As a young girl growing up on a self-sufficient farm in the mid 20th century, I remember the distress of my father when government-stipulated quotas and other laws basically drove him out of business.
Bigger farms were considered more progressive and more efficient. It was easier to distribute the produce. It was “better” use of land. My father and other small farmers in their small communities seemed defeated and marginalized by this “progress.” Many of them, like my father, lost the sense of purpose and dignity and honour that their fathers and great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers received in their communities.
Later in life, after being married, I remember having a short visit and lunch with my father. I remember him saying with a heavy heart: “Eat. It is all you have in life.”
To me, his remark seemed defeatist, but I am certainly aware what it meant. He struggled his whole life for purpose, and for his ideal of working on a self-sufficient farm. Raising a family, his only desire was to feed us because he knew from his childhood that sometimes there wasn’t any food to eat. He was making sure we did not go without food.
To be self-sufficient for his family was his purpose, his dignity, and his honour. Yet the idea of social and economic progress seemed to devastate my father into thinking he was a failure, a nobody. It was not true. How many people could take a dilapidated 40-acre farm, raise eleven children and provide food on the table every day of their life? Still, it overwhelmed him.
As I experience day-to-day life in Canada, I witness, and become more convinced, that Canadians are forced to embrace laws, social policies and social ideas that have an effect on them very similar to what my father endured so many years ago. Once a social policy is considered progressive, it becomes almost sacrosanct. Deviation from its thought and ideals is considered old-fashioned, a refusal to accept progress. Dialogue is stymied to the point of creating fear within the realm of work, social connections, and sometimes even in faith communities.
In his recent Convivum article, “To Differ Without Deferring,” Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, offered a sound position about what a pluralistic democracy needs to continue in a healthy peaceful way. He brought awareness to our need to explore and “freely contemplate and adhere to beliefs” that can answer questions of who we are, and what our relationship is to God and others.
Certainly, I agree with his position on freedom of religion and conscience as the first principles of a democracy. They are the freedoms that provide deep respect, even virtue, in a healthy peaceful pluralistic democracy.
As I think back on what happened to my father, though, I cannot help asking whether the same devastation will happen to us in our society of pluralism? If people cannot conduct the core of their religion within the “public space,” and are denied the right of conscience, does this not diminish purpose, dignity and honour within our society? Where are we headed when certain citizens are afforded the better position within society because they agree with the prevailing age, while others who disagree are shamed into thinking their ways are “old fashioned” and outside the boundaries of progress?
Andrew Bennett at least partly answer this by saying: “If our concept of freedom is purely one of economic, social, and/or political freedom divorced from this existential freedom then our participation in society will be frustrated.”
True, but what does that mean in practical terms for a society where there is clearly a “muzzled” effect on, to take just two examples, issues such as sexual identity and euthanasia? Policies in these two areas have quite recently become law, and now people are hesitant to air their opinions in the public space for fear someone will react negatively to their thoughts and expression of opposition. We are made to believe we must keep quiet about our beliefs and our disagreement.
It is true, too, that what is held dear to us through religious beliefs and conscience rights, and what we feel in opposition to the prevailing age, is not new to our world. Every age appears to have had this challenge in one way or another. What is interesting within our society is the need through law, public policy and policies of social belonging, to silence discussion, and to especially silence religious freedom and conscience rights. We silence rights that we have enjoyed for a very long time, that have stood the test of time and are, of course, enshrined in our Constitution. This silencing diminishes dialogue and, as I witness in my circle of friends and relatives, creates anxiety around even having dialogue.
Who would risk speaking up as an employee of a government organization to express, respectfully, one’s religious views? Who would express opposition to prevailing policy? When it comes to euthanasia, what nurse or doctor will risk their job to speak against the violation of conscience rights within a publicly funded health system? Already there are groups that question whether any “health institution” that is publicly funded can even have an “institutional conscience.” Can it really exist? After all, it is said, a building that provides patient outcomes or services does not have a conscience. It is a building that provides service, that is all.
What of the people who work within that building? They must apparently comply with the policy that brings progress just as my father was forced to comply with the progress that drove him from the land he worked to feed his family. Is this the kind of pluralistic society we want?
I think most Canadians would say no. Yet as I look around me, I sense that most Canadians do not know what is really at stake, which is why it’s so important that Andrew Bennett’s words be read and fully understood.
Religious freedom and their truths drive us in Faith, Hope and Love within ourselves and outside of ourselves and with others. Religious freedom allows us a deep expression of who we are, and our freedom of conscience can give us permission to seek the truth. If we damage and diminish these freedoms, we damage ourselves as a society, a nation, and as a people who seek freedom of expression within a pluralistic democracy.
Convivium means living together. Would you join us in continuing to open and extend the conversation? Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!