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It’s the 21st century, and Easter is not about flags

in To Each Their Own by

I remember when Easter used to be fun.

You got to paint eggs, wake up to chocolate, eat a big turkey (or goose, or duck, or ham—the key point being ‘big’), and even get a day off work or school.

For the religiously inclined, it could be fun too. That whole thing about running around in church hitting each other over the head with palm fronds is actually pretty fun when you’re little. And if you’re Jewish, well let’s just say that matzah balls and kosher wine make for an interesting sort of hangover which everyone should try at least once.

It was a time of celebration, for whatever you cared to celebrate: the rebirth of Jesus, the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, spring equinox, any number of similarly themed pagan holidays, or simply the unprecedented invention of the Reese’s peanut butter chocolate crème Easter egg.

For the most part, Easter is still fun. The crème eggs have become even more sophisticated, in lieu of bunnies chocolate now comes in the form of Hello Kitty and Transformers, kosher wine still packs a punch. And, well, hitting each other over the head with palm leaves never gets old.

Unfortunately, Easter has now also been infiltrated by what I rather unscientifically refer to as the “anti-bunnies”. These are a dour-faced, small but vocal minority of grumpy people who are determined to take the fun out of Easter, and use it as a platform for their own disgruntled political agenda. And like all small but vocal extremists, they are constantly seeking out ways to make themselves appear larger and more substantial than they are. These are the sort who organize anti-abortion marches to commemorate the defeat, three decades ago, of the anti-abortion movement by the more enlightened principle of women’s equality and reproductive rights. They are also the sort who write letters to newspapers and politicians, complaining that the flagpoles of our sensibly secular government ought to fly Christian flags during holy week.

Media overkill

The best thing to do with such grumps is to ignore them. Unfortunately, this year the provincial government decided not to ignore them, but to meet with them. And then celebrated Holy Thursday with a press release and photo shoot of the premier meeting with them, combined with a convoluted statement that on the one hand the law is very clear that religious flags ought not be flown on Confederation Building, but also that “Premier Davis committed to a review of the current courtesy flagpole policy.”

I puzzled over this a bit. The province’s media outlets spun the release as a flat-out rejection of the flag request. But really, did an affirmation of the existing law merit a press release? Did the premier really need to commit “to a review of the current courtesy flagpole policy”?

With all the burning issues facing this province—looming deficits, dropping oil prices, any variety of health care crises, ongoing fishery disputes, rising unemployment, overawarded pensions—the provincial government is taking photos with religious activists and committing to “a review of the current courtesy flagpole policy”?

When I read the release, I thought it could have almost been an April Fool’s joke, but it came a day late.

It says a lot, really, about the state of desperation the Tories must find themselves in. The notion that the religious right (which is how I’d define any religious activist who lobbies government over a flag) is a constituency that requires coddling and press releases means they either think they are living in the last century, or they’re desperate for any vote they can get. If the latter, I expect to see a press release next week informing us the premier met with the Philatelic Society, and will be revisiting the government’s postage stamp policy to ensure that prettier and more collectible stamps are used in future (especially on pension cheques which may or may not be accurate; pensioners will, of course, be required to return the stamps in the event of any pension overpayments). After all, the proportion of nominal Christians in the population may be high, but the proportion of postal users in the population is even higher.

No religious flags on Confederation Building

Why shouldn’t the government fly religious flags at the Confederation Building?

Two very good reasons.

First of all, religion has a very fraught history in Newfoundland and Labrador. We all learn as school-children about the divisive, politically partisan battle-lines that divided Catholics from Protestants throughout the province up until (and even after) Confederation. In the 1980s, the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal presaged a virtual tsunami of revelations about child sexual abuse perpetrated (or, equally bad, ignored and covered up) by various Christian denominations. Then there was the fact that the government of Canada buckled to pressure from the religious partisans at the time of Confederation and permitted this province to continue its Christian denominational education system, in lieu of a sensible modern-day public and secular one. It took a referendum in the 1990s to change the Terms of Union with Canada to finally rid ourselves of that particular vestige of the pre-modern era — a referendum which the voices of progress easily won. Too many hands had been strapped by religious educators and too many young lives lost to religious bullying in the schools for the outcome to be anything else.

 Reducing political gestures to a game of numbers is silly and in fact undermines the very point of living in a society where majorities and minorities enjoy equal rights…

So there is a very good reason for no religious flags to fly on Confederation Building: As much as the Christian church has done much good in the history of the province, it is also a symbol of much shame, violence and pain, and a religious flag on Confederation building would doubtless trigger more pain (and ridicule) than respect.

The second reason is the simple fact that the era of flying religious flags is long past. This is no longer the jolly old British Empire where everyone attends church, the bishop rules our souls, the white man rules the country and the patriarch rules the family. Thankfully, we’ve evolved beyond that into a pluralistic society that is trying—imperfectly, but trying—to respect everyone equally, and to adhere to that cornerstone of civil society: separation of church and state. Religion has no place in government.

Of course, this miffs certain people (usually white men, and other people who conflate a dissatisfaction with their present lives into a misplaced nostalgia for the past). We must try to educate those people, not issue press releases in the hopes of gaining their votes.

And if government were to cave to the demands of the Christian lobbyists, then government would of course have to allow every other religious group in the province to fly their flags too. We’d be seeing a new flag (and often, multiple flags) every day: the Muslim star-and-crescent, the bright six-colour Buddhist flag, the Jewish Star of David, the Sikh khanda (double-edged dagger), the Pastafarians’ Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’d be a colourful distraction for drivers, but is this really what we want to be getting ourselves into?

