Ep. 310: Faith Perspectives in Politics
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Canada’s political culture seems to be changing. Where it was once a place where all could freely express their faith, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to do so. What has changed about Canada’s political culture that is making it difficult for people of faith? This week we are joined by Bruce Clemenger, author and president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, to walk us through his new book, The New Orthodoxy: Canada’s Emerging Civil Religion. Bruce gives us a brief overview of the history of Canada’s statecraft, and also expands upon the biases in our current government that result in challenges for religious people. Bruce closes out the conversation with an inspiring message in how we can remain hopeful amid a secular state.
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Hey, this is Daniel Markin from indoubt. And on today’s episode, I’m joined by Bruce Clemenger. Bruce has been with us before. He works for EFC, and we have been able to chat with him before on politics in the gospel. He works alongside a lot of politicians and lawyers in Ottawa, providing counsel and providing advice and a biblical voice in that area, and he goes into a little bit of that in the episode. We’re excited to have him joining us today talking about his new book, which is going to be looking at some of the history of how we got to where we are politically in Canada and what that means for us as Christians.
So, hope you find this interesting. It’s definitely reaching for the top shelf here, so maybe you have to listen to it one or two times. If you give it time and you work through it, it’ll be a very worth it episode for you to be a part of. Hey, welcome to indoubt. This is Daniel Markin, and today I’m joined by Bruce Clemenger. And if you don’t remember Bruce, we chatted actually a while back. We talked in early February, I believe, and I had this pulled up. It’s something like Episode 258. So if you want to go back and hear part one of our discussion, you can go back and hear Bruce and I talking a little bit about church and politics. And we’re going to do some more of that today as we talk about his new book that is already out. Bruce, good to have you here. How are you doing today?
I’m doing really well. Good to be with you.
It’s good to be with you. Thanks again for joining us. I really enjoyed our conversation last time, and I’m definitely looking forward to chatting today. How are things going for you in Eastern Canada?
Well, we’re starting to get a bit of winter, so the snow is starting to come. We’re supposed to get a big snowfall next couple days, so it’s Canada.
It is Canada. And so, Bruce, if you could let our audience know a little bit about what you do, because you have a very interesting organization that has a lot of connections in Ottawa and in government and things. So why don’t you just explain a little bit about what you’re doing out East?
Sure. I’m Service President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. We’re a national association of evangelical institutions, and minister organizations, and churches. Our denominations range from the Pentecostal, through the old Salvation Army, through to Mennonite, and Reform, and so on, about 47 denominations. We have 33 higher education institutions, so Trinity Western, Columbia would be some of the ones in BC, Briercrest, and Saskatchewan, Ambrose, Tyndale, and so on. About 13 of them are seminaries.
And then, we have a number of organizations, some internationally based, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion. Some of the domestic, InterVarsity, Power to Change, and Youth for Christ, those kind of groupings. So we provide a platform which brings together the leadership of those organizations together. We do a lot of work on developing partnerships, strategic partnerships. We do a lot of work on our research, do primary research and do major studies. We’re doing one in small church, another one on family faith formation do out next couple months.
And then, we’re probably best known… We have magazine Faith Today, Love is Moving, and a number of podcasts and so on. And then, what we’re probably best known for is our office in Ottawa, where we have our Center of Faith and Public Life. And there, we regularly engage in the courts on Parliament Hill on a variety of issues. So right now, a lot of our work’s on the area of hastened death, assisted suicide, or what’s called medical assistance in dying, and human trafficking, pornography, prostitution, those kind of issues. So that’s really who we are, what we do.
That’s so good. I want to talk about your new book that’s coming out, The New Orthodoxy: Canada’s Emerging Civil Religion. And you’ve mentioned that it examines the founding non-secretary approach to Canadian statecraft that accommodated religious and cultural diversity. Now, what is statecraft? What are you talking about in this book? And then, maybe we can get into this here because I like where you’re going with this writing. You’re looking at the 1960s. You’re looking at how Canada has arrived where it is today on the promise of political liberalism, this philosophy that had emerged and was going to bring about the good life.
If you could walk us through maybe a little bit what the book’s about. But then, I want to take some time and hear some of the history of where it began, this shift in Canada, and then how it has emerged now, because I think that’s super important. I think it’s important for our listeners to hear what pluralism is and maybe spend some time just chewing on that. So tell us a little bit about the book, why you’re writing it, and then let’s talk about pluralism.
