Category Archives: religion

Loathe Thy Neighbour

 

Recently Malak Abas wrote an article reporting that in Winkler, another community like Steinbach, civility is in short supply as shown by residents and businesses being harassed and abused at their places of work for following and enforcing provincial health orders. The headline for the article was a slight poke at the reported Christians in town: “Loathe Thy Neighbour.” It seem like the good citizens of Winkler think that is what the Good Book tells them to do.

 

The Free Press reporters visited Winkler and found that at a dozen businesses none of  implemented provincial wide public health orders that mandated actions to curb an expected fourth wave of Covid-19. The authorities want to avoid what is happening around the world in many places. Manitoban seem to think we can avoid the disasters elsewhere. Maybe because they think we have a direct line to the Big Guy.

What is really disconcerting is that Winkler has the second lowest vaccination rates in Manitoba.  The lowest of course, are in the surrounding Rural Municipality of Stanley. Steinbach and its surrounding Municipality, Hanover, are not far behind.  So far faith in God is not helping much, because Southern Health in which these communities are all located also has the highest rate of Covid-19. As the Free Press reported,  recently, “The province reported 88 new COVID-19 cases Friday; 30 of them — the highest number of any of the five regions — were in Southern Health, where Winkler is located.”

There seems to be a direct link between religious communities and high rates of Covid-19 and low rates of vaccination uptake. I have been exploring in this blog why that might be the case.

According to the Free Press, the vast majority of patrons in the restaurant the reporters visited were unmasked and were not asked to show proof of immunization as Manitoba’s health orders require. It seems, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, no one notices the sick when God is on their side.

Not only that but people in Winkler are getting nasty about their intransigence. As the Free Press reported,

Winkler is taking a break from being in Friendly Manitoba, it seems. “Not all, but some of them are just angry, they take it out on staff members at the store,” police Chief Ryan Hunt said. “We’re just seeing a lot of frustration.”

The Free Press also reported that a woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared a backlash toward her business or her family said,

“she hadn’t asked the Free Press reporter to wear a mask in the store out of a sense of defeat. People who aren’t following the rules in stores often get loud. And even violent. “They’re very negative,” she said. “They yell, they swear, they spit, they refuse to stand behind the plastic shields.”

Things were so bad that one business owner posted this sign on its door: “Kindness is mandatory. Proof of kindness required at front entrance.”

One would have thought Christians did not need such a reminder. One would have thought wrong.

 

Christians, Conservatives and Unreason

 

I do not think it is a coincidence that so many Christians and Conservatives have had such a mesmerizing journey to unreason. In both cases many among the groups have abandoned all standards of truth seeking. In fact, many in both camps have abandoned truth entirely. Once the standards of truth, and even worse, once all respect for truth itself, have been abandoned in one area such as faith without evidence, or belief in things that are so obviously untrue like stolen elections, it is very difficult to get those important standards back when they are urgently needed. For example, we need them now when we confront an international climate crisis that may be the crucial crisis of our generation, or when we confront an international health pandemic such as Covid-19, it is almost impossible to retrieve those standards no matter how urgent it is to do so.

That is why we must always be so careful not to abandon evidence based decision making and critical thinking Those skill are vitally important.

In the US the conservatives are led by the Republican Party. According to Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman,

“Here’s what we know about American politics: The Republican Party is stuck, probably irreversibly, in a doom loop of bizarro. If the Trump-incited Capitol insurrection didn’t snap the party back to sanity — and it didn’t — nothing will.”

In the U.S. the Republican Party very briefly after the insurrection on January 6, 2021 flirted with the idea of dealing with Trump. Their Senate leader Mitch McConnell said what Trump did was impeachable but then soon abandoned that position and now seems to support him as do so many other of his party. The leader of the party in the House of Representatives also briefly said Biden won the election and Trump bore some responsibility for the attack on Congress but soon began to kiss the ring of Trump. It does not matter that Trump is unhinged. This is how Krugman described the Republicans: “In other words, the G.O.P.’s national leadership, after briefly flirting with sense, has surrendered to the fantasies of the fringe. Cowardice rules.” In Texas the party adopted the QAnon slogan “We are the storm.” QAnon is about as loopy as it get, but the Republicans are close behind. In Oregon the Republicans endorsed the claim that the insurrection on the Capitol was a left-wing false flag operation.