Catering to whom?

The issue has doubtless been stoked by religious activists in recent weeks, as it has been during the past couple of years in the lead-up to Easter. On March 28, for instance, The Telegram published a letter from Tolson Chapman. The Telegram was irresponsible to publish this incendiary piece of writing, not because Mr. Chapman shouldn’t have the right to say what he wants—he’s free to advocate for floating a giant blimp with giraffes painted on it over Confederation Building if he likes—but because it contained a great deal of homophobic rhetoric and incorrect information. For instance:

Christians in Newfoundland and Labrador make up about 80 per cent of the population. The LGBT community make up about one per cent of the population? However, this PC government denied 80 per cent of the population an opportunity to fly a Christian flag during Holy Week. Yet one per cent of the population were permitted to fly their flag.

Since The Telegram saw fit to simply roll out incendiary, homophobic and inaccurate information without any correction or comment, it might be useful to take a moment here to reflect on Mr. Chapman’s outlandish claims, because—and here is where The Telegram was irresponsible in printing the letter—the inaccurate barrage of data contained within it skews the public debate. (Mr. Chapman is also the fellow who sent a letter to The Telegram in 2014—which they published—waxing on about Obamacare, abortion, and the City of St. John’s decision to fly a Pride flag during the Sochi Olympics.)

First off, those “80 per cent” Christians he refers to? In actual fact, according to the 2001 census 97 per cent of the province’s population identify as Christian (including groups such as the hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, and so forth). Had the forces of reaction done their research, they could have had the pleasure of feeling even more self-righteous than they already do.

Of course, ticking a box on a census is quite different from actively identifying as Christian. And the census data is already quite dated. According to a more recent survey published by the Pew Research Centre in 2013, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in religious affiliation in Canada in recent years: “The percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholic has dropped from 47 per cent to 39 per cent over the last four decades, while the share that identifies as Protestant has fallen even more steeply, from 41 per cent to 27 per cent.”

 One has to question the motives and sincerity of any religious organization that feels its place is in (or flying over) Confederation Building instead of in the community or in any of the dozens of churches in the capital city.

Interestingly, it’s the smaller religions that are actually growing: non-Catholic/Protestant faiths including Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox. “Collectively, these smaller religious groups account for more than one-in-ten Canadians (11 per cent) as of 2011, up from not quite one-in-twenty (4 per cent) in 1981.”

But even more significantly, the study noted that “the number of Canadians who do not identify with any religion has been rising rapidly in recent decades, going from 4 per cent in 1971 to nearly a quarter (24 per cent) in 2011.”

And even among those who identify as religious, there are varying levels of commitment. In 2010, only 27 per cent of Canadians said they attend religious services at least once a month. There are generational differences as well: “Recent generations of Canadians are significantly less affiliated than earlier generations.” And there are regional differences: The rate of religious disaffiliation in Atlantic Canada jumped by 26 per cent between 1986 and 2011 alone, one of the steepest drops in the country and second only to Quebec.

And what about that “one per cent” Mr. Chapman referred to — the LGBT community? There’s been little concrete data-gathering on LGBT demographics, and efforts to do so have faced tremendous methodological challenges. Famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey came up with the extrapolation that 10 per cent of the population was gay. A more recent, 2012 survey commissioned by the National Post revealed that 5 per cent of Canadians surveyed self-identified as LGBT. Of course, the actual number might be higher: 74 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they personally knew people who were LGBT. Either way, we’re talking more than Mr. Chapman’s 1 per cent.

But the most important point is this: Why does it even matter? And the answer is: It doesn’t.

Reducing political gestures to a game of numbers is silly and in fact undermines the very point of living in a society where majorities and minorities enjoy equal rights — where political gestures like flag-flying are determined through political debate and in order to make specific political statements, not to simply demonstrate superiority of numbers. One could, for instance, fly a flag emblazoned with strips of bacon in order to represent all the proud majority of bacon-eaters in the province, who face persecution in countries where pork is illegal. But really, what would be the point?

Render unto Caesar…

Flying a politically symbolic flag from a political building is meant to send a political message. In the case of the Pride flag, it is the symbol of an identity which has been persecuted for centuries. By flying the flag, the government was not trying to say that all (or even 80 per cent) of our MHAs are gay and lesbian; they were saying that the government wishes to speak out and declare its support for equality for the LGBT community in a society where that community has experienced great persecution.

The attitude that just because a Pride equality flag gets to fly on Confederation Building, everybody else deserves one too is a childish one. It’s similar to the spoiled child who gets all the toys and books and sumptuous dinners he likes, yet becomes jealous when he sees his parents writing a cheque to a charity for poor children — and then demands that if the poor starving children of the world get a $20 cheque from parents, then they must give him $5 for ice cream to be fair.

It’s uncharitable and—dare we say it?—un-Christian.

The religion I grew up with—back in the days when Easter was fun—was one that focused on charity and community, not on flags and lobbying politicians. One has to question the motives and sincerity of any religious organization that feels its place is in (or flying over) Confederation Building instead of in the community or in any of the dozens of churches in the capital city. If certain Christians are feeling a sense of insecurity in the present day and age, all they need to do is take a look around at all the steeples on the skyline. There are your flags — a year-round, permanent, endless parade of them. No need to begrudge the LGBT community a single week in which they get to fly a single cloth flag of their own.

Perhaps the next time Christian activists feel the need to go complain that they can’t fly a flag off the Confederation Building, they ought to go read their Bible a bit, in particular Titus 3:9 (ESV): “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.”

 

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