Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Separation of church & state 5: Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder? Apparently not!

It's probably just the weird way my mind works sometimes, but when I think of the school district's sexual education program, which emphasizes abstinence, I always think of the old proverb about absence making the heart grow fonder.

[For the more literary minded, the Roman poet Sextus Propertius gave us the earliest form of this saying in Elegies: Always toward absent lovers love's tide stronger flows.] 

At any rate, the school district developed a sex education program some decades back that emphasized abstinence as the only sure way of avoiding sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and all of the other ills that go with today's culture of twerking and rapid coupling. Abstinence-based sexual education is commonplace in school districts in the U.S., but less so in Canada. While birth control is taught, it does not extend to fitting condoms on bananas and so on. The contents of the program, by the way, were developed completely by teachers in the district.

While we have letters on file from medical people thanking us for this approach to sexual education, and have received inquiries from around the continent about it, here in British Columbia we have been laughed at, ridiculed, and are now being challenged by the human rights watchdogs for failing our students. Here's a sample:

The BC Humanist Association, a community of atheists, agnostics, and what they call freethinkers, has written a letter to BC’s education minister asking him to look at the Abbotsford school district sex education curriculum.
Executive Director Ian Bushfield says his group is opposed to focusing primarily on abstinence without teaching the use of contraceptives.
“We found a policy in Abbotsford which promotes what we see as a religious, morally inspired view of human sexuality that maybe deprives a number of non-Christian or non-religious students in the district of a full comprehensive sex education.
Bushfield says abstinence should be a part of any sex education program, but not the only part. (Source: Star 98.3, Nov. 29/2012. Emphasis added).

This illustrates what I was suggesting in an earlier post; i.e., that moral positions that are not aligned with what are perceived to be current societal norms--as interpreted by the media, advocacy groups, pollsters, politicians, and so on--are pretty quickly vilified, ridiculed, dismissed, and worst of all, seen as religion intruding on an unwilling society.

This is why people like Justin Trudeau, who is all about societal norms, take the position that our current regimen of abortion on demand is the only acceptable one. While only about 30% of Canadians actually support abortion on demand, another third are accepting of abortion in some instances--everything from age of viability; to end of first trimester; to incidents of rape, incest, and endangerment of the mother's life (in this latter case less than 5% of all abortions, by the way). Since the 20-30% of Canadians who oppose abortion, and the 30 - 40% of Canadians who accept it with restrictions, by and large aren't kicking up a fuss about the issue, it is easiest for the politicians to stay the course and avoid criticisms from those who are most vociferous in supporting abortion on demand and who tend to get the national media's uncritical attention. See, for example, "Onward Christian Soldier" in the Full Pundit section of the National Post, August 28. 2014 where it is reported that in a documentary on Prime Minister Harper's evangelical beliefs, that Harper would like to reopen the abortion debate but won't because he knows that it's a political non-starter.

This is why I take the position that the political process is a poor way to bring down the abortion rate. On this issue our political leaders are, by and large, moral cowards for whom staying in power will trump almost any principle once held while out of politics or in opposition. 

Excuse the cynicism. On the other hand, show me I'm wrong.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Separation of church & state 5: How I try to make it work at the municipal level - Disciplining students and staff

In a school district, moral issues typically come in two forms: one, disciplining either students or employees; and two, the nature of some of the curriculum.

First discipline. Student discipline normally would not fall under the purview of the trustees. But long ago, some school trustees and other community members were instrumental in the founding of a non-profit society called the Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association (http://www.arjaa.org/), with which we now contract to deal with many student discipline issues in our school. While there are times when students simply have to be removed from school for the greater good (e.g., criminal activity such as drug possession/dealing, carrying weapons, assaults, and so on), there are also many instances where a restorative approach is the far better alternative in the long run. 

To me, ARJAA exemplifies the christian approach to conflict resolution. In a nutshell, the approach is as follows:

Based on the principles of restorative justice, Abbotsford Restorative Justice holds offenders accountable to their victims and the community and assists them to make appropriate amends and repair the harm done. 

As an alternative to the criminal justice system, restorative justice provides support to both victims and offenders, allowing an incident to be resolved directly between the affected parties without going to court.  

ARJAA also works with Abbotsford School District 34, delivering training in conflict resolution for staff, students and their families, and helping schools implement Restorative Action—a restorative justice program specially designed to address bullying and other forms of conflict in schools (emphasis added). 

