The Story behind Levant’s Rant

         By now you have seen the headlines or watched the report from Sun News’ Ezra Levant: Nanaimo’s city council has banned Christians from renting city owned property. If your reaction is “there’s no way that’s true” well, then, you are right. However, it is not as if Ezra Levant simply made a story up out of thin air. In this post I will explain the story behind the Levant-rant by outlining: the motion passed by city council that formed the basis of Levant’s story, the significance of the motion for Christians, how the church responded to the motion, and how council responded to the church.  My next post will outline why Ezra Levant’s viral video is doing more harm than good.

The Motion:

On May 5th during a city council meeting, councilor Fred Pattje introduced the following motion:

that the City of Nanaimo advise the VICC that as owners of the facility any events that are assoiciated with organizations or people that promote or have a history of divisiveness, homophobia, or other expressions of hate, and as such advice the VICC to not permit the upcoming Leadercast event to occur in a City owned facility that is scheduled for May 9th”.

First and foremost, the grammar of this motion is a mess. It starts with a general statement about the VICC and events that are associated with people/organizations that have a history of hate but doesn’t complete that thought before abruptly moving to specific language about not permitting Leadercast on May 9th. One can only assume that the first part of Mr. Pattje’s motion was intended to ensure that no other organizations associated with “divisiveness, homophobia, or other forms of hate” could host an event at the VICC or other city owned properties. It is important to bear this in mind in order to understand the significance this motion had in the mind of Nanaimo’s religious groups.

The impetus for this motion was due to “one or two” phone calls that Mr. Pattje received from members of the LGBT community who were not happy with Leadercast coming to Nanaimo. Apparently this was also an issue last year when the Daily News wanted to sponsor Leadercast but dropped their pursuit of the event after members of city council spoke to them.

What is Leadercast?

Leadercast is an annual conference based in Atlanta that is simulcast in hundreds of communities across North America and is viewed by over a hundred thousand people each year. The conference includes speeches on leadership by well known figures including Nobel-prize winning Desmond Tutu, former First Lady Laura Bush, and the renowned, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. Keep in mind the conference is not religious but rather is on the topic of leadership in general.

Why did council ban Leadercast:

There were two reasons given by Fred Pattje for the banning of Leadercast. He made it clear in the meeting that either one of these reasons on their own would be sufficient reason to ban the event.

  1. The first reason was because one of the sponsors of Leadercast is Dan Cathy, the president of the fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A. Dan Cathy is well known for his opposition to same-sex marriage. In addition, the LGBT community has been critical of Cathy for funding organizations that make some dubious claims about homosexuality. For more on Cathy and the LGBT community’s feelings about him, read this.
  2. The second issue was that one of the speakers was a man named Dr. Henry Cloud, a psychologist who allegedly supports the theory that reparative therapy can “cure” homosexual orientation. For the record I can neither confirm nor refute this claim for Dr. Cloud as my google searches on the issue proved fruitless. If any of you can be of help in confirming or denying this allegation please comment below with your source.

So What’s the Big Deal:

The passing of this motion is a big deal for many reasons. First the arguments provided for cancelling Leadercast are weak.   The reasoning is classic guilt-by-association. It should not matter if the sponsor of the event is a saint, a villain, or whatever you think Dan Cathy is. The reality is that this event would do nothing to advance Cathy’s agenda about gay marriage nor would it in some way imply that the city was endorsing Cathy’s opinions on sexuality. It strikes me as ironic that a conference that included known gay-rights activists such as Desmond Tutu and Laura Bush was cancelled because Dan Cathy was footing part of the bill. Similarly it should not matter one iota what Dr. Cloud’s opinions are on reparative therapy, particularly since he was not addressing matters of sexuality at all but leadership.

Aside from the Leadercast issues, “the big deal” from a Christian point of view resides in the language at the beginning of the motion. Given the interpretation I have outlined above, many in the Christian community saw the motion as something that could be used to ban churches or other religious groups from renting city property such as the auditorium at Beban park which is rented for an interchurch Good Friday service each year. Christian people drew this conclusion because many churches in town, particularly of the evangelical variety, share Dan Cathy’s basic belief about marriage: i.e. that from a Christian point of view marriage is defined as a relationship between a man and a woman. While this issue was of primary importance, many Christian people were also upset by some of the language used during the discussion of the motion that can only be described as insulting and offensive towards Christians.

What did the Church Do About it?

The pastors of the evangelical churches in town held several meetings once they heard about what transpired in council.  They prayerfully considered how they could respond in a way that demonstrated the appropriate level of love and respect for the Nanaimo City Council, even while raising concerns about the potential of being unable to rent city property.  Many pastors wrote letters to council members outlining these concerns.  On June 16th, the Nanaimo Evangelical Fellowship came with an official delegation to council and outlined their concerns.  The video of this can be seen here.

How Council Responded:

Although I did not correspond directly with any members of council or the mayor, I am told that some members of the administration responded to the pastoral letters with an apology.  The mayor and some of the councilors also made their regular appearance at the annual prayer breakfast that suggests that they do value the religious citizens of Nanaimo.

