The recent decision by the McGuinty government to consider removing prayer from Ontario’s daily legislative proceedings has once again catapulted the complicated relationship between religion and the modern state to the forefront of public debate.
Nobody should be fooled by the fact that there are public consultations on this subject. Like the adoption of same-sex marriage before it, when it comes to prayer in the legislature the die has already been cast. The Liberal government has concluded that the prayer must go, and the Conservatives have decided to acquiesce. Hearings are only a way of giving the decision a measure of credibility.
Given the interest of the province’s conservative Christian community, it is likely that when all of the submissions to the committee are counted, most will favour retaining the prayer. A significant minority will claim, however, that Ontario is a diverse society, and that its legislature should reflect that diversity by eschewing prayers of any single – read Christian – religious group. This will be the opinion that prevails.
I admit that I personally don’t care too much whether or not the Speaker of Ontario’s legislature opens the daily session in prayer. As a religious man, I certainly believe and engage in prayer myself, but the legislature in Ontario only adopted the practice officially in 1969, a relatively short period of time ago, and its elimination would not prevent those who wish to gather in prayer from doing so elsewhere in the legislative building.
What troubles me most about this whole affair is not the possibility that prayer may be removed, but the rationale that is being used to justify its removal.
It has become fashionable in polite company to refer to “values” such as equality, tolerance for diversity, separation of church and state, and a whole host of other “values” that we adhere to as “secular” values. In reality, however, these are not ‘secular’ values at all. They are Judeo-Christian values; standards of behaviour that have so deeply permeated the collective consciousness of our society that they have more or less retained their rightful place as hallmarks of Western civilization, despite the widespread and growing ignorance of their philosophical pedigree.
When Ontario’s government rejected a plan to allow Muslim courts to function as arbitration boards under the law in 2005, it was not embracing diversity. On the contrary, it was imposing a particular cultural norm on the province’s Muslim minority. The great fear was that Muslim women in particular would be pressured to submit their disputes to such courts unwillingly in cases dealing with divorce and separation, thereby surrendering rights that all Ontario women possess. That decision was presented as a victory for secularism over religious orthodoxy, but in reality, it was nothing of the kind. It was a victory for the Judeo-Christian perspective on women’s rights over the perspective of other religions that regard women as mere chattel – the property of their husband.
Few people today seem to know that most of the chief organizers of the original women’s rights movement (as opposed to the radical feminist movement of today), both here in Canada as in other Western countries, were devout Christians. Their argument for equality was simple and compelling. They believed that the practice of denying women the right to vote, or to enter certain professions, or to attend certain schools to obtain a higher education – in other words the practice of treating women as though they were born with a diminished intellectual capacity – was inconsistent with the principle of equality intrinsic to normative Christianity and therefore unjustifiable in a society that professed itself to be Christian. In short, they said, treating women as second class citizens because they were women was un-Christian. Like the decision regarding Muslim courts in Ontario, the end of official discrimination against women did not represent the ascendancy of secularism over religious orthodoxy. Quite the opposite, it represented the triumph of Judeo-Christian principles over a lingering practice traced its roots to pre-Christian – that is to say, secular – society.
Similarly, it was Christians, mostly evangelical, who led the campaign to end slavery. Abolitionists argued that the idea of human beings as property was inconsistent with genuine Christian principles – that a truly Christian society could not tolerate a slave trade in any form. It’s an argument that they won. In the war of ideas waged in Europe and throughout the British Empire as well as on the actual battlefields of America, Judeo-Christian moral principles emerged victorious over the lingering amoral and obsolete practices of pre-Christian society.
This concept of equality is not an objective fact that can be scientifically proven. It is a philosophical premise – Judeo-Christian in origin – that was gradually, and reluctantly, accepted by our society. Today’s intellectuals are loath to acknowledge these Judeo-Christian roots and the institutions and practices that are their embodiment, such as individual liberty and constitutional, democratic government. What neither they, nor the myriad of other intellectuals who have come before them – both religious and non-religious – have been able to do, however, is posit a credible theory of right and wrong that can successfully transcend narrow self-interest in the absence of that religious framework.
The reason is quite simple really – there is none.
A truly secular society can admit the existence of no objective moral code. Instead, it must rely on the moral capital it has inherited from previous generations to justify the standard of behaviour it imposes on its members. Once that capital is depleted, a secular society has no means of weighing questions of right and wrong except by conducting a brutish cost-benefit analysis.
We can already see the results of this depletion of moral capital in our own society. Unlimited and unregulated abortion is now the norm in Canada. Doctor-assisted suicide, while still illegal (for the time being), is wide-spread, as is euthanasia. In an environment where Robert Latimer is considered to be a hero for murdering his severely disabled daughter as a means of ending her suffering, how long will it be before the “compassionate” killing of all severely disabled children becomes a “moral” imperative? It is an indication of just how compartmentalized Christianity has already become that these issues are subjects of legitimate debate today, but at least there is still a debate. What will happen if secularists succeed in negating Christian influence in the dialogue over public policy altogether, as is their stated aim? I shudder to think.
Which brings us back to the controversy over the daily recitation of prayers in Ontario’s legislature.
I don’t object to the elimination of these prayers per se, I object to the argument that they must be eliminated because we live in a secular society. Ontario, like the rest of Canada, is not secular, but Christian. It may be that we have largely removed any reference to Christianity in describing the character of our society, but this does not alter the fact that it is fundamentally and profoundly Christian. Indeed, the very respect for diversity that we believe is offended by the inclusion of these prayers in the first place is predicated on that Judeo-Christian heritage.
This is not to say that Canadians should all become Christians, nor, of course, is it to say that the government should promote Christian theology. It is a plea to end the campaign, conducted in the name of a lazy understanding of the separation of church and state, to marginalize Christians and to deny the crucial role that Christianity has played – and continues to play – in the emergence and maintenance of our culture of freedom and equality. And it is a plea for conservative church leaders to not abandon the field, thereby becoming willing participants, not just in their own demise, but in the demise of Western society as a whole.
I can recognize a good thing when I see it, and speaking as a member of one of Canada’s many religious minority communities, I think that this country’s Christian character is a good thing.
I just wish that more Canadians, especially Christians themselves, would recognize it as a good thing too.