Reprinted with permission from the Mar/Apr 2017 issue of Faith Today.
One of the attractive things about Canada is the freedom we enjoy to follow our consciences and live out our respective ways of life in a religiously plural and multicultural society.
Our diversity means we will disagree. There are practices or beliefs that, while legal, some Canadians find objectionable – trophy hunting, boxing, harvesting the oil sands, smoking, abortion, spanking, evangelism and pornography.
Some of the core tenets of my evangelical faith are blasphemy to people of other faiths. I profoundly disagree with some of the beliefs and practices of others. This however is not a barrier to tolerance and respect, or to collaboration and friendship – all aspects of loving our neighbours. A critical feature of a free and democratic society is how we deal with these differences. As Christians we ask: What does the gospel require of us? How do we express love for our neighbours, seek the welfare of others, love mercy and do justice, promote peace and heed the Sermon on the Mount?
As political rhetoric swirls around us, Canadians are searching for ways through disagreement. Tolerance and respect are often mentioned as answers. Certainly they are principles we can affirm.
People commonly assume tolerance means basically the same thing as acceptance, but in fact tolerance is more robust. Acceptance may be the result of indifference or the realization there is nothing you can do, but tolerance sets the bar higher. We tolerate something by choosing not to try to restrict it even when we have the ability to do so.
Sometimes voices call us to affirm or celebrate a practice we disagree with, but this is not tolerance, since tolerance is premised on disagreement. To expect affirmation of all differences is inconsistent with a respect for deep differences. Sometimes tolerance is inappropriate. We as a society have decided some activities are contrary to the functioning of a civil society and the protection of all. The Criminal Code provides an extensive list of activities we do not tolerate. A critical part of what legislatures do is decide what should or should not be tolerated.
Other institutions and communities have bodies that similarly decide what is tolerable. For Christians, good theologizing is critical to discerning what is tolerable and what is not.
Tolerance, properly understood, can help us live together with deep differences.
Respect is also an important principle. As Christians we affirm all people are created in the image of God and thereby have dignity. So we respect each person’s God-given freedom to pursue truth and exercise their consciences.
We may not always agree with their conclusions or the ways of life that flow from their beliefs and commitments. But we can tolerate much out of our respect for God’s intent and the dignity of each.
How robust is our societal commitment to tolerance and respect, and ensuring the freedom of all?
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees us certain rights and freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion. However these are not absolute. They are "subject only to such reasonable limits that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
Trinity Western University has been battling three provincial law societies that have refused to accredit TWU’s proposed law school.
At the heart of the matter is the willingness of the three law societies to recognize that faith communities can and do contribute well to broader society, and that in Canada today they do offer high-quality education animated by their religious tradition and commitments.
The fight to protect religious freedom is triggered by the refusal of some to tolerate and respect diversity. As the BC Court of Appeal said in the TWU case, "A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society.… This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal."
Likewise, several doctors in Ontario (evangelical and Catholic) have launched a legal challenge to the policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) requiring doctors to provide effective referrals for procedures like euthanasia, even when such referrals would violate the consciences and religious beliefs of some doctors.
All other provinces have found ways to accommodate doctors who object. The defence of religious freedom is required because the CPSO decided not to tolerate and respect the consciences of its doctors.
The battle for religious freedom is often rooted in the unwillingness to practise tolerance and respect. We as Canadians are grappling with what binds us together amid our deep differences. Tolerance and respect are two principles we can affirm and advocate.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work. You can follow us on Twitter @TheEFC and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger