‘Political reminder’ disturbing

November 7, 2012 | Editorial | Number 22
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

When I received a registered letter from Canada Revenue Agency reminding me, as editor, of limitations on registered charities regarding partisan political activities, I took it personally.

First, it grates on every journalistic bone in my body to have to be “reminded” by the government that I have crossed the line in what I consider a professional and religious duty. This is not a new conflict. Journalists and government are always in tension about the dissemination of information and advocacy because one power (government) wants to keep critique and transparency to a minimum and the other (journalists), are, by nature, wanting to shine the light in dark places.

Added to the duty of the religious journalist is the task of representing a certain faith community—in this case Mennonites with an Anabaptist history and belief system. I take seriously my duty to represent our core beliefs in a prophetic and redemptive manner that sometimes challenges the “powers” (government) in the area of militarism and injustices that affect the poor, the “stranger” (immigrant), indigenous peoples and protecting our economy over the environment. So this “reminder” comes as a double-edged sword in my work as editor.

Secondly, as I told the audit officer, this represents a “chill” on free speech that I had never anticipated. Rather than feeling the freedom to represent my church in its witness, I now feel constrained to couch my voice in non-critical terms for fear of losing charitable status that favours us with certain financial advantages, namely giving individual donors tax credit for their gifts and enabling us to enjoy a funding relationship with our Publishing Partners (area churches and Mennonite Church Canada). I thus feel boxed in and disheartened in my work.

While we intend, as a publication, to be law-abiding in every possible way, this constraint, through the muscle of the law of a registered charity, presents a struggle I wish to share with you, as our regular and faithful readers.

I am, above all, puzzled at the singling out of the Canadian Mennonite, which as a member of the 82-religious publications comprising the Canadian Church Press, has been the only one to be sent such a letter. In a survey of the members of that organization, done anonymously by its executive committee, none of them has received a “reminder” despite the fact that several of them representing mainline denominations regularly critique the government on a variety of issues.

Further puzzling is the fact that Canadian Mennonite engages in very little political commentary, but uses most of its space to tell the stories of our congregations at work, of God at work in the world through our witness and service agencies.

For the CRA to cite six editorials/articles out of approximately 720 over the course of 24 issues a year is considerably under the 10 per cent “allowed for political advocacy.” Even if the measure is 10 per cent per issue, we seldom exceed three editorials/articles out of 30. And those cited were speaking primarily to justice issues affected by government policies rather than “advocating” for, or “opposing” a particular candidate or party.

Yes, we have specifically called the government to account on some of its policies and practices in what we perceive is excessive spending on military weapons, on its immigration and public safety and prison matters. These are areas of primary concern to our young people, thus the citing apparently of the four articles in Young Voices.

But they are not partisan, per se.

I am actually proud and very supportive of their engagement with public policy and do not want them to quiet their voices and constrain their comment because I am thrilled that they see this as an expression of their faith. A previous generation of young people was criticized for its apathy in political engagement; this one is taking very seriously the tension points at which the popular culture diminishes their faith and for that I am inspired and hopeful.

I am most of all saddened at a time when our faith community, collectively, is becoming more vocal on public policy issues as an expression of our Anabaptist faith, that we are being constrained under the legal language and interpretation of the law to lower our voices and dim the lights of our witness.

Are you as disheartened as I am?

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A few responses...
1. My guess is that it was a disgruntled Mennonite reader who complained to CRA and started this ball rolling.
2. The existing law is that charities can use 10% of their resources for "political" activities, as long as those activities aren't partisan (ie. as long as they don't directly promote or oppose a particular party).
3. If you think about it, there is a legitimate public policy interest behind that law.... Do we really want churches and other charities to have the unfettered ability to promote political parties?
4. The big problem here isn't the law itself. It's that the law is evidently being used in a selective arbitrary, and vindictive way.
5. A question to ponder is whether we (as a constituency) would care enough about all this to sustain Canadian Mennonite financially even if it lost its charitable status? Or do we prefer to circumscribe ourselves for the sake of a tax break? Or is there a way to rearrange things so that we can have both a "charitable" publication and a non-charitable (ie. more political) one.

I would encourage people to draw attention to cases like this if they believe the law is being improperly applied. However, be careful about jumping to conclusions about conspiracies. There's likely to be a much more mundane explanation for this.

