Democracy, Religion Closely Linked

March 1 st 1996

That was a remarkable prayer breakfast hosted by London Mayor Dianne Haskett recently. Who would have thought that more than 1,600 people would pay $15 each to attend such a gathering—the first in the city in nearly 30 years.

Haskett was greeted by the ecumenical audience with a standing ovation and Councillor Anne Marie DeCicco was also warmly received, as she thanked the guest speaker—Anne Graham Lotz, a gifted evangelist who happens to be the daughter of the best of them all, Billy Graham.

Notable among the other politicians in attendance were London South Progressive Conservative MPP Bob Wood and London Centre NDP MPP Marion Boyd. London West Liberal MP Sue Barnes conveyed her regrets, explaining that she was attending a simultaneous prayer breakfast on Parliament Hill.

Separation

Of course, some Canadians are bound to be dismayed by these manifestations of political regard for Canada's Judeo-Christian heritage. It is often suggested that a rigorous separation of church and state is a fundamental democratic principle.

That's incorrect. It's foreign to Canada's parliamentary traditions. The separation of church and state is an American concept embodied in Article 1 of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which provides that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." There is no comparable provision in the Constitution of Canada.

Moreover, the original purpose of the establishment of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution was not to create a wall of separation between church and state, but solely to prevent the U.S. Congress from designating a particular Christian denomination as the official state church. The convening of prayer breakfasts by the U.S. President and members of the U.S. Congress is a long-standing tradition. The practice is no less legal and constitutional in the U.S. than in Canada.

Founding fathers

Among the founding fathers of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and several others were Deists or agnostics. The great majority, though were professing Christians. They agreed enthusiastically with U.S. President George Washington, when he affirmed in his great Farewell Address that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens."

"Where," asked Washington, "is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

Until about 30 years ago, almost all Canadian politicians would have publicly agreed with Washington on the vital importance of religion to democracy. But what do we find now? Recently, a federal-provincial working group on multicultural and race relations in the justice system recommended that the religious oath commonly used in Canadian courtrooms should be replaced with a simple promise to tell the truth.

In defence of this position, the committee argued that, "In general, religious beliefs are neither as widespread in modern society as they once were nor as strongly held, and they certainly cannot be assumed to play the same unifying role as they may have played in the past." That's true enough, but why should the state undertake to aggravate the problem by banning God from the courtroom?

Besides, the decline in religious faith in Canada is often exaggerated. In Social Trends Canadian Style, Reginald Bibby reports that although only 25 per cent of Canadians who took part in a 1995 national survey said they attend church weekly, 81 per cent still professed to believe in God and 72 per cent in the divinity of Christ.

Of course, the courts should go on allowing alternative oaths for non-Christians. But surely there is nothing wrong with continuing to ask the great majority of professing Christians who come before the courts to put their right hand on the Bible and to swear before God that they will tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Prayer

Likewise, Haskett, DeCicco, and other politicians should be commended for inviting their fellow citizens to join them in prayer for the nation. For those who have eyes to see, the need is evident. While regular weekly church attendance dropped by close to one-half between 1962 and 1994, violent crime rates increased almost five-fold.

What hope can there be for decisively reversing the ruinous social deterioration in Canada over the past three decades without a religious and moral revival?

 

Rory Leishman is a national affairs columnist with the London Free Press.

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