It’s impolite to talk about religion in public. And that goes doubly in Canada, a country imbued with far less spiritual fervour than our neighbours to the south.
But the past few weeks, Canadians have become uncharacteristically interested in what goes on in the hearts of the godly.
Is a Toronto imam a virulent anti-Semite or a misunderstood man who flubbed a phrase? Does the new NDP leader want an independent Sikh homeland carved out of India? Did Bill Morneau provide a human sacrifice to our Reptilian overlords at this year’s Bilderberg meeting?
And then of course there’s Bill 62 in Quebec, which, in an attempt to bully a few dozen burqa- and niqab-wearing Quebecers, would also force people to take off their sunglasses and stare deep into their bus driver’s eyes before they can enjoy the privilege of being crammed into a moving metal box.
Perhaps all of this renewed religious tension is inevitable. After all, it was 500 years ago this month that Martin Luther nailed what amounts to a medieval version of an overly-long tweetstorm onto a church in Wittenburg, sparking awkward theological discussions and 130 years of uninterrupted bloodshed.
I don’t imagine that Barry Neufeld, a school trustee in Chilliwack, BC, and a devout Christian, has much love for the Protestant Reformation. Though he grew up in the Protestant tradition, he converted to Orthodox Christianity later in life.
And Neufeld takes religion very seriously.
He volunteers as a prison chaplain and sits on an interfaith advisory committee for the Correctional Service of Canada.
But it was because of his religiously-inflected comments on LGBT rights that Neufeld made headlines across the country this week.
“At the risk of being labelled a bigoted homophobe, I have to say that I support traditional family values,” he wrote Oct 23 on his Facebook page, which is now private. “Allowing little children choose [sic] to change gender is nothing short of child abuse.”
While the fact that a school trustee can have such poor grammar must strike terror in the hearts of educators, it was the bigoted content of his diatribe that got the most attention.
He cited as a source the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group of doctors who founded their group to oppose LGBT rights. And he linked to an article by the Center for Family and Human Rights, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has named an anti-LGBT hate group.
“If this represents the values of Canadian society, count me out! I belong in a country like Russia, or Paraguay, which recently had the guts to stand up to these radical cultural nihilists,” he wrote.
I wouldn’t be offended if Neufeld chose to self-deport, his subsequent weak apology notwithstanding. But unfortunately, he’s not the only religious person in a position of power making choices about LGBT youth.
On the other side of the Rockies, Alberta’s Catholic schools are trying to introduce a parallel sex education system so they don’t have to normalize such horrors as homosexuality, masturbation or gender. Like Ontario, Alberta has a publicly-funded Catholic school system.
While they’ve been thoroughly slapped down by the province’s NDP government, both Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, the frontrunners for the United Conservative Party leadership, have sided with the Catholic schools.
Given these religiously-motivated outbursts, even the most chauvinistic Quebec-basher might start to think that Quebec secularists have a point. Maybe it is better to marginalize religion in the public sphere as much as possible.
But the proponents of Bill 62 have much in common with religiously-motivated Christians like Neufeld: they both seek to further marginalize oppressed minorities. When religion is used as a tool of oppression, it’s unacceptable. When secularism is used as a tool of oppression, it’s unacceptable.
But there can be a healthy role for religion in public life. It can motivate action against injustice and push people to provide comfort to the afflicted, something Neufeld has clearly done through his prison ministry.
Yet religion can also blind. Neufeld’s views are soaked in homophobia and transphobia. If he could only see that queer and trans children in this country are suffering. They are not attempting to impose a nihilistic moral order on the faithful, but simply want to be protected from harm and seen as full human beings.
Neufeld is able to see prisoners as people worthy of compassion and love. It’s a shame he can’t see that same truth for queer and trans children.