Furthermore, tax-exempt status is not a constitutional or natural right of religious organizations. The state offers this incentive in order to encourage particular behaviour. Political advocacy, regardless of whether it is based in religion, is not one of those behaviours.

Harper may not always make decisions that we agree with, but contrary to what some would suggest, he is not a fascist. This kind of hyperbolic and inflammatory rhetoric only serves to entrench opposition and prevent cooperative solutions.

I have read far more blunt prophetic challenges to the government in other church papers. This implies to me that certain federal politicians out west with Mennonite backgrounds pulled some strings to get you singled out. It actually doesn't surprise me. The role of a prophet isn't meant to be easy.

The Bible says that if we are faithful witnesses of Jesus, persecution often follows. History has shown this to be prophetic. I commit myself to continued support of your ministry in the Mennonite Church, Dick Benner, and I will do this intelectually and financially. My heart has been deeply stirred by your faithfulness to follow Jesus and to speak out for peace and justice as editor of Canadian Mennonite. I think John Howard Joder would have been proud of you as we all are.

Thanks to Dick and the board for bringing this issue to the attention of Canadian Mennonite's constituency — and going public with the matter in the broader public sphere. I've posted some thoughts here:

I am a frequent reader of the Canadian Mennonite, and often I find myself being challenged in my faith by the articles in your magazine. I appreciate the writers who think outside the box on difficult issues, and it is a joy to read of the good work being done by many congregations and individuals. It is important for us to think carefully about what our core beliefs are when voting in a political election, and having a forum in which to discuss these matters is critical. I am also disturbed by the governments stance on stamping out any organizations that disagree with it's policies, as this goes against the very nature of democracy. However I believe it is in our best interest in the future to avoid including specific names of politicians in our writings. Let's continue to do the important work of addressing policies and issues that are of concern. We have an important voice in Canada and the world regarding peacemaking, compassion for the poor, and care for the environment. If we want that voice to be heard, we must work within the limits allowed by the system. Rather than becoming disheartened in our stance against the troubles faced by the world, let's pull up our socks and speak up without causing our voices to be silenced.

I think this letter certainly has the characteristics of a chill on free speech. At least on its face it appears to be an arbitrary, senseless and rather ridiculous exercise of the CRA's powers. There are some good reasons behind this law, but it seems doubtful that it was ever intended to be enforced like this.

The CRA can do nothing unless it is authorized by law. The CRA cannot simply decide to revoke charitable status without cause. The revocation for cause process also has rights of appeal.

Canadian Mennonite writers have important things to say. I think these do and should include lawful commentary on Canadian politics that falls short of partisan advocacy. Benner rightly points out that this letter is a bizarre occurrence and it seems meritless. I don't think anyone at the Canadian Mennonite should let themselves feel muzzled at all.


I am not disheartened. But then, if I make a donation to your publication (which I am now considering and will decide upon when I have read a little more of your content) I will specify that I absolutely do NOT want a tax receipt - as I do when I donate to The Green Party, the Unis'tot'en/Wet'suet'en blockade, and other causes which I support.

Be well.

Others have called for a measured response and discussion. I agree. It is not an Anabaptist distinctive to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing to end them. The third way is not often sought, and less often found, but this couldn't have happened to a more capable people of God, nor a more inspiring magazine or a more competent editor.

It's important to note that while it's instinctive to tie CRA's actions to the Harper government, it's highly unlikely that there is any link at all. It's much more likely the complaint came from within the constituency, where there is not only a political divide, but also immoderate speech and poor logic as some try to defend their beliefs in terms of the actions of this government.

Becoming Anabaptist does not automatically confer wisdom upon believers. Culturally-raised Anabaptists with traditions of belief that espouse bad theology can be some of the most unthinking, and the pages of the CM are witness to the struggle to educate all.

As the church struggles to adapt to a post-modern society, so too must the government and its departments (including the tax department) struggle in the same way. The old clean lines of authority and division and equal treatment have been wiped away, and like the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, appearances may be decieving.

Ours is to adapt this parable for modern times. Let's begin. Perhaps then the government will follow - after all, its conscience has been pricked by a people proud of their morality. Let's live up to that morality and continue to stand with the weak and powerless who still need our help every day, everywhere.

your richeous morality does not decieve me.


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