• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Seriously, Mr. Toews? Christian Chaplains Providing “Generic” Services?

ITEM: “Public Safety Minister Vic Toews mandated that the federal prison system’s 71 full-time chaplains, who are overwhelmingly Christian, will provide religious services to all inmates.” So reports The Globe and Mail to head-shaking all ’round. “Another 49 part-time chaplains—18 of whom represent non-Christian faiths—will have their contracts cancelled.” Why? “The government’s decision to cancel part-time chaplains’ contracts will save approximately $1.3-million of the program’s total $6.4-million budget.”

One wants to ask Mr. Toews a few questions in response:

1. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences don’t really matter, such that, say, a Pentecostal Christian prison chaplain can be counted upon—by the Government, by the correctional officials, and by the inmates—to provide adequate spiritual care for Mormons, Wiccans, Muslims, and Buddhists?

2. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences do matter, and that, say, a Muslim prison chaplain can be counted upon to have the training adequate to provide adequate spiritual care for Mennonite, Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish inmates?

3. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences do matter and that the overwhelmingly Christian character of the full-time chaplaincy be undiluted by chaplains of other faiths such that one religion, Christianity, be advanced on what is literally a captive audience of Canadians?

4. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that chaplains’ own religious commitments are such that it poses no crisis of conscience for them to offer spiritual advice and religious teaching to anyone of any metaphysical and ethical convictions whatsoever, even those whose core values are contradictory in one or more respects to the core values of the chaplain?

5. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that saving a million dollars a year in this way is the best way to provide the best possible environment in which at least some inmates can consider the errors of their ways and make better choices upon re-entering society? Or it is the position of the Government of Canada that “once a criminal, always a criminal” and that offenders ought to be branded as “not like us” forever—as was recently argued in the pages of The Walrus?

Again and again, we Canadians and especially we Canadian Christians have to ask ourselves and our leaders, “Are we treating all Canadians fairly?” And the best test for that is the test of turning the tables, of (to coin a phrase) “doing unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Until the Mennonite Mr. Toews and the ostensibly (but really?) evangelical Mr. Harper are ready to themselves receive spiritual counsel and religious teaching from, say, an imam or rabbi or shaman or guru, perhaps they might reconsider this policy—this apparently stupid, offensive, retrograde, and truly bizarre policy.