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Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Pax Modernitas

Joseph K. Woodard
National Post

In deliberating upon the constitutional principle of "freedom of religion," 200 years ago, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, argued that "the power to tax is the power to destroy." He therefore concluded that the state must not enjoy the power to tax the church, else the state and civil society would both lose their independent moral compass.

There's no evidence that Revenue Canada disagrees with Marshall's diagnosis of the power of taxation. Yet, our taxman is apparently willing to risk the destruction of the church for the sake of an expanded tax base. Ironically, however, should the hammer come down upon Canada's churches, it might be the best thing for them. Our churches have suffered from what Julian Benda, 70 years ago, called "the treason of the clerics," betraying their custodianship of timeless moral truths in pursuit of social relevance. A spot of persecution might remind them of their first loyalty.

Two anti-abortion groups, Human Life International, and Alliance for Life, have been stripped of their charitable status, because they did not present a "balanced" message on abortion. And a pro-chastity teen-outreach group has been denied charitable status, because it does not include the joys of contracepted promiscuity in its message. Is it accidental that the targeted groups preach Christian virtues? Whenever was the feminist Women's Legal Education and Action Fund required to preach the joys of housewifery?

Last year, the Canadian Council of Christian Charities warned its member organizations about Revenue Canada's increasing aggressiveness toward Christianity. Ottawa is applying a new criterion of "disinterested generosity," in a move toward invalidating church-centred charitable donations. For example, a parent with a child in a church school was denied a deduction for a donation to its student aid fund, on the grounds that any benefit to the school might benefit the donor. And a Bible college was denied charitable status for donations to its missions program, because the young missionaries helped to raise the funds, thus "benefiting" themselves. Is it accidental that the targets are Christian? Diabetics supporting the Diabetes Association and symphony-goers helping their local orchestras are not being challenged.

If the churches held the public prominence that was theirs, 40 years ago, they would now be besieging Parliament. Today, however, they haven't the public presence. Roughly 78% of Canadians still call themselves Christian (versus 10% agnostic, 10% atheist, and 2% "other"). But regular Sunday attendance runs only 15%-33% among the mainstream denominations, and few of those could be recruited in a countercultural cause. Across denominational lines, traditionalist pastors, much in the minority, are consoling their isolated flocks, not merely in opposition to the reigning secular culture, but against the rapidly putrefying progressivism within their own denominations.

Since the United Church opened the door to ordaining homosexuals in 1988, it has haemorrhaged weekly attenders, shrinking from 750,000-800,000 to 200,000-250,000. Meanwhile, counter-cultural coalitions like the Community of Concern and Covenanting Congregations keep growing. As the United Church mainstream wanes, and its traditionalists wax, the remnant should constitute its majority within a decade, when the denomination is down to around 100,000 committed members.

Similar trendlines are crossing within the Anglican Church, where the Essentials Movement finds growing support among its bishops. Vancouver aside, the Anglican hierarchy has suffered less from heresy than cowardice, especially regarding abortion. So the Anglicans too may reach a solid, counter-cultural remnant within the next decade; their committed weekly attenders likewise number around 100,000.

Catholic weekly attenders have held at around 33%, due to their sterner tradition of Sunday observance. But committed Catholics have instead clustered around a much smaller pro-life movement (perhaps 5%-10%), leaving the repair of their hierarchy to Rome. As the "Sixties" generation of bishops passes on, most recently from Edmonton and Victoria, their more solid successors are inheriting rebellious priests and paedophilia lawsuits. If the Roman Church loses its charitable status, it may count three million in its pews in English Canada, but perhaps only 300,000 will be firmly counter-cultural.

Conservative evangelical churches, with just under 10% of Canadians, are actually growing, largely with defections from other churches. But with few exceptions, Canadian evangelicals tend toward a lifeboat mentality, rendering them socially and politically indistinguishable from the secular mainstream.

These numbers are more symbolic than exact, of course. Nevertheless, as Lethbridge sociologist Reg Bibby so clearly demonstrates, among modern Canadians, private "spirituality" is very in, and public "religion," out. To the extent such things are predictable, within the next generation, Canada's morally committed Christians could number just 5% of the population, led by paupered bishops, priests and pastors, and thoroughly isolated from the mainstream.

What will that mainstream look like? History may not repeat itself precisely, but, human beings do have a limited spiritual repertoire. This is increasingly an age of administrative supremacy, the dominion of thousands of pinch-faced Pontius Pilates, each of them with the ready repartee, "What is truth?" to answer every cry of the human heart. To some extent, we've been here before.

The last, full-blown age of administrative supremacy in the West was the Augustan Romanitas, the age of great armies and universal laws ruling little cities and petty gods. Rome was cosmopolitan, but its cynical tolerance didn't extend to Christians. Christians refused to burn that necessary little pinch of incense to the Divine Caesar. Romanitas didn't mind if its people were corrupt, but it was extremely impatient of any morality transcending its pragmatism. If the Christians were eager to die, rather than concede the supremacy of the Princeps, the Empire was happy to oblige. So, during Nero's persecution, tar- dipped Christians were burned as torches, lighting his garden party.

Modernitas may be just as intolerant of Christian morality, but it eschews physical cruelty. Indeed, its administration promises therapeutic relief from all suffering. And whatever its methods -- abortion, pharmaceutical intervention, euthanasia, or the apprehension of children threatened by "cult" activities, it always acts for the good of its subjects. The church, however, may be consoled by the certitude that its subjects will always need something more than can be provided by public administration.

Joseph K. Woodard is a freelance writer based in Calgary.

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