Williamsburg Charter: a symposium on religious freedom in public life
Williamsburg Charter: a symposium on religious freedom in public life

Williamsburg Charter: a symposium on religious freedom in public life

In a time when the public place of religion has become a matter of worldwide concern, the dialogue for which the Williamsburg Charter called is more urgent than it was at the time of its signing, twenty years ago this week.

June 27 th 2008

On June 22, 1988, a hundred signatories commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights of the state of Virginia by signing The Williamsburg Charter (http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/const/Willburg.html), a document calling for dialogue on the nature and practise of religious liberty. While the Williamsburg Charter is now twenty years old, it continues to be relevant.

The Charter begins:

Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution's greatness, and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles. In particular, we call for a fresh consideration of religious liberty in our time, and of the place of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses in our national life.

Perhaps, in a time when the public place of religion has become a matter of worldwide concern, the dialogue for which the Charter called is more urgent than it was at the time of its signing.

While the Williamsburg Charter is a document rooted in the American founding dialogues, the kind of dialogue for which the Charter calls is not of concern only in the United States, but everywhere. The two questions upon which the American Republic depends, according to the Charter, must be answered by everbody, in every political community:

  • By what ultimate truths ought we to live? and
  • How should these be related to public life?

In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Williamsburg Charter, Comment invited a small number of the original signatories, and others, to consider these two questions, and to consider the state of dialogue on religious liberty in the world today.

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Government must become more pluralistic

Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies is Director of Social Policy Studies for the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C., and Convener of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom

The Williamsburg Charter called for a renewed commitment to religious freedom so that citizens of multiple faiths can live together peacefully in society, putting their convictions into practice while honouring the rights of others to do the same. That outcome continues to be threatened by religious advocates who insist that one faith must predominate and by secularists who deny that religion should be permitted a public voice. Yet an even greater threat may be posed by the spread of government's power and its web of rules.

The distinctive convictions of religions are manifest in charity, education, and healthcare. But as government welfare, schooling, and health programs expand, the space for these distinctive approaches continues to shrink. Faith communities ought not to abandon their service efforts just because the government says it is here to help. But what to do when the government pays for most care for the poor, most education, and most health services? Pushing back government so that civil society can flourish is a noble effort. But it must be accompanied by reforms inside those government programs so that diverse religious and secular options can become part of the government-funded system.

That is the aim of the Bush faith-based and community initiative, following the Charitable Choice legislation of the Clinton years: not to entice faith groups into a secularizing system in return for a few taxpayer dollars, but to reform the rules accompanying government grants so that faith-based and grassroots groups can participate without giving up their distinctive identities and operations. There has been much success creating space for diversity inside the government's expanding sphere.

But the reforms have been controversial—recall the outrage that the Bush administration protects the freedom of faith-based organizations to select staff committed to their religious vision even while partnering with government! There's every reason to fear that the next administration will curtail the freedoms, demanding that faith-based groups again fit into a secular government mold.

Worse, increasingly powerful social forces seek to diminish distinctive religious practices by expanding uniform government requirements even when no government funds are involved. Under the banner of banishing discrimination, groups favouring behaviour that conflicts with historic religious standards seek to use the government to force religious organizations to abandon those standards. In their view, it isn't enough that they are free to live as they choose; they insist that their preferences must trump the alternative standards of those religious organizations.

For the civil coexistence of varied faiths and philosophies, religious communities need to be able not only to articulate truth claims and bring to public debates their best arguments. They also must be able to put into social practice the dictates of their faiths. Government shows no sign of shrinking. It then must become more pluralistic. Its programs and rules must be made to accommodate religious exercise. In our day, religious freedom, to be real, must operate inside government welfare, education, and health programs and be accommodated by the government's anti-discrimination demands.

Collective engagement must not be side-lined

Dr. Janet Epp Buckingham is Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, and Associate Professor in Political Studies at Trinity Western University.

As someone who has followed the issues of religious freedom and public engagement for many years, I always see things that are getting better and things that are getting worse in terms of the place of religion in public life.

First, looking at what is getting better. The National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa in May was the largest ever. It was an event that brought together politicians, ambassadors and religious leaders in an overt celebration of our common Christian faith. As well, there are more Christian organizations in Canada's capital engaged in public advocacy as well as prayer and encouragement of our politicians. I doubt there has ever been a time when Christians were more engaged with praying for their nation and their leaders.