Part of the problem is the incredible rise in extremism fuelled in part by their cheer leaders at Fox News. This is what Krugman said about that,

This opens the door to a process of self-reinforcing extremism (something, by the way, that I’ve seen happen in a minor fashion within some academic subfields). As hard-liners gain power within a group, they drive out moderates; what remains of the group is even more extreme, which drives out even more moderates; and so on. A party starts out complaining that taxes are too high; after a while it begins claiming that climate change is a giant hoax; it ends up believing that all Democrats are Satanist pedophiles.

Like I have been saying, when you give up evidence based decision making, it is difficult to get it back when you need. Republicans show no signs of wanting to get it back. Instead, as Krugman said, “One of America’s two major political parties has parted ways with facts, logic and democracy, and it’s not coming back.”

In Manitoba we are currently plagued by an evidence free zone created by conservatives and Christians particularly in our southern health region where I have the misfortune of living. Particularly in a time of pandemic this sleep of reason is a very dangerous thing.

Know Jesus; Know Peace

Winnipeg Free Press Photo August 24, 2021

 

Southern Manitoba continues to lead the way on the stupid Olympics. When Umberto Eco, the Italian author, talked about the invasion of stupid he could have been talking about us.

A Municipal councillor from the Rural Municipality of Stanley, that surrounds the city Winkler, which have the worst and second worst rates of Covid-19 vaccine uptake in Manitoba,  permitted a sign on his property that clearly disparaged the vaccine. It had a graphic of a syringe with the word “Experimental” written inside it referring to the fact that it has been approved on an emergency basis. I don’t think that makes it experimental, but many in our area believe that is what it means. Clearly this was intended to sow distrust in the vaccine among the undecided. Or perhaps to mock those who had taken it. It also had the words “Know Jesus Know Peace” written on it as well. This was a reference to the Black Lives Matter protesters who often carried signs that said, “No Justice No Peace.”

This is dangerous stuff in a Rural Municipality where about only 20% of eligible people have taken the vaccine when we desperately need all the confidence in it that we can get to encourage people to take the vaccine and prevent a deadly 4th wave of the virus that might again overwhelm our health system.  With my wife Christiane finally having a tentative date for her brain surgery we cannot afford to take the chance of another 5 months delay like we just experienced in the 3rd wave. Hopefully the vaccine can help us avoid that, but if everyone was like the people around Winkler we would be in trouble.

 

The sign on the councillor’s property was actually installed by Travis Fehr a local farmer  who told the Free Press that he believes he has important information that indicates the authorities have been hiding a drug treatment for the virus. Presumably that is because the government wants to use the virus to control us.  He has placed other signs in the community that explain “his goal is to spread a religious message that encourages people to trust in God before ‘Pastors, or politicians, or doctors or anybody else.” I suppose when he needs his appendix removed or heart surgery he will trust in God rather than doctors or politicians. According to a local doctor, Don Klassen, there is in his area a common belief that  “a wide network hiding is information about a treatment for Covid from the public.”

Fehr also said, “I believe that God is going to start a fiery revival for Jesus in Manitoba, and so I want to be a part of that. So I do have some signs out there.”

The Free Press also reported that Fehr set up

“a rotating set of messages, including calling the vaccine a “#Clotshot,” suggesting the drug Ivermectin (typically used as a de-wormer for livestock) is a proven successful treatment for COVID-19 and implying the vaccination rollout violates the Nuremberg Code.”

