Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy

National Post (Canada), October 6, 2002

An address delivered at the McGill University conference on Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy.
Reproduced with permission.

Preston Manning *

People of faith - and there are millions of such people in Canada - need guidelines on how to bring faith perspectives to bear on public policy in a winsome rather than an offensive way. And public policy makers in our pluralistic society - many of whom regard faith perspectives with suspicion if not outright hostility - need to learn how to incorporate such perspectives into their deliberations rather than exclude them.

These are two propositions which I hope to lay before this week's Conference on Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy in Montreal, sponsored by McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies and the Centre for Cultural Renewal.

Why even spend time on "religion and public policy" some of my skeptical secular friends will ask. Because, while organized religion may be in decline and disrepute, the "spiritual dimension of life" is not. For millions of Canadians, "things spiritual" - including many of the core elements of historic Christianity - continue to occupy a significant place in their personal lives and therefore should not be excluded from public policy considerations.

Almost ten years ago, "The Religion Poll" conducted by Angus Reid and published by Maclean's magazine found that eight out of ten Canadians affirmed their belief in God, and that two thirds of all adults subscribed to the basic tenant of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Almost one third of the adult population claimed to pray daily and more than half to read the Bible or other religious literature at least occasionally. A similar poll conducted eighteen months ago by Ipsos-Reid and the Globe and Mail found that 67% of Canadians said their religious faith was "very important" to their day-to-day lives, and that seven in ten Canadians agreed that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of their sins.

But why is it then that our media and political elites - who often adjust their own attitudes and behavior in response to public opinion - generally reject faith perspectives as either irrelevant or contrary to the public good? Why would as pragmatic and poll driven a politician as Jean Chretien insist that the name of Jesus was not to be mentioned at the memorial service for victims of the Swiss Air disaster, or that the memorial service for the victims of September 11th was not to include prayer or scripture readings?

Sadly, perhaps one reason is that during the latter half of the twentieth century many people in politics and the media have "lost" their own personal faith and are therefore uncomfortable with expressions of faith by others who have retained or discovered faith during that same period.

Secondly, we don't seem to know how to handle expressions of faith or spirituality in the public policy arena, so the simplest thing to do is exclude them. We have largely abandoned the idea that there is "objective truth" in the spiritual area, and therefore have no way of picking between the bewildering variety of religious opinions clamoring for recognition. The simplest way out for the public policy maker is to pay lip service to the significance of all and to pay serious attention to none.

I was on a television talk show recently when the head of the Canadian Humanist Society called in to propose that representatives of faith communities be excluded from the discussion of the ethics of assisted human reproduction because they couldn't agree with each other. But, as a former member of the Commons Health Committee, I recall that there was also profound disagreement among scientists themselves, and among secular ethicists, on this controversial subject. Yet no one would dare suggest that scientists or ethicists be excluded from the discussion of this issue simply because they were not in agreement.

Canada has unofficially adopted the American doctrine of the separation of church and state with which I agree. But keeping the institutions of the state separate from the institutions of faith communities surely cannot mean excluding spiritual considerations - the role of religious teaching, faith based morality, love, forgiveness - from the public square.

There is a third reason, however, why faith perspectives are often not welcome in the political and public policy arena. And this is something which people of faith must address and correct themselves.

When advocates of faith based positions - particularly on such controversial issues as war and peace or human reproduction - convey the impression that they would force their positions on the rest of the population if only they had sufficient power and influence to do so - is it any wonder that the rest of the population is reluctant to grant them standing and influence?

When Jesus first sent his small group of followers out into their community to conduct "public ministry", he commanded them to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves". People of faith are not to communicate their faith foolishly or dangerously but wisely and without threatening coercion or harm to others. I am hoping that the McGill Conference this week will provide us with insights and guidelines on how to do this more effectively.