I am happy to say that this same approach has, by and large, been used in dealing with staff disciplinary issues as well. 

The second moral issue has to do with the teaching program itself. Abbotsford has followed the lead of other school districts, particularly in the United States, in encouraging the implementation of character education into its schools. One high school in particular, WJ Mouat Secondary, has taken national leadership in the development of its character council and courses (http://wjmouat.sd34.bc.ca/students/character/values). 

But as I mentioned in an earlier post, taking moral positions is easier when the virtues in question are generally supported in society, as is the case with character education. The situation becomes more difficult when an issue is more controversial. The best example in our school district is sexual education.

What till you see what great sin we're guilty of in Abbotsford!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Separation of church & state 5: How I try to make it work at the municipal level - The public's money

Where I want to get to eventually is whether one can be christian without being a Christian in a system like that of the Canadian Parliament, with party discipline, party whips, a Prime Minister's Office that tells individual government members how to vote and even what to say, or a leader (in this case, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau) who tells his caucus members how they must vote even regarding highly morally charged issues, such as abortion, where individual consciences are at stake.

As I noted in earlier posts, I have been in municipal politics for 27 years, but have had the luxury of being a political free agent for all of that period. Therefore, I have never had to deal with party discipline issues. Nevertheless, the British Columbia school act requires that school districts be run on a strictly secular and non-sectarian basis. Consequently, I have had to work with integrity as a school trustee within that system while also being true to my faith and myself.

As I've tried to make clear as well, I don't believe that being christian means a) imposing certain moral rules that are unique to my faith but not necessarily part of prevailing societal norms; and b) being coercive in governing the school district. In the former case, my decision-making rests primarily on God's principles and values, not rules. In the latter case, if God is so respectful of human choice that he avoids being coercive, how can I be different? God's use of full information and offers of support to achieve his goals, while leaving the final choice to the individual, has been highly instructive to me.

Now, how does this work out in reality?

Governing a school district is, most of the time, a pretty straightforward process. A school board hires excellent people to lead the district, manage its budget, teach the students, plan well for the future, work with partners, and generally give students an education a for life worth living. Easy peasy, or so you would think.

But whenever there are scarce resources--and there is never enough money to fund every meritorious program--how does one choose?  And if there are morally charged issues associated with choices one
must make--such as sexual education or disciplining an employee for misconduct--how does one decide?

I'll take the former first--scarce resources. Being careful stewards of our resources is certainly a biblical virtue, and generally speaking it is publicly approved as well. That is not to say that we don't see shocking waste in various governments, and too often we've witnessed political snouts deep into the public trough, former Alberta Premier Alison Redford being the latest egregious example.

But I have always been a member of school boards that place a high value on weighing the educational value of every financial decision, always keeping in mind the business we're in--educating kids. Transparency in financial decision-making, and giving ample opportunity for public input into how the budget is to be used, are crucial to this process. It is, in the final analysis, the public's money.

I should add that British Columbia boards of education no longer have the authority and responsibility to set local school tax rates. Virtually all of our funds come from the provincial government and school boards have precious little leverage in squeezing more money out of the Ministry of Education. In addition, we don't negotiate educators salaries at the local level.

But we're still left with choosing among competing requests for funding. I have a little grid through which I run such possibilities:
  • Is it consistent with the strategic plan for the school district?
  • Does it stand on its own merits as an educational opportunity or as a means to help students to reach their potential?
  • How many students does it impact as compared to other requests that are under consideration? Or to put it another way, are the rights to another educational alternative that a different group of students/families/educators wants given full respect in coming to a decision. Is the maximum bang for the buck realized?
  • Is it affordable?
But in my attempt to be "christian"--i.e., faithful to my principles--I pose these further questions:
  • Are some programs being considered because of the articulate nature of the presentations? Requests for some programs, such as sports academies or fine arts schools, are typically made by parent groups from a certain socio-economic class that can be more persuasive, and who can afford the extra costs that go with such programs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the nature of their presentations often can add a certain luster to the idea.
  • Do some programs not stand out as much because they are geared more to students and  families who are not as able to speak for themselves, who are marginalized in some way, or who lack confident spokespeople? I'm thinking here of some immigrants, the poor, the less educated, students with serious addiction or legal issues, and so on.
Where I have to chose, my "bias" tends to be in the direction of those least able to speak for themselves, which is how I see God operating. This will affect how I see an issue like providing transportation for students, for instance, and how much (if anything) to charge. Or the funding for special education. Or limiting fees. Or dealing with the students who are more likely to drop out.

