Jews and all. One would expect Canadian Christians to resist this (admittedly) money-saving invention and imposition and, indeed, they are being heard from. If those of their faith who are prisoners want to complain, one would expect them to do so to their prison chaplain, who will always be the "picked and chosen" minister supreme.
John Stackhouse, "Seriously, Mr. Toews? Christian Chaplains Providing 'Generic' Services?" Clear, Expert, and Entertaining Connections. October 6, 2012.
CBC News, "Non-Christian prison chaplains chopped by Ottawa," October 4, 2012.
Chris Selley, "Vic Toews offends nearly everyone. Again," National Post, October 6, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.