According to the Winnipeg Free Press Fehr gets his vast medical knowledge on “Telegram, a messenger app that touts its privacy features and is known for hosting far-right personalities that are often banned on mainstream apps.”  Again we get that toxic connection between untruth, religion and conservative politics. I wonder why these people hide their cure that would no doubt enable them to earn hundreds of millions of dollars.

Just today I heard that Manitoba Covid-19 cases jumped again. More than twice as many today (105) than yesterday (41). And guess what—almost half of them in Manitoba were from our Southern Health region. Either the Lord doesn’t care about us, or Covid-19 knows where the idiots can be found.

It never ceases to amaze me what people in the Bible belt are prepared to believe. Know Jesus; Know Peace.

Vaccine Unreason and the offspring of credulity

I am still trying to understand why so many people are reluctant to use what many scientists consider the greatest medical achievement of modern times–vaccines.  What is going on?

When we give up critical thinking in favour of things like faith, or wishful thinking we can get into the habit of believing crazy things. That is why Patrick Moynhan an American sociologist, politician and diplomat made this very important statement about truth: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” We must always respect truth and the truth-seeking process. If we are not on constant guard to defend this, we can become easy prey for demagogues.  There have been many of them around the world, not just America.  According to author Kurt Anderson, who was interviewed by Charlie Rose a couple of years ago, “Trump in effect says that anything that is inconvenient to me or that I disagree with is, fake news.”  If we give up on all standards of truth, we become dangerously bereft–babes ready for the slaughter.

Anderson also pointed out on the television show with Rose, and in his book FantasyLand, that “America has always been exceptionally religious compared to the rest of the world… Outliers in our religiosity compared to the rest of world, not just a little bit, but a lot. We are not like the rest of the developed world, we are much more religious.” According to Anderson that had radical consequences for America. That made Americans credulous—ready, willing, and eagerly able, to swallow all kinds of fantastic beliefs for which there was no evidence.

Anderson spoke before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it was the perfect example of what he meant. Instead of trusting in science, many of us, too many of us, have placed our faith in the Internet instead. That has led directly to catastrophic consequences in our failure to defeat Covid-19. When we experience an international health emergency, as we recently have been,  we need our best defences open to us. That in such circumstances is science–not fanciful Internet “research.”

All of this, as I have been saying for some time, has serious consequences well beyond religion. Anderson put it this way, “Once as a culture you are more inclined to believe in magic, in supernatural events, it won’t stay in its religious realm. It will leach out into not believing in climate change say.” Or it will leach out to distrusting medical experts like Anthony Fauci in favour of demagogues. And that can–as it did–cost an enormous loss of life and health. Credulity has serious consequences.  We are experiencing them now.

 

Kurt Anderson also pointed out how credulity, as bad as it is, can easily be supercharged by what he calls the “fantasy industrial complex.” This includes not just organized religion but everything in the entertainment industry. In the US, he pointed out, everything becomes entertainment. Real estate business for example, becomes entertainment. Everything becomes part of show business. Religious leaders are show men. Politicians are showmen. This fantasy industrial complex uses modern technology skilfully to convince us of dubious truths and bald faced lies. Then the Internet came along and jacked this tendency up to the stars.

As a result, we should not be surprised when ordinary people believe outrageous claims. Ordinary people are part of a culture that leads them to believe without evidence. When critical skills are lost, and we learn to believe without evidence, we turn ourselves over to fake news and the demagogues that take advantage of it.

Religious Sexual Predators

 

Most students came to Indian Residential Schools with little knowledge of sexual activity and were very confused by what was happening to them. As the TRC  described it,

“Abuse left them injured, bewildered, and often friendless or subject to ridicule by other students.  Many students thought they were the only children being abused. This confusion made it difficult for them to describe or report their abuse. Some were told they would face eternal damnation for speaking of what had been done to them.”

 

Some students did not report the abuse because they feared (often with justification) that no one would believe them. Some students who reported abuse were told it was their fault. After all good Christian leaders would never do such heinous things that were being alleged. Former students told of how betrayed they felt when nothing was done about their complaints. Many felt ashamed of what happened to them. Many felt it was their fault. After all they had been taught how unworthy they were. As the TRC reported,

“Family members often refused to believe their children’s reports of abuse, intensifying their sense of isolation and pain. This was especially so within families that had adopted Christianity, and could not believe that the people of God looking after their children would ever do such things.”