[I once had the disillusioning experience of a teacher union executive member suggesting that we could save a lot of money that could be put toward better stipends for high school department heads if we didn't spent so much money on special education. He wasn't necessarily speaking for the whole union executive, or at least I hope he wasn't.]

Fortunately, my own district is very enlightened in this regard. No one is perfect, but I believe that the district attempts to balance competing requests in a way that optimizes opportunities for all students.

That is not to say that I haven't had the occasional moral qualm with respect to the use of our budget. I've been accused of nit-picking on this, but I have a hard time accepting the justifications that some of my colleagues have offered over the years for attending certain so-called public relations events that have little to do with education. As trustees we get invited, along with the city councilors, to virtually every fundraiser in the city. There are some non-profit organizations who put on quite elaborate "galas" to attract people to attend, with ticket prices upwards of three figures each.

I have no problem with colleagues attending these events, of course. They can ante up their own money and have a great time supporting worthy causes. I do have moral issues, however, with the public paying for the tickets, often for the trustee and a spouse/child/special friend. I simply don't agree with politicians using the public's money to attend fundraisers. Fortunately, the amount of actual money this represents is very small in a ~$200 milllion budget. But the principle is still important.

But what of the so-called moral issues? I'll address that next.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Separation of church & state 4: God is pro-choice; why should I be different?

Okay before you write me off, I'm not referring directly to abortion-related issues here. Let me explain what I'm talking about when I say that God is pro-choice because it has had a profound effect on my life in academia, consulting, politics, and advocacy. I'm planning to lay out my approach to principled decision-making as a municipal politician, but I can't do that without a little background regarding my personal beliefs.

1 - Faith in action means striving for the right principles and values

I think, of first importance, you should understand the approach I take to using the Christian scriptures as a guide for everyday life. While I am a seminary grad (M.A. in Biblical Studies with a major in Old Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago), I have not aligned myself with any particular theological camp, although I have been attracted in recent years to some of the thinking coming out of the Emerging Church movement (see my theological blog, entitled wholly stretch, at http://www.whollystretch.blogspot.ca/).

I have certainly not tied myself up in knots working out what the inerrancy of scripture means. Not that a trustworthy revelation of God's nature, character, and will aren't important. But the theological schools of thought that one can list, even within the orthodox Christian Church where everyone is committed to an inerrant scripture, are so diverse at points that inerrancy is the least of our challenges!

[I do like the definition of inerrancy of the Catholic Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council: "The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation." The definition of truth is what counts, of course.]

Key for me is the issue of interpretation (hermeneutics is the official theological word). How does one utilize that inerrant scripture in a way that works for all centuries, all ethnicities, all contexts? My own upbringing in the conservative, evangelical church was not always helpful in this regard. Living Christianly was largely rule-keeping, avoiding being worldly (whatever that meant), and evangelizing. As recently as the late 1970s, when I joined the faculty of Trinity Western University, we had to sign a community standards statement pledging not to drink or dance (culturally-based rule-keeping). There was no compulsion, on the other hand, to pursue social justice.

I have attempted, to the best of my poor ability, to discern what principles and values are at work underneath the biblical teaching on everyday life. For instance, from the mass of parables, stories, and laws that constitute the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), I have determined that God's long-term principles and objectives include these:
  • The sanctity of the family unit as the building block of society.
  • God's special concern for the restoration of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized.
  • A culture characterized by justice (distributive, restorative, and retributive) and the rule of law.
  • Letting punishment fit the crime.
  • Life balance.
  • Personal integrity.
  • An organic relationship among the God's people; i.e., a sense of mutuality, concern for the needs of others (cf. the Good Samaritan) as opposed to individualism.
  • Wholesome relationships; i.e. a person was never to be exploited in any fashion as a means of achieving self-gratification--whether sexually, economically, or politically.
  • Loving others as one would oneself.
Later biblical teaching makes clear that much of the contents of the above list rests on the inherent worth of every individual as God's image-bearer, which is why God grounds his recommendations regarding our behaviour towards all people in love, justice, and where necessary, mercy (Micah 6:8). These principles have a major influence on the worldview I bring to decision making.

