The Balancing Act - Religion and Secularism in Politics

Recently, Robert Joustra wrote about secularism, religion, and the establishment of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom.  The 21st century has witnessed increasing conflict between secularism and religion, most notably against “political Islam,” though certainly in Canada and the United States, political Christianity has gained greater influence. Joustra examines secularism and religion and its role in Canadian foreign policy.  He begins by reminding his readers that religion is “essentially contested,” it is a concept “so value-laden that no amount of argument or evidence can lead to one single, standard, or correct use.”  Within foreign policy it is no less contested and, Joustra argues, decision-makers must better comprehend secularism and religion and the purpose of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom.  There are two dominant perspectives of secularism's influence on the West today, laïcité and Judeo-Christian secularism. Together, these represent “an understanding of democratic secular politics which flourishes exclusive of any religious tradition on the one hand, and an understanding sustained in continuity with and intrinsic to a specific [religious] tradition.”

Laïcité presents religion as an intellectual construct that must not have an influence on our political and social institutions. Faith exists as an individual belief, clearly removed from secular society.  For supporters of laïcité, such as the Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders, “the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.”  In contrast, Judeo-Christian Secularism posits that religion is indivisible from an understanding of our political and social institutions.  This perspective reminds us of the historical connection between our modern, secular political and legal institutions to the legacy of Western religious values and beliefs.  As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd explains, Judeo-Christian Secularism is when “Judeo-Christian tradition is perceived as the fount and foundation of secular democracy.”  In short, these two understandings of Western secularization should be carefully considered when approaching religion and international affairs.

Given these contradictory approaches, Joustra writes that “the responsibility of post-secular states should be, must be, to defend the values and principles of their constitutions without monopolizing the logic or rationale (religious or otherwise) by which actors arrive at them. .... What the state must never do is monopolize the logic of why the universal values and rights it protects should be sustained.”  In this way, the Office of Religious Freedom becomes an important tool for Canada to express internationally its commitment to the values of democracy and equality without necessarily imbuing it with any religious or secular intent.  In effect, Joustra argues that Canadian policy must be free of any particular belief system so that Canada can construct a true consensus on human rights, regardless of their origin in secularism, Judeo-Christian, Islam, Hinduism, or any set of political and religious beliefs.

All of this leads us to explore how secularism and religion interacted in Canadian history.  For the majority of its history, Canada was profoundly influenced by the religious faith of its citizens and its religious institutions.

For example, in the years after Confederation, Catholic Quebec was a staunch supporter of the John A. MacDonald's Conservative Party. Despite a brief term with Alexander Mackenzie in the 1870s, Liberals could not defeat MacDonald's Conservatives without the support of French Canada. The opposition Liberal Party was tainted as supporting “Liberal Catholicism,” a dangerously liberal perspective that supported limiting the power of the Catholic Church – an idea completely antithetical to the Catholic hierarchy in Quebec.  Only after a young Member of Parliament, Wilfrid Laurier, delivered a speech in 1877 declaring that “Liberal Catholicism is not political liberalism” did Quebec begin to swing its support towards the Liberals.  Laurier implicitly assured Catholics that the Liberal Party would not interfere in matters of religion, emphasizing the secular nature of his party's policies.  Eventually, after a host of other events, Laurier became Prime Minister with the support of Catholic French Canada in 1896.  Understanding French Canada's Catholicism and allowing the Catholic Church free rein in Quebec was a crucial aspect of governing the country or, for that matter, winning elections. Even still, Catholicism served as a foundation for generations of Quebec liberal and conservative intellectuals, from nationalists like Henri Bourassa and Abbé Lionel Groulx to Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Protestantism would have an equally powerful influence on English Canada. There are many prominent examples, but perhaps one of the most interesting is the religious origins of the modern day New Democratic Party (NDP). Many know that its predecessor was the democratic socialist party, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).  Fewer realize that its first leader, J. S. Woodsworth was a part of the social gospel movement of early 20th century Canada. The men and women of the social gospel movement believed that the word of God had to be applied to economics and politics, effectively moving religion into the secular realm.  The social gospel gave moral legitimacy to the economic and political demands of these groups and placed their politics in the light of a God-given duty. Its most radical supporters, including Woodsworth, even questioned the morality of the capitalist system.  This led them to political alliances with social democratic parties, such as the Progressive Party of Canada or the United Farmers, a waning political force of disenchanted progressives who won provincial elections in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta in the 1920s. Eventually, the crisis of the Great Depression pushed progressives to form the CCF. Former Baptist Minister Tommy Douglas would lead the Saskatchewan CCF to victory and serve as Premier from 1944 to 1961, when he went on to lead the newly formed federal NDP in Ottawa.  In 2013, the NDP is hardly considered a religious political party, but it is still advocating some of the same ideas of its social gospel forerunners.

