Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy
National Post (Canada), October 6, 2002
An address delivered at the McGill University conference on
Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy.
Reproduced with permission.
When advocates of faith based positions - particularly
on such controversial issues as war and peace or human reproduction - convey the
impression that they would force their positions on the rest of the population
if only they had sufficient power and influence to do so - is it any wonder that
the rest of the population is reluctant to grant them standing and influence?
People of faith - and there are millions of such people in Canada - need
guidelines on how to bring faith perspectives to bear on public policy in a
winsome rather than an offensive way. And public policy makers in our
pluralistic society - many of whom regard faith perspectives with suspicion if
not outright hostility - need to learn how to incorporate such perspectives into
their deliberations rather than exclude them.
These are two propositions which I hope to lay before this week's Conference
on Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy in Montreal, sponsored by McGill
University's Faculty of Religious Studies and the Centre for Cultural Renewal.
Why even spend time on "religion and public policy" some of my skeptical
secular friends will ask. Because, while organized religion may be in decline
and disrepute, the "spiritual dimension of life" is not. For millions of
Canadians, "things spiritual" - including many of the core elements of historic
Christianity - continue to occupy a significant place in their personal lives
and therefore should not be excluded from public policy considerations.
Almost ten years ago, "The Religion Poll" conducted by Angus Reid and
published by Maclean's magazine found that eight out of ten Canadians affirmed
their belief in God, and that two thirds of all adults subscribed to the basic
tenant of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Almost one third of the adult population claimed to pray daily and more than
half to read the Bible or other religious literature at least occasionally. A
similar poll conducted eighteen months ago by Ipsos-Reid and the Globe and Mail
found that 67% of Canadians said their religious faith was "very important" to
their day-to-day lives, and that seven in ten Canadians agreed that through the
life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of
But why is it then that our media and political elites - who often adjust
their own attitudes and behavior in response to public opinion - generally
reject faith perspectives as either irrelevant or contrary to the public good?
Why would as pragmatic and poll driven a politician as Jean Chretien insist that
the name of Jesus was not to be mentioned at the memorial service for victims of
the Swiss Air disaster, or that the memorial service for the victims of
September 11th was not to include prayer or scripture readings?
Sadly, perhaps one reason is that during the latter half of the twentieth
century many people in politics and the media have "lost" their own personal
faith and are therefore uncomfortable with expressions of faith by others who
have retained or discovered faith during that same period.
Secondly, we don't seem to know how to handle expressions of faith or
spirituality in the public policy arena, so the simplest thing to do is exclude
them. We have largely abandoned the idea that there is "objective truth" in the
spiritual area, and therefore have no way of picking between the bewildering
variety of religious opinions clamoring for recognition. The simplest way out
for the public policy maker is to pay lip service to the significance of all and
to pay serious attention to none.
I was on a television talk show recently when the head of the Canadian
Humanist Society called in to propose that representatives of faith communities
be excluded from the discussion of the ethics of assisted human reproduction
because they couldn't agree with each other. But, as a former member of the
Commons Health Committee, I recall that there was also profound disagreement
among scientists themselves, and among secular ethicists, on this controversial
subject. Yet no one would dare suggest that
scientists or ethicists be excluded from the discussion of this issue simply
because they were not in agreement.
Canada has unofficially adopted the American doctrine of the separation of
church and state with which I agree. But keeping the institutions of the state
separate from the institutions of faith communities surely cannot mean excluding
spiritual considerations - the role of religious teaching, faith based morality,
love, forgiveness - from the public square.
There is a third reason, however, why faith perspectives are often not
welcome in the political and public policy arena. And this is something which
people of faith must address and correct themselves.
When advocates of faith based positions - particularly on such controversial
issues as war and peace or human reproduction - convey the impression that they
would force their positions on the rest of the population if only they had
sufficient power and influence to do so - is it any wonder that the rest of the
population is reluctant to grant them standing and influence?
When Jesus first sent his small group of followers out into their community
to conduct "public ministry", he commanded them to be "wise as serpents and
harmless as doves". People of faith are not to communicate their faith foolishly
or dangerously but wisely and without threatening coercion or harm to others. I
am hoping that the McGill Conference this week will provide us with insights and
guidelines on how to do this more effectively.