Sure. Up until the 1960s, Canada was dominated by Christian faith. In the late ’40s, 67% of Canadians… 67%, so it’s two-thirds, attended church weekly. We’re now down 8, 7%. But back then, the majority of Canadians attended. We had the duality of predominantly Catholic Quebec and Protestant rest of Canada. At Confederation, three of the provinces were Protestant, and the fourth, Quebec, was Francophone, was French, and Catholic. So you had that basic duality.
And yet even though there’s that duality in the Constitution, British North America Act 1867, there’s no mention of God. Basically, it was a dry, boring contract between four parties, the four provinces of that time, to figure out what would be federal, what would be provincial. But the background culture was this predominance of Christianity. And during that time, the evidence of it, just think of any city you go to in Canada pretty well. And you’ll find usually at the downtown core, there’s a bunch of big, stone churches. There’s Catholic. There’s Anglican. There’s Presbyterian. There’s Baptist.
I remember being in Brockville recently and there’s a bit of a hill over-looking the river across the water to the US. And there’s a big justice building, and surrounded it in a horseshoe are churches. And so, church historians will talk about the unofficial establishment. So none of these churches were established. We didn’t have a State church as they do in the UK, but the churches played the role of prophet, so led moral crusades against drinking or whatever. They were the priest. So at any formal function you had someone in a collar, a Christian of some tradition, blessing the activities with prayer or adjudicating and so on, and then a pastor, social welfare, or filling in the gaps of programs. Or before we had social programs, the church would provide a lot of those. Or it was people from churches that formed societies, built hospitals, and cared for vulnerable persons.
And many would say that church became the conscience of the nation. So it was not established. It was an un-established presence, but they were basically the conscience of the nation, and would always be consulted, and would have influence that way. That influence began to wane in the 1960s. As early as 1960, actually, the Bill of Rights brought in by Prime Minister Diefenbaker at that time referred to Canada as a Christian nation. By the end of that decade, as one church historian said, it was almost a memory. Rapid secularization, the quiet revolution in Quebec, rest of Canada took a couple of decades… But in 1967, the 100th anniversary of Canada’s formation, they had scripture reading and hymns sung on Parliament Hill. So you still had the vestiges of that Christian background, but that began to erode fairly quickly and the church has lost influence.
And so in a sense, in the first 100 years or so, there was the duality of Catholic and Protestant. Protestant made up of the Baptist, the Lutherans, the United, and so on. Presbyterian, Anglican. And then, the Catholic. And so, we have a strong tradition in Canada of our prime ministers don’t wear their religion on sleeve, not like you have the US presidents. Because I think if you were too Catholic or you were too Anglican, you would isolate a significant part of the population. So the prime ministers and in statecraft, they tried to accommodate both perspectives the best they could. And so, there’s a Christian pluralism at play. Well, in the 1960s, as other faith groups grew in size, then you shifted more from a Christian pluralism to interfaith pluralism. And then by the late ’60s, early ’70s, especially as we got into debate over UN Declaration of Human Rights and the issue of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, the question is do you need a theological premise?
So do you need to anchor those human rights in some idea of natural law or some idea of God? Or can it be free standing and rooted in some type of humanistic principles? And so, even in 1982 with the charter, we ended up, EFC along with Catholic bishops and others, lobbied hard for theological presence so that the basis premise of the charter… So it begins, whereas Canada was found on principles that recognizes the supremacy of God and rule of law. So, that’s there. But basically, Canada shifted to more of a secular state.
And so, laws could not be rooted or based on any type of Christian, or sectarian as they would call it and sectarian premise, but had to be non-sectarian. So governments had to be fair to all religious expressions and not privileged one over the other. So an example is, we used to have a thing called the Lord’s Day Act, which basically forced large retail outlets to close on Sundays, the Lord’s Day. And the court struck that down. Said, “You can’t call it a Lord’s Day Act because that’s a theological argument for the law.” Arguably, you could have a Common Pause Day. So if you want to give everyone, majority of society a day off, you could have Common Pause Day and that could be Sunday. But the idea of rooting the law in a religious or theological premise, they said that’s contrary to secularism.
