Original post – Spring 2012: Secularism is the belief that government exists separately from religion and religious beliefs. Under this definition, it is viewed that government plays a neutral role and views human activities and political decisions should be unbiased by religious influence. It is not an argument against Christianity, it’s independent of it without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. It seeks to promote social order separate from religion.
If you can, thank back to spring 2012 a unique year in civic engagement. Did you feel the pressure to be an active, present and engaged citizen? I certainly did. Why almost in one month we saw events that demanded our attention and participation. April 29th – Royal Wedding of Prince William and Katheryn (tradition), April 30th, Tax deadline (responsibility), May 1 Global Love Day (humanity), May 2 Federal Elections (duty), May 2, Tax deadline moved since the 30th fell on a Saturday (responsibility – again…), Osama Bin Laden announced dead – shot down by U.S. Forces in Pakistan (justice).
Growing up, we were taught that salvation lies in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, only HE knows when the hour of Armageddon is upon us. We are warned, “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs.” (Psalms 146:3-4) What that meant for us is that we didn’t take part in any politically driven activities such as; voting, getting into politics, singing the national anthem and prayer, no jury duty and no participation in military action. Yes, we pay our taxes and follow the laws of the land, but as John 17: 15-20 we are to be “…no part of the world, just as I am [John] no part of this world…” I’ve recently given up the dogma of religion, and as a first-time voter, this past Federal Election had me questioning the meaning of our national identity and values. First, let’s briefly talk about church and state.
Church and State
The concept of separation of church and state refers to the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation-state. We all can agree that it’s not good for rabbis, priests, pastors, bishops or popes to hold political offices. Churches, (meaning here all religious organizations) do not appoint presidents / prime ministers, judges and governors. Similarly, the government does not appoint bishops and pastors for the churches.
It has no role in defining beliefs about God and worship and permits citizens to engage or not engage in religious practices or belong to religious organizations. And the government does not distinguish between faith-based groups for tax deductions/exemptions (i.e. Housing allowance tax deductions for ministers) for faith-based groups.
Is Canada a secular nation? Yes, and no. Yes, the government is free of the direct control of religion, its leaders, and practices. For example, when Paul Martin’s Liberal government passed Bill 38 legalizing same-sex marriages he asked for comments from the Supreme Court of Canada, particularly about whether the law could imply that any church or religious group would have to marry same-sex couples. The Supreme Court made it clear that the law could not be applied in that way.
While Bill 38 is extremely important in guaranteeing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, it is equally important as a law that separates the powers of church and state in Canada. Traditionally, churches have performed both the civil and religious components as one. Bill 38 makes it clear that the civil part of a wedding is separate and distinct from the religious part. In other words, the government controls secular spousal rights, while the church controls any religious part. This reason alone makes it important that the current Harper government must not be allowed to overturn this legislation.
No, Canada is not entirely a secular nation, there are noticeable elements of theism in sections of the Constitution Act 1867, in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in our national anthem and on our money.
The preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly known as the British North American Act) expresses the idea that the Dominion of Canada shall have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”. Constitutional jurisprudence confirms that the effect of this section is to import the principles of the United Kingdom’s constitution (as it was in 1867) into Canada’s constitutional framework. This includes both written constitution instruments and unwritten constitutional conventions.
In 1867 (and still to this day), the United Kingdom had an official state religion: the Church of England. The King and Queen hold the title of Supreme head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith; the monarch sits as both head of state and head of the official state religion. As a result of the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, Canada inherited the Church of England as a state-established church and official religion. Our head of state is also the head of our official state religion. Because the Charter does not take precedence over other parts of the constitution, the provisions of freedom of religion and equality do not affect the Church of England’s status as an official state religion in Canada.
IF this is what we want – To move us further into the separation of church and state, we Canadians may have to summon the courage to tell Prince Charles, when he becomes King Charles III, that he is always welcome in Canada but as a foreign head of state. This would sever the last formal ties with the former British Empire and move us further toward being a secular independent nation.
In May 2010, a poll by Angus Reid found that:
- a 69% majority, would like to see a Canadian serving as Canada’s head of state.
- 52% majority of Canadians support reopening the constitutional debate to discuss replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state, while only 32% oppose doing so.
- Despite 69% of Canadians having a “mostly favorable” opinion of Queen Elizabeth II as a person, only one-third, 33%, of Canadians preferred Canada to stay a monarchy.
- When asked who they would prefer as a monarch after Queen Elizabeth II, three-in-ten Canadians responded by saying there should be no monarch after her. 31% of Canadians also want members of the Royal Family to stop visiting Canada.
Also in May 2010, an online poll by Leger Marketing for QMI Agency found that majority:
- 59% of Canadians said that they had little or no interest in the Queen’s visit to Canada, while 39% did.
