The expression “church and state” still carries a vague echo, from some bygone era; a slight reverberation in our large vacuous public spaces.
We hear the tinkle of some distant temple bell. To the graduates of our provincial schools and drive-in universities—minds washed clean—it is the trigger for a conditioned response, a reflexive or Pavlovian reaction. The subject will immediately think or utter, “Spanish Inquisition, Galileo, Crusades.” He will then reason: “State good; church bad.” And finally: “I love Big Brother.”
Perhaps I am exaggerating. Truth to tell, in my recent interactions with the products of our universities, I find only about 90 per cent to be incurably glib. There remain hard kernels, or a minority animated by some genuine curiosity about past, present, and future. Just this past week I encountered a marvellous case of a young man who had got right through college, with a mind still ticking. Better yet, he could be polite about it—thanks I should think to the very small business he had founded, and the need not to insult his customers.
I have been writing recent Sundays in a positive spirit about Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” (yes, yes, I know Lenin got it from the title of a Russian popular novel). We can guess there is much wrong with our political life, but what, practically, can be done to fix it? What are the “reforms” we should seek, and how should we advance them?
Here I need to insert a plug for a book written by an old friend, with some understanding of Canadian history. It is Against Reform, by John Pepall, now fresh off the University of Toronto presses. It is one of those “stringent critiques,” which goes close to the foolish heart of contemporary political thinking.
As the title suggests, it reviews and demolishes various arguments made for electoral and institutional “reforms” that would (to my mind) concentrate yet more power in the country’s ideological elites—things like an elected Senate, proportional representation, even recall initiatives and free voting in Parliament. Each would subvert ancient constitutional arrangements which were our guarantor of peace, order, and freedom from bureaucratic molestation.
“Reformers” prey upon voters who blame institutional arrangements for failing to deliver on their own frankly conflicting interests; who (to my mind) have bought into the notion, inculcated in our schools, that government is the only possible solution to every problem—including their personal ones.
Pepall vindicates instead a received constitutional order with its internal and necessary checks and balances, which could not benefit from piecemeal tinkering of the “evolutionary” sort.
In the United States, a “tea party” movement is actually struggling to restore the basic provisions of an American Constitution that was subverted by “reforms” accumulating through the 20th century. Almost everything they oppose, in the way of “big government,” was in its nature unconstitutional from the beginning, and was only introduced with the help of sophistical evasions to very plain statements from 1787—that had not, in fact, dated. Each evasion was designed to allow the federal government to invade legislative territory beyond its jurisdiction.
Ditto up here, from a constitution that was, until recently, largely unwritten but nevertheless understood; and from a British North America Act which assumed that the rights of the citizen, established in common law “from Magna Carta” forward, would remain in force.
But here we enter into a problem the Fathers of our Confederation could not entirely foresee, nor the U.S. Founding Fathers. It was not the growth of socialist ideals and aspirations for a Procrustean “equality”; it was not the relaxation of the spirit of independence in the people, per se. Nor, to this day, has anyone detected a popular love of bureaucracy for its own sake.
Instead, the Founders on both sides of the border were addressing a society in which government was not the only source of authority. They took it for granted that western civilization stood on two legs, not one; and that it required both legs to remain standing.
Let me invoke here the old Barbara Ward phrase, “faith and freedom.” Even without an established church, the “faith” side of this proposition did not belong to government. On the contrary, government was contained within it. Indeed, governments could be peacefully (or sometimes, violently) replaced, and tyranny resisted, only in a world where “faith” provided continuity of action.
In the time since, we have seen the “church” component of “church and state” dwindle, and the “state” grow, until there is no sheet anchor. Moral and spiritual relativism have undermined every limitation on the State’s drift, towards the tyrannical shoals of history.
It follows (to my mind) that the patriotic citizen can do nothing to help, without rekindling in himself the Faith that lay at the heart of our civilization; that genuine and positive “reform” requires the restoration of a moral and spiritual order that balances the political one. That the key, radical, political act is to “get religion.”