Thus, it is principles and values such as these, rather than rules, that I strive for as I look at political choices and challenges.

2 - Remarkably, God never forces his followers to obey his commands or to pursue his principles

Now this is what, to use the old fashioned expression, blows my mind: while God makes it clear that
he is in charge, that his way is the right one, and that he will enable people to live according to his principles, values, and objectives, God never actually forces anyone to live in the way that he as the Supreme Deity prefers. Yes, God points out the benefits of living for him, and the perils one will attract in the long run for living for oneself without reference to his will. But he so respects human choice that, in the final analysis, he leaves the ultimate decision to the individual. God gives people all of the information they need to make the best choice regarding the principles, values and objectives that should characterize their life choices. He offers his help in living with the results of that decision, but he still puts human free well ahead of his objectives. Unbelievable.

This is why I called God pro-choice. He offers full information so that an informed choice can be made. He proffers his own support to help us make the choice he prefers, but he lets me choose. I find this--at the same time--amazing, exhilarating, and terrifying.

3 - How does this affect the way I do politics?

This post has gotten a little long, so I'll save this discussion for the next one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Separation of church & state 3: Why Solzhenitsyn and I think that the political process is a poor way to achieve moral objectives

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Commencement address at Harvard University (7 June 1978)

Just to recap, I decided to research the topic of the separation of church and state, something that I've been interested in for a long time, as a result of current Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau's recent pronouncement (out of the blue and for no apparent reason) that in future no federal Liberal Member of Parliament, nor candidate for same, may vote other than pro-choice regarding any relevant legislation. Current Liberal M.P.s holding pro-life views will have to keep such to themselves and toe the party line. What pro-choice means exactly was left undefined. [For more information, please see my previous posts on June 18, 19, 21, and July 4, 2014.]

My fundamental question is, Can a person of faith function with integrity is his/her pursuit of what we consider to be faith-informed objectives in a system such as the Canadian Parliament? If not, should we abandon the political process entirely in favour of some other approach to righting the moral wrongs of society as we see them?

I have lengthy political experience myself, but it is all in the municipal arena (school trustee) and
with no party system in place to hinder me in any way from voting my conscience. I have run successfully ten times as a political free agent. Given that even as a school board member important moral issues come to the fore from time to time (see my previous post http://johnonlife.blogspot.ca/2014/07/first-my-own-humble-if-plucky-political.html), I have developed my own rules of thumb for how to think about and approach these in a manner that is consistent with my faith-informed worldview while operating with integrity in a secular, non-sectarian political setting.

But before I explore this line of thinking further, a quick aside. Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (quoted above) had little faith in the long-term efficacy of political reform to effect desirable social change, preferring to place his trust ultimately in spiritual solutions. Given his experiences living in the old Soviet Union, I am in no position to challenge his thinking. It should be added that he was no more impressed with capitalism than he was with communism, if this quote is any indication: Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.

There is a good deal to what Solzhenitsyn says. I've been an active player in the political arena for long enough to see that some good things can come from the political process, even moral achievements. But my 27 years have led me to the conclusion that using political approaches to accomplish moral ends is, more often than not, the last stage in the process, not the first.

[This is why I believe that my friend Mike Schouten of http://www.weneedalaw.ca/ is bound to be forever frustrated in his attempts to convince the federal government to pass any kind of legislation that fundamentally changes the abortion scene in Canada. The rest of the pro-life movement has not prepared the ground to make such a move by the feds possible (cf. the decades of hard, discouraging, fearless, and ultimately effective work done by the opponents of slavery in the U.S. that ultimately made it possible for Lincoln to abolish that hateful institution). Until we do, Mike will be running on the same treadmill on which he currently finds himself. I'll have more to say about this several posts hence.]

So to begin my study of church and state, here are some presuppositions I have concerning why I think the political process is a poor way to address important moral issues in the first place. 

1 - Moral issues are notoriously difficult to legislate. That is not to say that governments don't try. I well remember LBJ's proposed Great Society of the 1960s that sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. But unless there is already a significant groundswell of public support for a particular approach to an issue (e.g., in Canada, supporting gay rights, or in times past eliminating capital punishment), getting a law passed is almost impossible. One only has to look at President Obama's fruitless quest to impose even a modicum of gun control in the U.S., whereas in Canada virtually everyone agrees with his proposals and wishes that he would go beyond them. Even where there is general agreement in a theoretical sort of way (e.g., the need to combat climate change), Joan Public citizen will often draw the line when the government considers a measure that might require individuals to sacrifice, particularly economically (e.g., a carbon tax).

