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For Canada, relativism is not the problem

Changing society yields competing sets of values

Trinity Western University’s proposed law school is in the news, and I am not going to write about it.

I am, however, going to write “around” the TWU issue. That is, the unfolding of the public debate about the school’s lifestyle covenant, and whether it renders teachers (the Supreme Court vindicated the university’s teacher training program 8-1 back in 2001) or lawyers (I expect this will also be litigated at the Supreme Court, too) hostile toward LGBTQ Canadians exposes a very interesting dynamic at work in our public debates.

It is a dynamic that Joseph Bottum’s recent book, An Anxious Age tries—I think effectively—to unravel. Though he is concerned with sociological data from the United States, his thesis carries over into Canada as well, broadly speaking.

Here’s Bottum’s thesis: those who have stepped into the culture-and-morals-shaping vacuum left by the implosion of Mainline Protestantism have shed their parents’ and grandparents’ Christian identities, but have not embraced “moral relativism.” They can be, in fact, as finger-waggingly frustrating as the most pious Puritan. They need be good as well as seen to be good.

In addition, the definition of what counts as good has undergone a radical change. These people are wrongly called “elite,” and are more rightly called “elect.” Like their Puritan ancestors, they still wish to make their moral vision the moral vision of the nation.

Similarly, there was a time in Canada when the cultural fabric of the nation was determined by members of the United Church of Canada and (to a lesser extent) the Anglican Church of Canada outside Quebec and by Roman Catholic Christians inside Quebec. The catastrophic hemorrhaging of members that began in the late 1960s and has only accelerated since has eroded that influence. Politicians who do have some Christian formation in their backgrounds now refrain from speaking about how their religious commitments influence their decisions (former NDP MP Bill Blaikie is a notable and important exception), or insist that such commitments have no bearing upon their public service.

Those who, without over-advertising their Christian faith, nevertheless are unembarrassed by it and refer to it as an important factor in their personal and public lives (former Liberal MP Dan McTeague and current Conservative Jason Kenny spring to mind) are few and getting fewer.

The Canadian governing classes, much like their American counterparts, are shaped by (and increasingly shaping) a public morality that deliberately resists any appeal to God or to the transcendent. But we must be clear. This is no easy live-and-let-live relativism. It is a radically different vision of what constitutes the Good Life. A vision that sometimes comports with biblical and Christian ideals, and sometimes does not.

This notion of competing “Goods” is, I think, very evident in the struggles TWU has faced and fought since the early 2000s. This will continue to define our work as evangelical, or traditional Christians into the future. We are not battling relativism. We are battling a competing vision of what constitutes a good, flourishing, human life and body politic.

And perhaps that’s the most important thing to remember. The battle is at the level of ideas and that is where it needs to be kept. And make no mistake, it is not a battle about re-claiming Canada. It is one about ensuring a genuine pluralism in which traditional Christian voices remain permitted in public life.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at

  • Al Hiebert

    I agree, Tim, that the battle you describe is “about ensuring a genuine pluralism in which traditional Christian voices remain permitted in public life.”

    I find Bottum’s thesis interesting that the post-mainline-Protestant ethic is not relativist. Instead it is a Christianity without Christ, e.g., it’s certainty in advocating environmentalism, anti-capitalism, etc. that rejects all dissent as heresy. His quote from the Occupy Wall Street protestor to demand that everyone affirm their bravery strikes me as a telling expression of their goals.

    Anyone who dares deny any aspect of this intolerant secularism can expect to get whacked, e.g., private religious schools whose religious freedom is contradicted by ON’s Bill 13 and MB’s ON’s Bill 18, the Nanaimo, BC organizers of this May’s Leadercast event, etc. Our post-mainline-Protestant ethic of politically correct orthodoxy permits no genuine pluralism (e.g., TWU’s law school), our Charter notwithstanding.

  • Pingback: Nanaimo decision rescinded: Thanks BC Civil Liberties, not mainstream media | Church for Vancouver()

  • Rich Davis

    I’m not sure I understand the thesis. Is it that Canadian aren’t, by and large, moral relativists? Or is it some smaller subset isn’t? At any rate, I can’t see (from what you say) how Bottum begins to prove the thesis that “we are not battling relativism.”

    • Rob_H

      I think what the author means is that, contrary to popular belief, we the Canadian Christian populace are not ‘battling’ a society that adheres to some sort of “anything goes” brand of relativistic morality: Not subscribing to Christian morality specifically is NOT the same as having no morality at all. Rather, it’s a new set of morals that DOES assume there are rights and wrongs—they may just happen to disagree with Christianity on the particulars of what those are.

      Among Christians, the conversation often appears as, “These people don’t share our Christian concepts of right and wrong, therefore they have NO concepts of right and wrong.” The author, at least in my mind, seems to suggest that that is NOT the case.