 

There was no safe haven for the vulnerable children in residential schools. Some students were “assaulted in the church confessional.”

 If there is no special place for religious predators in hell there is no  justice. I don’t really believe in eternal damnation, but iIf anyone deserves eternal damnation these religious predators did.

 

Which Church is more Christ-like?

 

I heard recently that the Winkler hospital was overwhelmed. Does anyone doubt that might have something to do with the number of vaccine hesitant people live in that region?

Yesterday I tried to describe what happened when a hospital is overwhelmed. It affects not just people with Covid-19, but many others who can’t get the treatment they deserve. Sometimes that can risk their lives. It is serious stuff.

We have also heard how Manitoba is considering sending Intensive Care Unit patients to the United States. Many have already gone to Ontario. This is serious stuff.

Now think about what some of the churches are doing. First there, are churches like Church of God Restoration near Steinbach,  and others that continue to disobey health orders, refusing to take Covid-19 seriously. They  have continued to have indoor services for at least 3 Sundays in a row, contrary to health orders because they demand the freedom to assemble to worship. They can worship from anywhere they choose of course.  Frankly, I think they are being selfish.

Then there are the people of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Winkler, also part of the Bible belt, in a region that has the lowest rates of vaccination take up in Manitoba. Yet this church, according to Brenda Suderman of the Winnipeg Free Press, unlike the Church of God Restoration,  “has consistently walked the straight and narrow path.” This church appreciates religious freedom too, but has instead “committed to keeping their southern Manitoba community of 13,000 as safe as possible.”

The pastor of family ministries of this church, Corey Hildebrandt, has said, “We’d like to follow the spirit of the law, not simply the letter of the law, so we’re not trying to find loopholes and backdoor ways of gathering…We’re trying to keep us safe versus restrictions telling us what to do.”

In the early days of the pandemic the Winkler church consulted some of the congregation’s 25 or so medical professionals, including 5 doctors , asking their opinion as scientists on how to deal with Covid-19 and got advice on what was the safest way to proceed. As a result, they quickly shifted to online worship as early as March 20, 2020 when Manitobans were just starting to see early effects of the pandemic. Since then, they only met in person a few times when that was permitted by provincial health restrictions being eased. As Suderman reported,

“After a second consultation with medical professionals, Hildebrant said the congregation decided to continue live streaming instead of reopening when religious institutions were allowed to have smaller gatherings earlier this year, fearing case numbers would rise again with the projected third wave.

“We took a fair bit of heat for that,” said Hildebrant, recalling talk on the streets his congregation was afraid.

We were not afraid actually; We were trying to be good neighbours.”

 

This church, unlike the Church of God Restoration, realized that safety precautions, such as keeping a safe distance, wearing masks, and obeying health orders were not just about keeping themselves safe; it was about keeping their neighbours safe too. They have tried to help Manitoba’s hospitals from being overwhelmed. The Church of God restoration instead spends its time challenging laws designed to protect the public while Manitoba has had the highest rates of Covid-19 in all of North America.

Who is the good neighbour? Which church is behaving more Christ-like?

 

Christian Tribal Power

 

I am still trying to make sense of all those prayers and Christian symbols I saw at the Capitol the day of the insurrection. What do they mean and what do they tell us about the matrimony of politics and religion?

Paul D. Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, made these  claims in an email to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:

“Christian nationalism is the pursuit of tribal power, not the common good; it is identity politics for right-wing (mostly white) Christians; it is the attempt to ‘own and operate the American brand,’ as someone else wrote; it is an attitude of entitlement among Christians that we have a presumptive right to define what America is. I oppose identity politics of all kinds, including the identity politics of my tribe.”