[Curiously, the majority of Canadians polled consistently say that they would accept restrictions placed on the availability of abortion. These vary from an outright ban, to age of viability. Only about 30% of Canadians support our current regimen of abortion on demand. Yet no party has indicated they have any interest in addressing the subject.]

2 - Staying in power trumps ideology. Political parties typically claim to stand this or that way on a
variety of issues, and attempt to differentiate themselves from other parties by emphasizing their superior views. But once in power, the incoming party becomes remarkably like the outgoing one. This is because staying in power, once obtained, is more important than ideology. We often refer to this phenomenon as governing from the middle, which means that politicians and political parties that take what are viewed as extreme views, whether to the left or right, tend to have a short shelf life. Since appealing to the majority is more important than staking out a potentially unpopular position, politicians will often morph into something very different from what they once claimed to be, or even leave one party for another as quickly as a snake sheds its skin.

Thus we witness political musical chairs in Canada, with politicians of allegedly different stripes jumping from one party to another; e.g.
  • Conservatives Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach jumped to the Liberals and into cabinet.
  • Former NDP premiers Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh both became federal Liberal cabinet ministers, with Rae seeking the Liberal party leadership.
  • Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson joined Conservative Prime Minister Harper's cabinet in a similar capacity after saying that he would be Harper's worse nightmare as an opposition MP.
  • Former Conservative Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Joe Clark criticized fellow Conservative Prime Minister Harper, saying that the strong and positive traditions of the Progressive Conservatives have been forced aside. He has from time to time supported Liberal candidates.
  • Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minster Thomas Mulcair is now the leader of the federal New Democratic Party. 
  • Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau came to Vancouver to court the participation of former NDP member of the BC legislature and now socialist mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson as a Liberal candidate.
3 - Governments let prevailing societal norms, not religion, define morality. Related to the above, it is rare in Canada for a politician to refer directly to his/her religious faith as the basis for their moral views. In fact, with the demise of Christianity as an important organizing force in Canadian society, politicians typically let the prevailing societal norms define what the current moral issues are and what should be done about them. For instance, given that most Canadians (approximately 75% in most polls) define themselves as some kind of pro-choice supporter (the definitions of what that
means vary considerably), no Canadian party would dare take a pro-life position.

Various times that I have prepared for an election, the media have asked me and other candidates who make their faith a matter of public record whether we are going to let our religion affect the way we make decisions once in office. The clear inference is that this would be highly inappropriate. I try to explain how everyone has a worldview that affects their principles and priorities, with religion being an important influence in the formation of that worldview with some people, while other candidates may have other influences. I find that such explanations tend to go unreported.*

4 - The courts keep religion in its place - In 2000, the Surrey BC School District attempted to deal with a set of controversial books which were criticized by many vocal parents and groups as promoting, or at least supporting, the gay lifestyle by removing them from use in the classroom. In a B.C. Supreme Court decision, Madam Justice Saunders ruled that the Board violated section 76 of the School Act when it refused to approve the three books because of parents’ concerns, and ordered them to reconsider the matter. Section 76(1) requires B.C. public schools to be conducted on “strictly secular and non-sectarian principles”. The courts generally have kept explicit religious values and practices out of the public arena, limiting their use to independent rather than public institutions. [See my posts regarding faith-based Trinity Western University's attempt to establish a law school and the opposition the university has received from the legal community at http://whollystretch.blogspot.ca/2014/04/why-i-think-that-trinity-western.html and http://whollystretch.blogspot.ca/2014/05/how-lawyer-argues-freedom-of-religion-v.html.]

Given these realities, how have I attempted to show full integrity to both my faith and to my role as a publicly elected official in one of those strictly secular and non-sectarian school districts? That comes next.


* For an excellent example of an automatic bias towards a politician because he belongs to a certain faith group, look no further than the recent appointment of Gordon Dirks, a former chair of the Calgary Board of Education, as Alberta's new Minister of Education (http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Dirks+appointment+education+minister+draws+mixed+reaction/10206662/story.html). His ability to be in charge of a pluralistic, non-sectarian school system is questioned solely because of his denominational affiliation, ignoring his long service on the board of education of a very large, pluralistic, non-sectarian school district.