Among the annoying foibles of our era is the tendency to forget the lessons of history. Even more annoying, however, is misusing them.
Last week, the CRTC denied a request from Crossroads Television Systems (CTS) to amend its licence. Currently, Crossroads must provide at least 20 hours a week of "balanced programming" between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. CTS sought relief from that provision on economic grounds. It asked that its quota of "balance" be measured over the entire broadcast schedule rather than simply by prime time hours. The Commission cited its established Religious Broadcasting Policy as its supporting rationale.
A dissenting opinion by Commissioner Peter Menzies highlights how narrowly and negatively the authors of that policy interpreted the root causes of intolerance: "They appear to have . . . completely overlooked the positive role that faith organizations play in society."
Menzies' dissent insightfully points out how inconsistent our handling of contentious religious questions is with our approach to other social issues. He notes that anyone in a bar where Mixed Martial Arts are being screened can witness MMA's effect on young male testosterone levels. "Yet," he writes, "the Commission—rightly—does not insist that sports broadcasters balance this impact by broadcasting ballet or interpretive dance as an antidote."
This is establishment discomfort with religion, and it is at odds with modern times. For years the prevailing assumption was that if we just ignored and privatized religion, it would go away. Empirical evidence confirms that theory was misguided. To suggest, as does the CRTC decision, that public discussion of religion is so sensitive that it requires carefully crafted guidelines (which CTS contends are economically unfeasible) is the paternalistic leftover of an outdated secular orthodoxy.
American literary critic E.J. Hirsh Jr. has written that historical study "helps revive the powerful alternative ideas that flourished before the dominant dispensation quashed them." The CRTC decision appeals to the status quo of the past few decades which, when considered in a broader context, is clearly ahistorical. While the decline in religious participation from the 1950s to 2000 was steady, the past decade has seen a modest increase in those who say they attend religious services weekly, especially among younger people. And while the period of secularization has affected the identity and ethos of a good many institutions we no longer think of as religious, it requires amnesia of unthinkable proportions to pretend that religious considerations did not play a significant role in the development of most of our "name" institutions. The list of faith-inspired projects is a long one and includes schools and universities, hospitals, social services, care for widows and prisoners, response to natural disasters and emergencies, promotion of the arts as well as promotion of the virtue of business and hard work.
Granted, plenty of intolerance has occurred in the name of religion—as it has in the name of irreligion. For almost fifty years, the CRTC denied any licenses to religious broadcasters to spare the airwaves of speech in which one group was unduly critical of another. When a few decades ago the current policy was put in place, "balance" became the preferred solution with every station required to provide a variety of perspectives.
The particularities of broadcast licences and the technicalities of CRTC policy are not the stuff of everyday conversation, nor should they be. However, it's time to call foul when religious free speech is accompanied by a regulatory and economic handicap that doesn't apply to any other speech. Such dismissiveness reflects a narrow-minded view of religion that belongs to yesterday, not to contemporary Canadian attitudes. It is a public approach toward religion that we would not tolerate in any other aspect of life.
It is time for the CRTC to stop treating religious programming with a paternalism whose vogue is so out of date.