Bearing witness in a stereotyping world

Gary Goodyear, one of Stephen Harper's federal cabinet ministers, has been burned badly by "gotcha" journalism on a question of evolution.

But the real question, lying just below the surface, is this: Is there a proper place to articulate religious beliefs? Can believers find public spaces where their beliefs are respected, not targeted?

April 17 th 2009

How can and do Christians bear public witness of their faith in Jesus Christ? This is a burning issue for many who live and work in the public eye. My students wrestle with this challenge every semester. Perhaps we all do on a regular basis.

I run a small, national capitol program for a Christian university in Ottawa. My 22 students are placed in part-time internships—many on Parliament Hill, others in media or NGOs. Some work with Christian supervisors; in other offices, they are the only believers. Those with Christians in the office sometimes see, up close and personal, the struggles politicians go through when their faith becomes a political issue. Those who are the only believers in their offices wrestle with how they should bear witness of their faith in their internship placement.

These are tough issues for any believer.

They are especially tough for Gary Goodyear, Canada's Minister of State for Science and Technology. His religious views became front-page news for a few days in March of this year because he refused to answer a question posed by a Globe and Mail reporter.

This is a case of a reporter making news, rather than reporting it. Anne McIlroy asked Mr. Goodyear if he "believes in evolution," and Goodyear refused to answer, arguing that it was a question about his religion. Apparently, Ms. McIlroy thinks that asking someone if they believe in something does not constitute a religious question. The resulting story generated a firestorm of controversy.

Ms. McIlroy went on to get quotes from noted evolutionists. Brian Alters, of McGill's Evolution Education Research Centre, was said to be shocked by Goodyear's comments. Jim Turk, of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, was said to be flabbergasted. Letters to the editor the following day in the Globe and Mail suggested that Goodyear was unfit for the job, sometimes giving the impression that only atheists are fit to discuss important issues of science.

The whole issue seems to have arisen because there is frequent stereotyping of Christians in mainstream Canadian media. Christians are portrayed as believing in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. And to many people working in the media, a belief in a six-day creation and a few-thousand-year-old world disqualifies anyone from any job related to science funding.

But anyone who is a practising Christian knows all too well the controversies over the interpretation of Genesis 1 among Christians themselves. My university was regularly picketed by a six day creationist because some academics in the university are proponents of intelligent design—an inadequately literal interpretation in the view of the picketer.

Goodyear, who is aware of all these debates, must have known that he would be lambasted no matter what he said about evolution and creation. But even refusing to get into that morass is enough to leave researchers "aghast," as the Globe and Mail subtitle proclaimed.

Lest you think that this all ended badly, some good has come out of the debacle. The columnist Lorna Dueck had a commentary piece in the Globe and Mail the following day, lucidly explaining some of the issues to a religiously-illiterate audience. Editors and commentators in the National Post, Canada's other national newspaper, came out guns a-blazing at Ms. McIlroy and the Globe and Mail for making news out of a non-issue. For a few days, there was a real public debate about the role of the media, the role of Cabinet ministers, faith and public life, and even, marginally, about evolution and creation.

But Goodyear has been burned and burned badly. While he was clearly trying to steer clear of controversy, he stepped right into it.

The real question, lying just below the surface, is this: Is there a proper place to articulate religious beliefs? Can believers find public spaces where their beliefs are respected, not targeted?

Some public figures have found respect with the media. While they are known Christians, they are not targeted, but affirmed in their beliefs. Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl makes no secret of his faith. He spoke about it publicly in relation to his lung cancer at the leadership dinner prior to Canada's National Prayer Breakfast two years ago. He has made public speeches about this, and they have been reported in the media.

Cindy Klassen, gold medal speed skater, was so public about her faith during the last winter Olympics that many of us were cheering on her public testimony as much as her skating performance. The Globe and Mail itself lauded her reliance on prayer in the face of personal and family challenges in an article last fall.

During Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa invited Dr. William McClain, a professor from Wesley Theological Seminary, in Washington, D.C., to speak in Ottawa. He addressed his role with the civil rights movement in the 1960s when, as a teenager, he was pastor of two churches and worked alongside Martin Luther King in pressing for civil rights for African Americans. When asked how he survived being beaten, tortured and imprisoned for his peaceful civil rights work, Dr. McClain responded, "It was my faith in Jesus Christ." He went on to use this as an opportunity to expound on the gospel.

There are moments and times and places for public witness. And there are times when silence is more golden than words.

One of my students has been reflecting on what it means "not to be ashamed of the gospel." He is the only Christian in his workplace. He works in a fast-paced, aggressive setting where there is a great deal of swearing. Is it a problem that he is "nice"? Is it enough that he does not swear? In his work setting, few, if any, of the employees knows anyone who takes their faith seriously. For my student, merely being there, a student from a Christian university in a secular Ottawa workplace, is certainly a public witness.

None of this stops wily reporters from making news shredding the beliefs, or assumed beliefs, of a person of faith, most likely a Christian. No one in public life can escape the reality of "gotcha" journalism. Goodyear is not the first, nor will he be the last. We can only hope that people of good will shall not be swayed by such petty journalism. And we can applaud those who use good opportunities to bear public witness to their faith even in settings where it could be used against them.

 

Janet Epp Buckingham is a professor at Trinity Western University and the Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre, an Ottawa-based, live-in, extension program focusing on leadership in public policy, business and communications.

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