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?