But there are also worrying trends. While the Supreme Court of Canada has taken the lead to protect individual religious practices from discrimination, it has also had a role in limiting the public inclusion of religion. It is through legal decisions under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) that Sunday has lost its sacred meaning for the majority of Canadians, public expression of religion has been excluded from schools, and Christian expression is being marginalized in a variety of arenas.

Christians have tended to focus on so-called "hot button" issues; speaking prophetically on abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. But the important Christian voice on public justice has often gotten buried or side-lined. Christians play a crucial role in caring for the vulnerable in Canadian society and around the world. Our collective engagement for the public good must not be side-lined.

Now is not a time for discouragement but for thoughtful and biblical action.

An idea whose time has come

Dr. Os Guinness is a writer, speaker, and co-founder of The Trinity Forum, living in Northern Virginia.

The challenges of the global era raise issues that are inescapably religious and ideological, so one of the world's most urgent problems is how we live with our deepest differences, especially when the differences are religious and ideological. Kant's 'perpetual peace' now looks utopian, and Nietzsche's 'wars of spirit' are far more likely unless a better way forward is found.

The vision of a 'civil public square' put forward in the Williamsburg Charter twenty years ago is even more relevant today than then. But sadly, as the contours of a needed 'global public square' have emerged in the Internet age, the bitterness of the American culture wars has deepened, so that the U.S. is anything but a 'city on a hill' to leaders concerned to build a 'world safe for diversity.'

Too many people signed the Charter merely as patriots celebrating the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. Twenty years later, its vision needs to be reconsidered by citizens concerned for the future of America and the world. If ever there was an idea whose time has come, and must not be missed, it is this.

Social mores as a bulwark of freedom

Dr. David Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont.

With the decline of belief in a personal God who has created us in his image and called us to love him and our neighbours, Canada has effectively embraced as its version of "ultimate truth" the belief in the supremacy of human rights. Accordingly, such rights are now deemed to take precedence over all social mores running counter to this new faith.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, two books on etiquette by Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt dominated the North American cultural landscape, as readers sought to understand the generally accepted social mores facilitating interpersonal relations in a wide variety of contexts and situations.

Then the cultural revolution of the 1960s called into question these norms, along with other established customs and institutions. Anything standing in the way of the expansive self was deemed oppressive and best discarded in the interest of human flourishing. Yet what at the time was seen as an obstacle to human freedom may actually have been an unseen bulwark of that freedom.

Take relations between the sexes as one example. The old systems of etiquette prescribed an elaborate set of rules governing courtship, including the presence of a chaperon in certain situations. While these may sound quaint to us, they served important functions: to protect the woman and to dampen the male predatory instinct. Universities carefully segregated the living quarters of the sexes for similar reasons.

The perceived difficulty with these rules of etiquette is that they were seen to be too inegalitarian, prescribing different behaviours for men and women, adults and children, the different social classes, and everyone in formal and informal settings. Rather than becoming an occasion for adapting and fine-tuning these rules, the tendency at the time was to dismiss them entirely. School dress codes went out the window. Relations between the sexes were now to be negotiated (freely, it was claimed) by the couple itself irrespective of external social conventions.

Yet all this came at a cost—one we are still paying at the beginning of a new century. With the decline of informal social mores, we have not been left with nothing. New rules have been invented, and the violation of these rules is increasingly handled by courts and human rights tribunals. This means that government has progressively expanded into those areas once regulated informally by the traditional canons of manners and etiquette. This necessarily means that government is being asked to make judgments falling outside its proper field of competence.

It is, of course, easier to maintain longstanding customs and mores than to invent new ones after the former have collapsed. Yet in the absence of such unwritten standards government is inevitably attempting to fill the vacuum left behind. Thus, the rejuvenation of customs and mores may be one of the key elements in the prevention of tyranny. Human rights alone cannot do this; in fact, understood as a redemptive agent imposed from the top, it may actually impose a form of tyranny. Instead, we must recover a recognition that a healthy society consists of a complex of overlapping communities governed by their own proper standards.

Are Canadians too risk averse to pursue common objects of love?