And specifically, it sounds like rooting it in one theological premise. Because they would argue, “Well, what do you do with all the other…” We have lots of Sikhs in Canada, and Hindus. And to be fair, they want to be fair to everyone. Correct?
Yeah, that’s right. And so that’s non-sectarian. A sect would be Catholic, or to be a denomination, or it’d be Jewish, it’d be Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever, or atheist, agnostic. They broadened it to include freedom of conscience issues, so those that wouldn’t claim a religious premise but still advocate out of a worldview or a philosophical moral foundation. And so, that’s where the idea of non-sectarian came from, so the government would be fair.
In Canada, we’ve never had debates over whether there should be government funding for faith-based organizations working for the public good. In the US, they have those debates. In Canada, we’re starting to have them a bit now, but we didn’t in the past because we didn’t have a separation of church and state the way the US did. So the governments and religious actors would interact. So Salvation Army is, I think, the largest non-governmental aid provider in Canada, social service provider. And yet, it’s a Christian denomination. And a lot of government money flows to the Salvation Army.
Now, they don’t do proselytization or they don’t promote Christianity through that, but there are undertaking projects of the common good. So a lot of inner city missions, a lot of our foreign relief organizations receive government funding. There’s no barrier to that in Canada. So there was actually a lot of cooperation between the state and religious organizations. But the premise always would be that the government would treat each one fairly, and they would assign the funding based on the outcomes of the projects, not on the identity of the organization receiving the funding. So non-sectarian, that’s what it means. The sect, the church, the religious beliefs, the atheist beliefs, or whatever of the actor, the government should be indifferent towards those.
Right. So best as you can, just quickly, define this for me then. Give me an easy definition of pluralism. And then, give me an easy definition of liberalism. How are those different?
Sure. Well, pluralism just means that in whatever you’re talking about, there’s a plurality of options. So I just think it’s between three types of pluralism. One is what I call directional, could call it religious, but directional I think is more accurate when we’re referring to atheism, agnosticism, and so on. And the idea is that we’re all oriented, directed towards something. There’s an old song, You Got To Serve Somebody. Bob Dylan. And according to Romans, that’s true.
Romans 1, you’re either serving God or an alternative. And so, I talk about directional pluralism. What are you oriented towards? Are you towards God or some other god? Small G god, or some other set of ideals, or principles, or ideology, philosophy, whatever you want to call it. And then there’s contextual pluralism. So often, people call it cultural. I would call it contextual, because it in a sense, contextualizes your direction. So you believe in God, and then that means you do family a certain way and you do work and so on. You flesh it out, in terms of certain rights or practices and the way you unfold your life.
And so, Genesis 1, be fruitful and multiply. It’s how we worked out our life in the frame of understanding, believing in God, and what we believe He would have us to do. And then, there’s structural. So we have schools. We have churches. We have states’ governments. We have families. We have all these different kind of institutions. And those are ways of engaging. And those three things are different. So you could have a Christian family in Indonesia, which functions slightly different than a Christian family in Canada. So those are three separate things.
So if you go into quickly into church and state things. And structurally, the church as the local church, the organization that’s a charitable organization, et cetera, et cetera, meets in a building. Talk about the institutional church, it’s separate from the state. So the church and state can be distinguished. They each have their own responsibilities, but their responsibilities overlap. So churches usually have things to say to government when you’re talking about justice, or peace, or mercy, or religious freedom, those kind of things. And states have things to say to churches about building codes, and employment contracts, and things that are their jurisdiction. So there’s an overlapping, but you can distinguish between church and state.
I don’t think you can distinguish between faith and politics. I think that because of that directional idea, every cultural expression and every institution has a faith dimension. And so, that’s where I disagree. Often, the secularist approach would argue that there’s no religious influence whatsoever. Religions should be privatized, and secular, somehow independent or neutral. I would say no. The secularist approach has its own set of values. I call it a creed. And so in politics, no matter what party you’re from or what your background is, there’s going to be some set of values or principles that animate you as a politician. And that’s, when we look to vote for candidates, we should try to understand what their direction is and what the basic principles and values that they adhere to.
