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Faith and the "Values" Debate

Ask political party leaders what they mean by the terms "freedom" and "equality." All will affirm these values, but they will define and apply them differently in law and public policy.

What are Canadian values anyway? I recall a commercial a few years ago that referred to the phrase, "Canadian values," and then sought to portray them with images of maple syrup and a cottage on a lake with a loon calling in the distance. An image of Canada perhaps, but not Canadian values.

… [the courts] have yet to comment on the "supremacy of God" …

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is often identified as the harbinger of Canadian "values" and a statement of what distinguishes us as Canadians. It's foremost a document that adjudicates between the state and Canadians–not a manifesto. It can contribute to the defining of Canada and express the common amid our diversity; it can also become sectarian in its interpretation and be used to privilege one of the competing views in Canada.

Canada, the Charter proclaims, "was founded on principles which recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." It uses the language of principle—that which abides and is grounded—rather than the Nietchzeian term "value"—that which one asserts in the absence of principles. While the courts have invoked the "rule of law" in defining the limits and extent of government authority, they have yet to comment on the "supremacy of God"—the idea that the underlying principles are those consistent with the concept of a supreme being and not mere subjective conventions (values) of the state (Parliament or court) nor values asserted by the majority, neither the state nor the majority are omni-competent.

What are these principles? Freedom of religion and conscience, life, liberty and security of the person, and equality to name a few. Yet the Charter is not a self-interpreting document. It does not define these principles, nor does it identify the "principles of fundamental justice" mentioned in section 7. One way to distinguish between political parties is to query them on the precise meaning of these principles. All will affirm freedom and equality, yet define and apply them differently in law and public policy.

We need a robust conversation about these guiding principles. A discussion will take place during elections; sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, usually in sound bites or slogans rather than in substance. Instead of cynicism or complacency, we need to ask ourselves: "When do we allow our political leaders more than a few seconds to reflect on important issues?"

Many politicians have thought deeply about these issues and daily seek to work out their implications. So we asked the party leaders about faith and politics—an issue which surfaces during elections but is rarely explored in depth.

A minority government itself is an indication that there are deep differences among Canadians on the content of the principles and their application. The party platforms will display significant differences on how we live out our common life together and government priorities. The issues we have listed in the EFC election kit ( disclose the underlying commitments that shape how our society affirms life, cares for the vulnerable, understands and fosters family life, lives with diversity, protects our freedoms and understands our international responsibilities.

This is the intersection of faith and politics, where the basic commitments of politicians meet law and public policy. All legislators will be animated by some framework or world view rooted in some basic beliefs. It is legitimate for voters to explore these commitments of those seeking their support; it is wrong to ask these questions only of candidates that have publicly identified with a specific religious tradition.

Let us begin a constructive examination of our common principles with an examination of candidates and their platforms, and continue in a dialogue that includes those of specific faith and those who claim no faith. We are all believers in something, and our commitments will shape our understanding of Canada and the undergirding principles; recognizing that as Canadians we are defined by our differences as well as what we hold in common.

A discussion about faith and politics or even Church-state relations need not mean a return to 19th century Christendom nor be the grounds for 21st century hostility. A well reasoned dialogue can provide the civil forum for a plurality of perspectives to be heard and perhaps result in a substantive conversation about which guiding principles are necessary for a truly just society.

Bruce Clemenger is the president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2006.

Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005




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