Shortly after the Nanaimo Evangelical Fellowship’s delegation appeared before council, the mayor reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and guaranteed the rights of religious groups to rent city property.  It is important to note that the mayor made this statement before the Ezra Levant video went viral

Though the events at Nanaimo City Council generated a lot of hurt and passion, I am very proud of how the religious leaders responded to this issue.  The intention was never to embarrass, demean, or disrespect council but simply to urge council to recognize the rights of Nanaimo’s religious citizens.  I am also thankful for the mayor and the members of council who have reaffirmed religious people’s place in the public sphere.  My prayer is that the members of Nanaimo’s civic administration feel loved by the religious people in their city.


Must Religion bring Armageddon: Re-appropriating the Separation of Church and State.

Some time ago I wrote a blog which outlined why I believe the metaphors used to describe the relationship between citizens and their government have serious implications for how people believe the state should function.  There I contrasted two common metaphors:  mechanistic and organic.  ‘Mechanistic’ metaphors suggest that the state should be viewed as a social-contract.  The view believes that the state is to function as the public sphere and is to legislate a lowest common denominator of morality.   Conversely organic metaphors suggest that members of society are bound  ‘naturally’.  Organic metaphors tend to suggest that the legislation of the state should resemble the ‘ideal’ status of morality as much as possible.  Furthermore ‘organic’ views of the state suggest that the good of the state takes precedence over the good of individuals.

Judging by several recent newspaper columns it seems as though the significance of this dynamic has come home to roost in Canada.  For instance, Jane Taber wrote a thought provoking article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail.  The article draws attention to the latest spat between the Conservative government and the CBC.  According to the Conservatives, the CBC is attempting to divide Canadians by emphasizing the (‘evangelical’ Christian) religious affiliations of several prominent members of the Conservative government and thereby effectively creating a “faith war”.  Meanwhile the National Post’s website has run a column by Don Martin which summarizes the ideas behind Marci McDonald’s recently released book:  The Armageddon Factor.  The book highlights various maneuvers of the Conservative government which suggests that Harper’s Conservatives are trying to get into bed (without anyone else knowing it!) with the religious right.  Some notable maneuvers include raising the age of sexual consent to 16, having a Chief of Staff who is pro-life, cutbacks to feminist groups and gay pride parades even while providing additional funds for faith-based colleges (on this last point I cannot resist pointing out that Regent College–a world class faith-based graduate school will cost a student about 2.5 times more per year than someone working on a research-based graduate degree across the street at UBC).

What I find fascinating about these stories is not so much that Harper is trying to please the religious-right of Canada (really?  just figuring this one out now?) but rather the tendency of Canadians to think that it is inherently negative for religious convictions to be brought into the public sphere (see the “reader comments” on the Globe link for examples).  The irony of course is that opponents of the political agenda of the religious right often hold to a twisted vision of secular liberalism which attempts to prescribe its own set of values on the masses.  For example, in a previous blog I cited the tendency of certain secular liberal groups to prioritize diversity over individual rights.  What I would like to suggest is that the problem in Canadian politics is not bringing religion (Christian or otherwise) or some other worldview to the public sphere but rather a group’s attempt to legislate their prescribed version of morality for all Canadians.  To explain why this is the problem requires a closer look at the meaning and significance of social-contract.

Social-contract theory suggests that the state exists to promote the well-being of its members.  The idea is that a group of otherwise independent groups and/or individuals come together to find common or public space based on the belief that this space will allow them to flourish better off than they could individually (health-care, infrastructure, protection of private property through police force are all appropriate examples).  In this model the public space exists for the benefit of the individual people/sub-groups—in contrast to say the former Soviet Union where the individual was to serve the state.  In social-contract societies individuals/groups must bring their particular identifying markers such as religion, ethnicity, orientation, or sex to the public sphere.  This is for at least two reasons:

  1. The state will not be able to allow particular groups to flourish if it is not aware/does not understand their particular needs/desires.
  2. If groups/individuals are prevented from bringing their particular identifying markers to the shared space then the contract metaphor has been forsaken and is replaced by a particularly bland, ignore-the-differences  ‘organic’  understanding of the state a la France? Quebec?).

That being said, separation of church and state (and indeed separation of any particular group and state) still needs to occur in the sense that particular groups need to recognize the existence and legitimacy of others who have ‘signed on’ to the contract who do not share their particularities.  Special interest groups which neglect to do so are deserving of harsh criticism since their actions attempt to undermine the very purpose of social-contract.

To be clear I am not at all suggesting that debate over what is the highest good should be abandoned.  In fact, as the very existence of this blog suggests, I am an advocate for the public discussion of virtue, religion, etc.  However as a Mennonite I am also painfully aware that the attempt to legislate the highest good of a particular group often has morally reprehensible results—the drowning of Anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, the forced exile of Menno Simmons from Holland, or the mass-killings of 20th century Russian-Mennonites by the Bolsheviks are more than enough examples for me to remember what happens when we confuse categories.  This is especially true in the ‘global village’ where there is nowhere left for refugees to run to look for a tolerant nation.  In this context the prophetic words from the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort” come to mind:

There is no more new frontier,

We’ve got to make it here.