And my argument is that too often, we think that somehow the state, when it’s being non-sectarian, therefore it means it’s neutral. And I think no. Even when it tries to be non-sectarian, it’s formed around some set of principles or values. So for us, framed around, say, the charter rights and freedoms. Question is, how are those interpreted, applied? And so, the state does have a bias. It does have a set of principles that guides it. And I think that’s where it’s incumbent upon us as citizens who engage in the conversation, what are those principles? What are those norms, those values, that guides a state? And can we come up with principles and values that enable us to flourish? So, it gets to liberalism then.
Liberalism emerged actually out of the religious wars in Europe, and the idea different religious states orient around different, whether it’s Catholic or some type of Protestant vision, understanding of theology. They were at war with one another. And so the question is, can you somehow separate the state craft or the business of the state from a specific religious tradition, a specific Christian tradition so there could be peace and harmony? So that every time you have a change of kings, whether the King was Catholic or Anglican, that you’d have a lot of hostility and persecution. So the idea was, can we find an alternative basis for a state? And what that requires us to do is come up with some principles that will guide the decision-making process of a state that isn’t rooted only in one of the various sects or various religions at play within a society.
So liberalism, it’s focus is usually on the individual freedom, and that they try to maximize individual freedom as much as they can. The limit being, you’re not harming others in the exercise of your freedom. So liberal is freedom. So democracy means, basically, everyone’s treated equally in terms of citizenship, in a very brief way, little more nuance required. But basically, we all have an equal vote, and we can vote for the candidate of our choice. And the majority, in a sense, prevails. Liberalism binds democracy by saying they want to protect the individual and communities over against the will of majority. And so, we have things like sets of human rights codes and so on that would protect minority or individual interest over against the overreach of the state. And that’s really what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does. It protects individuals over against the overreaching of the state.
Yeah, and no matter what the background is. Because it occurs to me right now, and this is getting back to what you said earlier with the pluralism. When politicians would walk into the courtrooms, when they would walk into the House of Commons, they are saying that they are religiously neutral. But underneath, that person’s still a Christian. That person’s still a Jew. So they’re still walking in with that worldview and that belief system, and then arguing in the public square.
Well, sure, but that belief system then is usually articulated, further nuanced, in the party they choose to align themselves with. And so, there’s an ideological difference between the liberals, the NDP, the Block, the Greens, the Conservatives. And so, you can be a Christian and function in different parties, depending on how you work your faith out in that political sense. And so it’s more multilayered than you’d think, and that’s where the contextual side comes.
So someone may claim to be a Muslim, and you have Muslims in several different political parties. And so, there’s the same person relying on the same understanding, or they’re basing their life on the Quran and their Islamic beliefs, can still find themselves, align themselves, with different political party. So that’s where you have the contextualization differs. But the point is that not just the individual members of Parliament, but the state itself through the lens of the state of the Charter Rights and Freedoms. There are a set of principles, and it focuses on individual rights and not necessarily group rights. And there’s a certain balancing of how those rights are articulated and understood. And that’s where I think the interesting thing…
There’s one guy, described it as these core principles, something like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is it established through a conversion. So you have all different people of different faith perspectives, including those with no specific faith perspective, atheists, agnostics, the nuns we hear about. And they come together and they agree that, yes, freedom of conscience is important for all of us. And yes, respect for diversity is important, respect for your neighbor. Human dignity is important. And so, we converge on a series of principles. And so, we embed those in something like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
And so, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being interpreted by courts, they have to think in terms of the various actors in Canada who lend their support to the charter and try to come up with an interpretation that accommodates, as best they can, the plurality of views that came together in that convergence. The other way to understand is, there’s a consensus. So people agree on a set of principles, but then those principles seem to be somehow free-standing and universal. And that’s where those principles, when they’re interpreted, then can sometimes conflict with some of the animating religious groups that helped form the consensus in the first place. Canada was based on the premises of equal respect and of freedom of conscience.
And when the government starts adding to those basic premises things like promotion of individual autonomy or a strong sense of social cohesion, that’s when they could run afoul of those various directional beliefs that helped shape Canada in the first place. And that’s where I think we’re starting to get tensions. So back in 1993, go back to where we started beginning with MAiD, or euthanasia, assisted suicide. Hastened death is what we usually refer to it as. 1993, there was a Supreme Court case, and we were involved with the Catholic bishops. And we argued that one of those basic underlying principles of Canadian society was the sanctity to human life.
