The role of religion in the Ottawa protest

The end of the “freedom convoy” in Ottawa has already sparked a lot of soul-searching – how could this have happened?

One of the topics that will certainly be discussed is the role that the Christian faith has played in the manifestation.

There were a lot of Christians in Ottawa — you could see it on protest signs and hear it in media interviews. There were many stories of prayer services and Christian preachers addressing the crowds and an American Christian crowdfunding website helped funnel money to the cause.

As a CBC report concluded: “The Christian faith – with an overtly evangelical twist – flows like an undercurrent through Ottawa’s freedom convoy.

The situation puts me in a bind. Although I watched the protests with horror, I also write, teach and speak regularly about the positive contribution that faith, especially my Christian faith, can make to public discourse.

So, in response, allow me to offer several observations.

First, I can’t criticize someone for having strong religious beliefs. As a person of faith, I recognize that this is part of their identity. People are frustrated and scared, and these are often the circumstances in which you most often turn to God.

The situation is also far from black and white. Governments have made their share of mistakes in handling the pandemic and are not above criticism. I have tried to think of the protesters with compassion and take their views seriously.

However, I have also held the protesters accountable for their actions – especially those who use Christianity as justification for what they have done.

I think it is legitimate to wonder how Christians can be associated with something that has gone far beyond a peaceful protest and has changed the lives of many Ottawa residents. How could they ally themselves with individuals who had ties to white supremacist groups? How can they explain the hatred that was everywhere – symbolized by the blasphemous placards condemning the Prime Minister?

The protest was apparently about personal freedom and while that is certainly something Christianity recognizes, it is not its most important message. In my view, the central message of Christianity is summed up in the call to love God and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – even the stranger and those we dislike.

Although I suspect many of the Christians at the protest were anti-abortion, there were plenty of signs reading “My body, my choice” – an obvious take-off on a pro-choice slogan. The anti-abortion people I have met recognize that a woman has rights over her body. They argue, however, that these rights must be balanced against one’s responsibility to others, namely the unborn child.

Isn’t the principle the same here? We certainly all have rights when it comes to vaccines or wearing masks, but shouldn’t those rights be balanced against our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, especially the elderly and those with health problems?

Some will say that religious faith is too divisive to be welcome in our public debates.

On the contrary. Much of the Christian message is about building bridges to others – even your enemies. There is a constant call for humility and recognition of the dignity of others.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is that these days Christians on all sides in public policy discussions too often fail to demonstrate this aspect of their faith.

John Milloy, a former Liberal MP and cabinet minister, is the director of the Center for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College.

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