By Jeff Dewsbury and Peter T. Chattaway
Theology can make for strange bedfellows. When Burnaby MP Svend Robinson presented the now infamous petition to remove references to God from the Constitution — a petition drafted by Kamloops resident and self-described “aggressive atheist” Ray Blessin — he and the atheists behind the petition were quickly denounced by Christians across the country.
But not all believers disagreed with the petitioners. John Stackhouse, professor of theology at Regent College, has also argued that references to God in the Constitution and especially the national anthem should be removed, albeit for radically different reasons.
Blessin said he never expected the petition to have an immediate effect on the Constitution. Instead, he saw it as part of a successful public awareness campaign. “As the days rolled on, support for the petition grew as more people became aware of it,” he told BC Christian News. “It was evident that most Canadians did not know that there’s a religious reference in our Constitution. Now they do.”
With the help of the Humanist Association of Canada, Blessin collected over 1,000 signatures on the petition, which he first proposed a year and a half ago in his now defunct Canadian Atheist newsletter (see article, page 5).
Blessin said that some of the people who signed the petition were religious themselves. The petition proposed replacing the words “supremacy of God” with “intellectual freedom” in order order to make the Constitution more inclusive, he said.
“The pertinent point here is that the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are documents that pertain to all Canadians. It should not be a case of majority rule. If it discriminates against one Canadian, it’s inappropriate,” said Blessin.
Stackhouse argued that the reference to God should be removed because it has had no tangible effect on how Canada governs itself. He said the reference should remain if it is only a recognition of history, a “nod to the monotheism of Canadians in the 1860s.” But since Canada as a whole does not follow monotheistic ideals, those references should go, he said.
“It is actually irrelevant to argue for or against God in the Constitution or the anthem if God is not going to play an actual role in our public life,” he said, noting that God does not play any part in parliamentary debates and other policy discussions.
He also points out that part of the national anthem — “God keep our land” — is a prayer. “I think it’s egregious that we include that portion. I think Christian prayer should be reserved for Christians praying,” he said. “Since many people are neither monotheists nor Christians, it is a completely inappropriate expression in a society like ours.”
Many Christians have a different view, however. Some groups have already drafted counter-petitions arguing that the reference to God should be kept in the Constitution, if not affirmed more deeply.
Chinese Christians in Action is one such group, and it is actively soliciting the help of Muslims and Sikhs who share their concern. “We are requesting that the government consider entrenching the reference to God as a non-removable part of the Constitution,” said Bill Chu, director of the organization and a resident of Vancouver.
The results of the counter-petition will be announced July 1. Robinson has already agreed to table the document when it is ready. (A spokesperson for Robinson said he was not speaking to the media on this issue because it had been “blown way out of proportion.”)
Chu said it was important to keep the reference to God in the Constitution because Canada owes its principles of compassion and justice to the heritage left by the faith which played an important part in Canada’s history. “Every community on the Saint Lawrence [River] had a church at the centre of the community. Any communal celebration or discussion centred around that,” he said.
“And if you look at the NDP’s own founding father, Tommy Douglas, he was a Baptist pastor. So what Svend is doing is not only uprooting his country’s history, but his own party’s history.”
Chu said the reference to God was not discriminatory, because it refers to the past and is not binding on Canadian citizens today. “It’s quite different from saying that everybody who does not believe in God is fined 20 dollars. That’s unacceptable,” he said.
However, others point out that the preamble may become more important as courts increasingly look to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a moral basis for their decisions.
Cindy Silver, executive director of the Christian Legal Fellowship of Canada, sees a potential conflict between ‘Charter morality,’ much of which is secularist in tone, and the fact that the Constitution acknowledges God in its preamble.
She cited the B.C. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Surrey School Board case as an example of this tension. Justice Mary Saunders wrote that the School Act requires school boards to “adhere to a high moral line which is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” yet Saunders said it also prevents school boards from basing their decisions on religious considerations.
“The preamble to the Constitution is going to be a barrier to the expansion of this idea of ‘Charter values,’ since God is mentioned in the Constitution,”said Silver. “I don’t think that this aspect [of the Constitution] has been fully tested yet.”
The dividing line between government and religion has been a focal point in debates over the preamble. But others believe it is natural for people’s faith to influence matters of the state, especially when dealing with moral issues.
“The separation of church and state was never meant to exclude religion from public life or make it irrelevant to policy decisions,” said Silver, noting that church and state were separated in order to prevent the “government machine” from forcing religion on people.
“We’ve come to the point where, if your policy decision is based on ‘religious beliefs,’ then you are excluded [and] discriminated against, based on an inference,” she said. “I don’t think that the mention of God is completely irrelevant. It’s important because it acknowledges the importance of faith in people’s lives.”
Ron Gray, leader of the Christian Heritage Party, said God’s presence in the Constitution ensures religious freedom for all faiths by resisting the tide of secularism. “There is a twelve percent secularist minority that controls Canada right now,” he asserted. “We have to realize that secularism is not neutral; it has a face of its own. We [Christians] have become the bulwark to defend freedom of religion for all other faiths.”
Gray said the process of secularization is prevalent even in parties that enjoy a degree of popularity among conservative Christians. When the Reform party held its United Alternative conference this spring, Gray proposed an official resolution that the party adhere to the Constitution’s wording and consider the will of God in all matters of party policy.
Ninety-five percent of voting delegates voted against the motion. Gray said that, had his resolution been accepted, he would have called a convention of his 5,000 plus member party and asked them to consider joining the United Alternative.
Gray’s party elected not to present a counter petition. Instead, he gathered pastors and elders from several Ottawa area churches to pray for the country’s welfare, and he sent a letter to party members asking them to do likewise.
Mel Smith, a constitutional expert and author of Our Home or Native Land, said the petition was a non-starter. Even if the document received parliamentary approval, a minimum of seven provinces would have to approve the change in their legislatures, a situation he described as “highly unlikely.”
But aside from the logistics of changing the Constitution, Smith said the humanists were asking for something they already have. “Freedom of thought is already in the constitution as one of the defined rights,” he said. However, substituting “intellectual freedom” for “the supremacy of God” would have been inappropriate because it would have “raised secular humanism to deity status.”
Smith added: “I take the words in the preamble to be a recitation of the history of the founding of our nation. But maybe this debate is good. It gets people thinking that the founding of this country was based on Christian principles. We should recognize history more than we do.”
Stackhouse said he sees the debate sparked by the Humanists’ petition as a window of opportunity. “This is an important moment for Christians to go on record about how they feel about their non-theistic neighbors,” he said. “If we treat this as if we are giving up something to the godless force of atheism, we are making a strategic mistake in terms of the gospel. We have to seize the opportunity to be gracious to the rest of our Canadian neighbors.”
Several pundits have already noted that Robinson, who was moved to the back of the House of Commons but retained his position as the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, was treated less than graciously even by colleagues from within his own party.
Paul Wells of the National Post opined that NDP party leader Alexa McDonough had inadvertently proved the fears of atheists who claim that they are discriminated against in Canadian society. “Religious Canadians petition the House a dozen times a week, as well they should, for this or that policy based on their beliefs; non-religious Canadians who want to do the same will never find another MP to deliver their message,” he wrote.
According to Stackhouse, taking God out of public documents would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of secularism. Instead, he said, it would level the playing field of public discourse, where “religion is not excluded or anyone privileged.”
Stackhouse asserted that Christians will have more “moral capital” to spend on other issues if they don’t take a hardline stance on this one. If the references to God are removed, he said, “the only offence that remains should be the true offence of the gospel.”