And that’s evidenced in our healthcare system, our welfare system. That we actually believe the dignity of all people, and life was something to be protected, and enhanced, and preserved. And so they bought it, five to four. They said, yes, that was one of the underlying principles. And any bending on the prohibition against assisting suicide would undermine the sanctity of human life. Fast-forward to 2015, the Supreme Court in this time, nine, nothing. They said in some cases, they believe human autonomy should trump the sanctity of human life. So there’s some situations where we should allow exceptions to the universal ban on assisted suicide because of individual autonomy.
And what we’ve seen is, since 2015 and there’s legislation subsequent, that you could access government provided euthanasia or assisted suicide if your death was reasonably foreseeable and you are in dire circumstances. Well, that’s been expanded now to, your death doesn’t have to be reasonably foreseeable. If you have a severe disability or severe illness, then you’d qualify. And now in March, it’s going to extend to people whose only underlying conditions mental health. And again, this is this continued push. In the court in 2015, one person on the other side of the issue argued that if you concede that human autonomy will trump the sanctity of human life in that sense, in certain circumstances, there’s no barrier you can put to that. Once you allow assisted suicide, any hurdle you seek to use to break assisted suicide will fall under the argument of human autonomy, if human autonomy comes your dominant principle. So I think that’s what’s basically happening.
Wow. Well, so then just let me ask you this because we are out of time, but that sounds like dire circumstances. This sounds like a difficult place. You’re doing some difficult work here. How can we as Christians have hope in such a secular state? Maybe just close this out with that. Where is our hope in that?
Well, there’s really two approaches here we’ve outlined. One is the non-sectarian, where government doesn’t take sides. And when they look at law and public policy, they have to do so keeping in mind the diversity of, what is Canada? And make sure they’re not privileging one set of values over another, the best they can, based on the consensus or the convergence. The other one is to become more secularist. And they begin, in a sense, picking sides amongst the various worldviews or moral doctrines in society and begin championing one over the other.
So I think what we need to be about is advocating to go back and reinforce Canada being a non-sectarian place. So, open pluralism they call it. And so, that’s where people of whatever faith have the freedom to live out their lives according to faith, both in private, but also publicly. And engage in a public square authentically out of their faith perspective in pursuit of the public good rather than the government taking sides.
And like the Canada Summer Jobs situation, where they developed an attestation where you had to sign off in certain set of values to get funding. Well, that’s where they’re imposing a certain set of values on that they didn’t impose before. And that then isolates a number of groups within Canada who don’t agree with the values of the current government.
And deep down, below that, it’s grasping the idea that we are citizens in a democracy. We have the freedom, and in a sense, I think the responsibility to engage. And it’s not just voting every several years when there’s an election, but it’s engaging with your member of parliament, engaging with candidates. Find out what animates them. Why do they get involved in politics in the first place? Build that relationship. And then when tough issues come along, come to them and say, “Okay, from my understanding of life, from my set of beliefs, I think we should be promoting human dignity. We should be promoting respect for…” On, and on, and on. And engage in those conversations and be persuasive. Because I think a lot of MPs, if you bring the arguments well and you articulate them well, at least you will have a hearing. I think that’s what our task is, to bear that public witness.
Absolutely. And it comes through small conversations, and small discussions, and conversations like we had today. And so, Bruce, thanks again for being on the program. Thank you for joining us and enlightening us with that. There’s a lot there. I think we’ll have to give this a listen or two. But I think these ideas, once we take them and understand them, we’ll know better how to intervene and interact with our culture. So again, thank you for being on the program, and we really appreciate it.
Okay. Well thanks again, Bruce, for being on the program. It’s always a pleasure, and your knowledge is so vast. I just really appreciate the ways that you’re able to make that knowledge accessible to us. And it’s just encouraging also to hear the work that you’re doing. And so, thank you for that. Bless you. And I hope this episode was helpful to all you listeners as well. So with that, thank you for listening. All the best.
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Hey, this is Daniel Markin from indoubt. And I’m really thrilled to share that this month, we welcome Andrew Marcus as a host and director of indoubt. Andrew’s an award-winning singer-songwriter and acclaimed worship leader and pastor. And he’s excited to lead the indoubt team, launch new innovative programs, and engage a network of Christian leaders and experts to help speak the truths of God’s word into the challenges of faith faced by young adults every single day. Stay tuned to hear more in the coming weeks ahead.