Justice and Freedom of Conscience
In recent years Canadians have had to defend their traditional freedoms in the news media and in courts. However, freedom of conscience is in the interests of the state.
Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law;
I. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it, subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.*1
Canadians are promised peace, order and good government, which the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms exist to establish, but peace and order without truth is not justice. The state is not absolute and it acknowledges its fallibility by guaranteeing freedom of conscience. Conscience is not merely the expression of personal preference, but an "individual's desire to pay witness to truth."*2
… secularism has...become the accepted worldview of the legal and intellectual elites and alternative views have been marginalized.
Since justice is committed to the discovery and application of the truth, it cannot exist in the absence of freedom of conscience. As long as the laws and individual consciences are informed by the same worldview, conflict between them will be uncommon. In recent years, however, the news media have profiled Canadians having to defend their expression of the traditional freedoms outlined in the Charter.
There are those, even within the medical profession, who insist that physicians' "personal beliefs" should be set aside to ensure that patients receive the treatments they believe they "require."
Such a standard was almost adopted by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in its recent statement on "Human Rights and the Practice of Medicine." Ironically, it is those inconvenient convictions that motivate physicians to act in their patients' best interests and safeguard the general public. Despite our society's rhetoric regarding tolerance and the reference to the divine in the preamble to the Charter, secularism has, in practice, become the accepted worldview of the legal and intellectual elites and alternative views have been marginalized. Consequently, the courts and professional bodies increasingly consider it reasonable to limit freedom of conscience if, by its expression, currently favoured "choices" may be challenged or become less accessible.
A person's conscience, though fallen and fallible, warns him/her against harming others and causes him/ her discomfort when a wrong has been committed. The state and professional bodies, therefore, have an interest in protecting, rather than undermining, freedom of conscience.
The foregoing is not to suggest that the relationship between the state and the Christian citizen is necessarily adversarial. Twenty-first century Christian Canadians, however, find themselves in a society similar to the one encountered by the early church in the Roman Empire of the first century. Christians are no longer cultural insiders and should not be surprised by the suspicion of and even opposition to what they consider to be of first importance.
Church and state are intended to be mutually supportive but distinct; the means and ends of each must not be confused. God has established His Church to proclaim the Gospel and within it, governs His people by grace. He has established the secular authorities to protect citizens from lawbreakers and provide for their needs; ideally, the resulting tranquility allows the Church to pursue its work without hindrance. States fulfill this responsibility with varying degrees of success. In the absence of moral consensus, there are only two options for maintaining peace and order in society: coercion or accommodation.
In the first, uniformity of behaviour, if not belief, is dictated by authorities and enforced by threats of penalty. This option is favoured by those who believe, naively, that all will ultimately come to share their enlightened viewpoint. Undoubtedly, they will eventually experience much greater oppression than they currently fear: there will not be enough police to enforce the myriad of laws. "All get what they want; they do not always like it.” *3
The second option, accommodation, is surely more messy and expensive than the first, but this is the price necessary to sustain a free, democratic society. For example, a hospital would ensure that its pro-life anesthetists are never scheduled to participate in abortions. In humbly striving to accommodate deeply held convictions, the quest for truth and the dignity of every citizen are respected. Accommodation provides sufficient latitude for minority viewpoints to be discussed and lived-out — true tolerance of diversity.
Some would argue that such an approach would invite chaos. This is not necessarily so, provided that our society is clear about what freedom of conscience means*4 and that it replaces the meaningless notion of "personal values" with a short list of generally accepted "civic virtues".
This should be possible as there is greater moral agreement across cultures than is often admitted, with prohibitions against murder, stealing, and sexual improprieties, among other wrongs (see Romans 2:14-15, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis). "It is only our own Western postmodern culture that questions these ethical absolutes. True multiculturalism never would.”*5
As dual citizens, of the world and heaven, Christians' duties differ depending on the "country" under consideration (see Matthew 22:21) and, in a fallen world, there will be some tension between them.
As citizens of Canada, on one hand, Christians, like their fellow countrymen, have the unique calling to be simultaneously subjects and rulers. As far as conscience allows, they should obey the leaders they duly elect. They should work diligently at their secular vocations and remain engaged in the political process to uphold the Constitution and Charter and support policies they believe will benefit all Canadians.
There are those who object to people of faith exercising their conscience within the public square and, thereby, supposedly imposing their religious beliefs on others. The convictions of every citizen, however, are informed by some belief system and Christians have as much right as others to participate in society.
Christians need to be clear though, that the convictions they express in public are not uniquely Christian and should be explained as such. For example, "believing it is wrong to kill infants in the womb...is a moral, not a theological, principle. As such, it is applicable to all of society, for Christians and non-Christians alike."*5 "What makes a person a Christian is not holding to a particular set of moral beliefs; rather, it is [primarily] faith in Jesus Christ, which, indeed, can be imposed on no one."*5
On the other hand, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, Christians are aliens in this world and should have sober expectations of governments and professional bodies to deliver justice. All too often, however, Christians regard the governing bodies as though they are the ultimate authorities to make laws and grant rights rather than merely agents of God. Such a misconception leads to fear of censure and consequent indecision when there is a conflict between one's conscience, informed by God's Word, and the law of the land, which may be flawed.
By living boldly by faith, in accord with their identity as citizens of heaven, and acting in accordance with conscience, Christians declare their confidence in the providential care of a gracious God. They do not demand justice for themselves (see Luke 6:28-29) but, as the hands and feet of Christ, come quickly to the defense and aid of others and, thereby, demonstrate God's grace working through them.
Most certainly their convictions will, at times, earn them ridicule, rebuke and even disciplinary action as Jesus warned (see Matthew 5:10), but they can rejoice that they have been "counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name" (see Acts 5:41). The courage and patience with which believers of other times and places have endured injustice have testified both to their trustworthiness and the truth of the Good News they profess.
Thomas Jefferson said, "The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” In representative democracies, such as Canada, all citizens have both the right and responsibility to pursue this end regardless of their defining characteristics.
Everyone has a line in the sand that cannot be crossed without compromising integrity. In a pluralistic society, the state will, at times, take positions that are in conflict with the convictions of some of its citizens. The right to opt-out is a key component of our constitution and legal history.*6
A just society will strive to accommodate the conscientious objections of its minorities. Where accommodation does not occur, Christians will obey God rather than man and accept the consequences, knowing that "... in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).
"He has showed you, 0 man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
1. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982
2. Bioethicist George Woodall, Regina Apostolorum, Rome
3. Lewis, C.S. The Magician's Nephew. The Chronicles of Narnia. NewYork, NY. HarperCollins Publishers; 2001.p. 100
4. Tingley, Edward. “Ending the Attack on Conscience.” Focus Vol. 29 (Fall 2009)
5. Veith, Gene Edward. God at Work. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books; 2002. p. 99
6. Benson, lain T. "Opposing Religion to Human Rights: ‘Gay Ed' Videos." Centre for Cultural Renewal Centre Articles Vol. 48 (November 19, 2004).
Dr. Joseph Askin practices sleep medicine in Calgary and serves as chair of the Freedom of Conscience Committee of CMDS Canada.
Originally published in Focus, Spring 2010.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.