- 32% of 18 to 34 year-olds have an attachment to the crown. In the 65-and-over group, 46% reported an attachment. One-fifth of Canadians said the Queen should stay home, and that furthermore, “Canada should sever its ties with the British Crown”
A poll by Ipsos-Reid, in June 2010, found that:
- the majority two-in-three Canadians agree the royal family should not have any formal role in Canadian society and reported growing sentiment that Elizabeth II should be Canada’s last monarch.
- The majority 58% of Canadians want Canada to end ties to the monarchy when Queen Elizabeth II’s reign ends, and the majority 62% of Canadians believe that Canada’s head of state should be the Governor General, not the Queen.
- A fifth poll, conducted by Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press a few days ahead of the Queen’s nine-day visit to Canada in June, found that nearly half of Canadians, 48%, consider the monarchy to be “a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today.”
- The poll also found that 44% of Canadians want a national referendum to decide whether Canada should keep the monarchy.
Supremacy of God
Getting rid of the monarchy might be easier than ridding references to God in our laws. Today, there is still cause for more concern because we have groups within our society who see certain provisions in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as belonging to them alone and not to all. For example, let us examine The Christian Heritage Party of Canada, which boasts to be the six largest political party in Canada making it the only pro-life, pro-family federal political party. Their website asserts, The Preamble to The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, says: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God’ – capital ‘G’: the God of the Bible- ‘and the rule of law…” Because of this opening statement in the “Rights and Freedoms”, they believe, that Parliament acknowledged this to be a historical fact and record of the development of the institutions and laws of Canada up to that point.
1. That God, the Creator of mankind and all that makes up our world, alone has the right to order the affairs of mankind and to direct our steps. HE is overall; HIS precepts are non-negotiable and HIS judgments are right.
2. That the laws of Canada must conform to HIS law and that all Canadians must be equally subject to those laws.
As stated on their website, the above universal truths “are under attack, not only by secular humanists but also by other competing worldviews by a variety of theistic and pantheistic religions that are represented in Canada’s “multicultural” society.”
Canada’s cultural and legal heritage is rooted in the Christian worldview, which has provided freedom of speech and religion for all people. Increasingly, our government has violated the ‘separation of church and state’, infringing on these guaranteed Charter rights. The Christian Heritage Party of Canada will protect Canadians’ Charter rights and properly respect the separation of church and state. ~ Jim Hnatiuk, Leader, Canadian Heritage Party
They believe that civil government should be under the authority of God by upholding law and order in accordance with Biblical principles and that decision-making processes by the civil government must not in any way contravene these Biblical ethics.
Under “7 Reasons why to vote CHP” (as of 2012), the last section reads, “And more and more Canadians are beginning to realize that the ‘supremacy of God’ clause in our Constitution is the most important bulwark protecting our democracy and the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for all Canadians – and only the CHP is committed to the protection of that principle.” The party goes on to state that “’Human Rights’ as expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can only, therefore, be legitimately interpreted in light of, or in conjunction with, the higher Moral Law of God.”
Whatever happened to NDP MP, Svend Robinson? Remember him? In 1999, he proposed before the House of Commons to amend the Charter by removing the mention of God, as he felt it did not reflect Canada’s diversity. The request did not come from Svend Robinson but from a 1,000 signature petition, sponsored by the Humanist Association of Canada. Mr. Robinson was just the messenger, a perfect messenger since he fought against its inclusion back in 1981 when the Charter was in the making by Trudeau Sr. and team.
It was quickly dismissed, many were offended and NDP leader Alexis McDonough banished Mr. Robinson to the back benches. The request itself seems reasonable and in the best interest of democracy. As a secular state, Canada is founded upon the rule of law and as such god is irrelevant. Strangely, though, these two concepts are side by side in the preamble, it’s a contradiction and a disservice to our democratic culture. The Campus Free Thought Alliance, the Council for Secular Humanism sponsored umbrella organization for humanist student groups, issued a press release that commended Robinson for having “greatly advance the unending struggle for equal rights and religious freedom. Your stance has not been popular, but your principles are forward-looking and remarkable.“
People who insist on such religious inferences are often slow to realize that they are discriminating against non-believers in a manner just as objectionable as if they were to ask a member of a visible minority to march at the back of the professional. This is a serious hurdle to separating official state ceremonies from the influences of religion.
One of the most difficult balancing acts in democratic societies involves simultaneously upholding freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Freedom of religion is entrenched in international law, and in the charters of many countries – including Canada. In an increasingly multicultural society, how can we best protect this freedom of religion, while recognizing that some people also need freedom from religion?