Dr. John von Heyking is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

The Williamsburg Charter reminds us that members of political society are not only bound together by common ideas and aspirations, but they must work at arguing, obtaining, and maintaining them, especially when it comes to the place of religious liberties. "Common objects of love," as Augustine once described the ties that bind political society, are not simply static objects. We come to know and love them through our common work in seeking and obtaining them.

In Canada, religious liberties are threatened in part because Canadians do not share "common objects of love." Those objects seem to require their being manufactured by government. Take the legalization of same-sex marriage as one example. When it was passed by Parliament, the Liberal government of the day insisted that by its very nature civil marriage would not affect the rights of religious groups to carry on. The government of the day said this while human rights commissions around the country attacked religious groups for failing to uphold orthodoxy. In Saskatchewan, a marriage commissioner has been fined for refusing to solemnize same-sex marriage. In Alberta, a youth pastor has been fined for writing a letter to a newspaper containing critical comments of gay activists. In Ontario, a Christian charity was ordered to stop discriminatory hiring and hold gay sensitivity training. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education has refused parents the right to withdraw their children from classes where alternate sexualities are promoted. Either the Liberal federal government at the time was lying or did not know what was going on in the country.

Clarifying the public truths we should live by first requires we clarify what prevents us from obtaining "common objects of love." The corrosion of religious liberties derives from two impasses in the cultural and philosophical foundations of Canada's regime. The first is the impasse of the secular. A significant number of Canadians have convinced themselves that their regime is the embodiment of Progress. They view religious faith as being replaced by "democratic faith" according to which the liberal order is seen, in one commentator's words, as the "apotheosis of human freedom, self-creation, and even paradisiacal universal political and social equality that coexists seamlessly with individual self-realization and uniqueness." Under this aggressive secularism, which is nihilism, religious faith is seen as out-of-date and thereby illegitimate for public truth. Yet, when push comes to shove, it is extremely difficult to sustain a rational basis for one's faith in Progress. The result is widespread confusion or malaise concerning the foundations of public order in Canada since the prominent myth of Progress is widely recognized as a lie.

The second impasse derives from Canada's regionalism. Canada, a nation-state, is not a nation in the sense of holding to a common set of principles in civil society, or objects of love. As a result, a set of principles must be imposed from above in order to maintain unity. Scholars including David E. Smith have noticed the persistence of the Crown as the central administrative institution in Canada, the severing of our cultural connection with the British monarchy notwithstanding. The late Pierre Trudeau saw the Charter as a way to overcome regionalism: "reason over the passions" as he said. The vacuum in the common political and cultural framework makes it easier for groups to hijack state institutions in order to define "Canadianness" and to label political opponents as un-Canadian (that is, as American). The emptiness of their labels for "Canadian" fits with the nihilism of the Progress myth.

Reaffirming Canadians' commitment to liberty entails confronting the two impasses. We must remind ourselves that secularism is an ideological distortion, and that the "secular" is simply the "world" in which we live, and must `therefore reflect the plurality of perspectives—including the religious ones—that shape our political and cultural landscape. We mustn't be in such a rush to end history. We must also remember that our constitution can accommodate our lack of a common Canadian culture since the regime the constitution frames is federal and because we have responsible government. The constitution provides for a federal, civic regime. We can tolerate differences among the provinces if we can avoid extending the myths of central Canada to all of Canada. Reaffirming Canadians' commitment to liberty thus depends on living with a degree of risk and uncertainty because in seeking "common objects of love," we strike a wager in a pursuit of intimations that can be easily overlooked. Are Canadians too risk averse to pursue "common objects of love"?

Topics: Religion
Stanley Carlson-Thies
Stanley Carlson-Thies

Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a Washington, DC-area nonpartisan think tank that focuses on safeguarding the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and sevices of faith-based service organizations. Until the end of 2008 he was Director of Faith-Based Policy Studies at the Center for Public Justice, where he remains a Senior Fellow. He is the convener of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom, a multi-faith alliance of social-service, education, and religious freedom organizations that advocates for the religious freedom of faith-based organizations to Congress and the federal administration. He is a consultant to the Department of Labor’s Beneficiary-Choice Contracting project and has consulted on the removal of barriers with the Department of Health and Human Services Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and several states, including Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.

Janet Epp Buckingham
Janet Epp Buckingham

Janet Epp Buckingham is a professor at Trinity Western University and the Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre, an Ottawa-based, live-in, extension program focusing on leadership in public policy, business and communications.


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