Like most of the Western world, secularization became more prevalent in Canada following the Second World War.  Many historians have understood this transformation as a natural outcome of the forces of modernization, which they argue inevitably led to secularization. The domination of the “modern world,” with its urbanized, educated, and increasingly wealthier citizens, diminished the relevance of Christian institutions and religion as a whole in Western society. In Canada, both English and French Canadians turned away from religion in the turbulent years of the 1960s. In English Canada, “liberal nationalism” trumpeted Canada's liberal values and a historical and cultural identity separate from its former colonial motherland of Great Britain.  The division of Church and State was more stark as immigrants with different (and non-Christian) beliefs filtered into the country.  For Liberal-Nationalists, laicism was codified through legislation on abortion, divorce law and homosexuality, or the irreligious Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Epitomized in the Government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada allegedly became multicultural, bilingual and more secular.  In Quebec, the “Quiet Revolution” rejected the dominance of the Catholic Church, a rule that had lasted more than a century.  The “new” Quebec and its citizens quickly pushed the Church outside the political and social spheres as well.  By the 1970s, modern, secular Canada had been formed.

Previously, historians have described religious institutions as conservative, traditional, and unable to adapt to the modern world.  Today historians are more aware of the rise of individualism in Western society and its impact not just on the growth of secularism, but even among the faithful.  The individualization of religion did not automatically mean giving up your faith or support for religious institutions.  Similarly, Canadian historians have began to offer a more nuanced approached to the rise of secular society in Canada. Michael Gauvreau and Olivier Hubert write that the Church did not retreat when confronted with modernity, rather when facing new social and political realities, they moved to “[enhance] their social relevance and authority.”  It was through reacting to modernity, rather than ignoring it, that religion lost its social currency in Canadian life.

Today, social evangelicals have gained political influence with the merger of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives in 2003.  The “new” Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has an element of social conservatism, formed from social evangelical voters who advocate for socially conservative policy changes. Canada's history demonstrates that religious politics is not a new development.  But, like Joustra suggests for Canadian foreign policy, the Canadian government should continue to be secular, but not anti-religious. Though many Canadians today disagree with the religious views of their fellow citizens, it is not the government's place to suppress or support them, but rather continue to ensure there is an avenue for them to be expressed.

This is especially important regarding debates over issues that touch on religious beliefs, such as abortion.  Conservative MPs like Mark Warawa or Stephen Woodworth continue to push for discussion about the morality of abortion in the House of Commons.  While many find the debate over abortion distasteful or regressive, democracies must allow for the free expression of opinion, be it secular or religious, and the citizens of the nation can decide their value.  As Joustra reminds us, Canadian philosophers Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor argue that if a secular set of beliefs become as dominant as religious ones – effectively a civil religion – then all citizens who are members of religions become second-class citizens. The Canada of 2013 has moved past such failures. The Office of Religious Freedom has its critics and it remains to be seen if it can fulfill the purpose its supporters claim, but at least it could be a step in the right direction.