Many believe “the supremacy of God” is an empty expression. Those who are religious do not need the Constitution to validate their certainty in God’s existence. But think again. Journalist, Marci MacDonald and author of, “The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada”. In it, she sends out an urgent wake-up call for all Canadians who think that this country is immune from the righteous brand of Christian nationalism that has bitterly divided and weakened the United States.She warns of a quiet revolution as the Christian right movement focuses on taking over the “gateways of influence” and it looks and sounds different from its American counterpart. “But in the five years since the prospect of same-sex marriage propelled evangelicals into political action, it has spawned a coalition of advocacy groups, think tanks and youth lobbies that have changed the national debate.”
Do you now think the Humanist petition deserves to be revisited and taken seriously? The time will inevitably come for the debate about abortion, where as of today, Canada has no law restricting abortions – pro-life activists will cite the rule of law in defense of their actions.
Marci MacDonald continues, “Much of that new spiritual consciousness comes from the increasing presence of conservative Christians in the capital. As Harper has gradually unmuzzled his evangelical Christian MPs, allowing them a higher profile and letting them test public sentiments with private members’ bills, he has emboldened the religious right as a whole. “They’re more brazen and confident,” says Joyce Arthur, director of the Abortion Rights Coalition. “That’s the big change. Being in power has given them legitimacy.”
This election we’ve witnessed a political realignment in this country with an NDP stronghold in Quebec, and the Conservatives winning majority seats. Our country is now polarized between right and left leaving, for the first time in Canada’s 144 year history, the Liberals are reduced to third. “We have seen…the emergence of …. polarization in Canadian politics,” said Liberal Leader, Michael Ignatieff when he addressed his supporters “we have a government that will pretend to govern from the center and there’s a risk it will move the country to the right. We have an official opposition that will criticize from the center and possibly move the country to the left.”
I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief when Harper told a group of reporters while campaigning in the Niagara Region, that he will not introduce measures to restrict abortions or end same-sex marriages should he win a majority government. Yes, under Harper’s Conservative majority government we are essentially assured stable, economic growth, low taxes and a fairly business-friendly platform which makes us attractive to foreign investors. But those of us who are “forward thinkers” are cautious. While these issues are not on the Conservative agenda what about the next election?
Canada has no law about abortion. Yet when we do decide to create some sort of law, it will be an extremely divisive issue for the country. As a secular nation shouldn’t we look at areas of our Constitution and Charters where there are noticeable elements of theism and make amendments before debating such topics? Shouldn’t we at least attempt to renew the effort in this direction because it is the only way to solve the conflicts imposed upon us by fragmented religious practices, especially the ones initiated by the most radical fringe of religious movements?
Religion and Politics
Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the MacDonald-Laurier Institute and author of the book, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values, said the increased visibility of the religious right in politics is partly a reaction to a period of aggressive secularism in Western politics. He said it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.
“We’re entering an era in which faith, in the largest sense, is becoming a powerful political force,” said Mr. Crowley. “People of faith in Canada are getting more involved in politics, not just Christians, I think Jews are doing it, the Muslim community is doing it, in the Sikh community, you’ll find the various temples are powerful community rallying points. We’re entering an era in which faith is going to be a much more powerful force within politics.” 
Religion and politics have to do with two spheres of activities in the life of the same person. That means you, me and everyone else. Some say the separation of religion and politics is intellectually impossible. They cannot be separated. This is because the political order rests upon the moral order and the moral order upon the religious order.
Citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association generates complications. Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and yes, it is right for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political order. The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not disqualify them from the political realm. They must be argued for in proper social and political terms in harmony with national values.
NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.) said he had a “respectful” conversation with him [Harper], even though they disagree on many fronts. He said he doesn’t think it is so much that Christian organizations are influencing the government’s policies, but rather many in the government already hold socially conservative views and the Christian right simply validates that.
“I think Mr. Harper had that view long before he was influenced by anyone. These are his deep-held beliefs, he said it publicly before he doesn’t support abortion, we know that,” said Mr. Stoffer. “Nobody should be surprised he’s not funding abortions because those are his views and the views of the majority of his caucus.“
There are other examples of limits to religious influence in Canadian government. When sworn in as Governor General, Michaelle Jean chose to use the affirmation form of the oath and not the religious one. Some religious groups objected but were ignored. Perhaps in doing so, Her Excellency may have been merely recognizing that she would be representing many faiths.
In conclusion, I believe a Christian’s duty is to introduce Love into the interstices of the social network, to show mercy and compassion within the spaces of the institutional frameworks operating then and there. As we move more towards a secularist society I see a trend where we would welcome religious-based ideas and some philosophies – but object to their dictations and quest for total control.
…cont’d Part II