 

According to Benjamin Lynerd, a professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University and the author of Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals,” Christian Nationalism involves

“the tragedy of evangelical politics, a tragedy that the unrestrained loyalty to President Trump lays bare, but which stretches well beyond this moment in American history,” when “political theology serves merely as cover for the more pragmatic agenda of social empowerment.”

 

Professor Lynerd asserts, that there is a difference,

“between searching out the implications of the Christian gospel for politics and leveraging this gospel to advance the social position of American Christians. When evangelicals disguise the latter in the robes of the former, not only do they engage in dishonesty, but they also give fuel to the cynical view that there really is no difference — that the theological is nothing more than a cloak for the political.”

 

When theology is used to cloak a grab for political power the religion is far from pure. Then it has jumped into the fray and got soiled by it.

As Robert Jones said in an email to Edsall:

“While many media outlets focused on decoding the myriad white supremacist signs and symbols, they too easily screened out the other most prominent displays: the numerous crosses, Bibles, and signs and flags with Christian symbols, such as the Jesus 2020 flag that was modeled on the Trump campaign flag.”

 

Jones also said, those religious symbols used on Capitol hill by the insurrectionists:

“reveal an unsettling reality that has been with us throughout our history: The power of White supremacy in America has always been its ability to flourish within and be baptized by white Christianity.”

Like I said before, the deep connections between anti-black racism in the United States are deeply disturbing. No mild words of religious comfort can gloss them over. The same is true of the religious trappings of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Samuel Perry in his email to Edsall said that when white Americans are asked about taking the country back they mean that the Christian character of the country should be restored, and by that they mean “they want to take the country back to the days when they (white, native-born, conservatives) were in power.” But if you asked blacks the same question they would mean, a return to a ““civil religion” where there was a sacred obligation to be a “just” nation, characterized by fairness, equality, and liberty.

That mixture of religion and white supremacist politics is incredibly toxic and dangerous. That is what Trump tried to bring about and in that battle his greatest allies were Evangelical Christians. To the extent that this is true, the Evangelicals have been besmirched with their leader’s slime. By leader of course, I mean Donald Trump, not Jesus Christ. This is my conclusion: Those Evangelical Christians that followed Trump to the bitter end, gave up on Jesus a long time ago, in favour of their own bully in the White House. Trump became their Savior supplanting the one on the cross.

Conflicting Stories; Colliding Freedoms

 

We are hearing a lot of conflicting stories about Covid-19 and its variants and the vaccines. In Europe it seems like the pandemic has fresh legs that make it spread widely again, with more raging force than ever before. Yet in Manitoba we are “cautiously” opening up according to our Chief Medical Officer Brent Roussin. Is this really cautious? Why does he not think the same thing that is happening now in Europe won’t happen here too? I hope he is right, but I fear he is wrong. I hope he is not feeling the pressure from religious people like those in the Church of God Restoration outside of Steinbach, and others, that want to open up faster.

Yet the Winnipeg Free Press today reported,

“CANADA’S chief public health officer said Sunday that the collective efforts to fight COVID-19 are paying off, even as the country sits at a “critical juncture” in the fight against fast spreading variants.

Dr. Theresa Tam said on Twitter that COVID-19 disease activity continues to decline and vaccination is heading in the right direction.

“Our collective effort has begun to tip the balance in our favour,” she wrote. But she said Canadians need to maintain COVID-19 precautions to protect each other, especially as cases of more contagious variants are mounting across the country.”

On the other hand, the same article reported that “The faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom has made its way into some schools in British Columbia, health officials announced late Saturday.”

 

Is that not concerning, considering what we know about the new variants of Covid-19?  I know vaccines help, but frankly not many Canadian arms have received it. I would feel a lot better if they did.

Of course, as we all know Covid-19 is amplifying existing inequities. That same article reported on this issue as follows:

” In a message published Sunday, Tam noted that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on racialized communities. She said cases are 1.5 to 5 times higher in racialized communities in Toronto and Ottawa, while people living on First Nations reserves have a 69 per cent higher rate of infection compared to the general population.

“These disproportionate impacts among racialized and Indigenous communities are not due to biological differences between groups or populations,” she wrote.

“Rather, they reflect existing health inequities that are strongly influenced by a specific set of social and economic factors — things like income, education, employment and housing that shape an individual’s place in society.”

She said it’s imperative to work to fight racism in workplaces, education and health and social services systems, which she said has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities and helped to create the inequitable living and working conditions that make some groups more susceptible to COVID-19.”

 

Often, I think William Faulkner was right: “We can never catch up with injustice.” But, I wish our religious people would not divert the attention of our health officials from fighting Covid-19 to dealing with their demands that they deal instead with their dubious claims of infringement on their religious freedom. I wish those religious zealots instead spent more time working to eradicate social injustice. Would that not make God happier?

Authoritarian Christianity

Evangelical Christians rightly complain when their religious freedom is attacked. But trying to impose their religious is not freedom. That is authoritarianism.

Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, in an email to Edsall of the New York Times, said that modern American evangelicals have shifted to a more militant approach to imposing their religious views:

“the accumulated frustrations of not being able to ease their sense of religious decline, their continued legal struggles against abortion and gay marriage, and the overwhelming shifts in popular culture promoting much less religiously restrictive understandings of personal identity have prompted politically active religious actors to take a far more pragmatic stance.”

 

For that reason, Marti said revivalism has largely

“been abandoned as a solution to changing society. Their goal is no longer to persuade the public of their religious and moral convictions; rather, their goal has become to authoritatively enforce behavioral guidelines through elected and nonelected officials who will shape policies and interpret laws such that they cannot be so easily altered or dismissed through the vagaries of popular elections. It is not piety but policy that matters most. The real triumph is when evangelical convictions become encoded into law.”

In other words, many Christian Nationalists have moved towards authoritarianism. They want their religious views to be enshrined in laws. This is not freedom of religion. This is freedom to impose religion on others.

No better example could be found than the recent insurrectionists on Capitol Hill. What better example could one think of than rioting at the Capitol in a country that is still (to some extent) democratic? That is certainly not a case of trying to persuade; that is trying to impose. That is what authoritarianism is all about.

Christian White  Supremacists

 

 

One more remarkable aspect of the rioters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was that most of them were white. Not only that, but many of them were White Supremacists who had been encouraged by Trump to attend. Many of them claimed to be Christians as well.  Many of them, claimed they were there because Trump had invited them. The close ties between white supremacists and Christian nationalists have deep historical roots.

The founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., a non-profit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, Robert Jones, claimed in his book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, that

“Christianity in America has a long history of serving as a cloak for a racist political agendaThe norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness…The story of just how intractably white supremacy has become embedded in the DNA of American Christianity.”

 

As I said, often the offspring of marriage of politics and religion are ugly monstrosities. They are sometimes ugly but we don’t realize it because we have become so accustomed to it. We don’t even notice it.

That does not mean that all American Christians adopted this point of view. Some like the 21 Baptist leaders that included Steve Harmon, professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity said this on the day following the riot on the hill in Baptist News a mainstream publication:

“Minister friends, we must confront directly the baseless conspiracy theories and allegations that our own church members are embracing and passing along. They are not just wrongheaded ideas; they have consequences, and to tie these falsehoods to the salvation of Jesus is nothing less than blasphemy.”

The fact is however, that the violent and disruptive views of the evangelicals I have been mentioning are common among American and Canadian evangelicals. There are so many that support the more extreme views that it would not be fair to characterize them as fringe views. Trump has always received broad support among evangelicals. Polls have consistently showed that about 80% of American evangelicals have supported Trump and continue to support Trump even though his racist statements and positions are pretty plain to see. Trump himself often admitted they were his staunchest supporters. To me the reasons for this have always been mysterious, but no less real for that.

The close ties between racism and evangelicalism are disturbing and should not be swept under a carpet.