Faith and public debate
Should faith-based arguments be exclud-
ed from public debates?
Should faith-based arguments be banned from the public square? A journalist recently posed this ques- tion to me. It’s a good one. By “public square” he
meant the places where citizens debate issues concerning
the public good, including the media and our legislatures.
Some people do think faith-based arguments should
be excluded from such debates. Their rejection is usually
directed at the messenger rather than the message – they
focus on whether churches should participate, rather than
the specific arguments they make. If the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, they contend, then the
Church has no business in the legislatures of the nation.
But of course such arguments ignore that the State does
have an interest in what happens in the bedrooms – rape
or incest for example. And they ignore the valuable contributions religious institutions have made to the deliberative
process of a liberal democracy.
Is the public square a secular place, meaning that people
wishing to contribute should enter as citizens and not as
members of a specific religion or faith? The Canadian-born
cleric Richard John Neuhaus regularly challenged this idea,
most memorably in his book The Naked Public Square (
Eerd-mans, 1984). I agree with him that excluding faith-based
arguments from public debate is a mistake.
Historically our Canadian “public square” was secular
to the degree that we realized one denomination or church
tradition could not prevail without alienating a significant
part of the population. In Canada secular did not mean
non-religious, but rather non-sectarian.
A key concern was for the religious minority: Protestants in Quebec and Catholics in the rest of Canada. So
we guaranteed minority religious education in our Constitution. And our prime ministers, whether Catholic or
Protestant, did not wear their denominational colours on
their sleeves. To do so could hinder their ability to be seen
to be non-sectarian.
Together for influence, impact and identity
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is the national association of Evangelicals gathered together for influence, impact and
identity in ministry and public witness. Since 1964 the EFC has
provided a national forum for Evangelicals and a constructive
voice for biblical principles in life and society. Visit us at theEFC.ca.
Admittedly there was resistance to including other religious traditions when looking for non-sectarian points of
convergence. Jews and Seventh Day Adventists had many
battles for accommodation regarding their day of religious
observance, notably in areas of employment.
Jews joined Catholics and Protestants on the 1967 interfaith committee for Canada’s birthday celebration. Today
of course, our idea of “multi-faith” is dramatically wider.
Being secular, as the Supreme Court affirmed in the
1980s after the Charter came into effect, means law must
have a secular purpose, not a religious sectarian purpose.
We could no longer have a Lord’s Day Act to compel stores
to be closed on Sunday, because this was sectarian and
did not accommodate people of other faiths (Jews for example). We could still have a common pause day, but the
purpose could not be sectarian.
In a non-sectarian Canada, faith-based arguments
should be welcome. If the public square is truly public,
it will not only allow but welcome religious groups and
their contributions to civil society and the pursuit of the
In fact, there will be no common good without their
participation. As Justice Gonthier said (speaking for the
rest of the Supreme Court): “[M]oral positions (whether
secularly or religiously based) taken as positions of con-
science are entitled to full participation in the dialogue in
the public square where moral questions are answered as
a matter of law and public policy.”
Our EFC contributions to the courts and parliament-
ary committees are usually welcomed. However we do
not simply state religious principles that apply to a given
issue – we go the second mile and promote the application
of the norms and principles derived from our faith and
frame them in a way that relates well to the legislative or
legal issue. We use language and arguments that could
serve a non-sectarian solution.
In democratic processes, we should be at liberty to give
voice to the religious grounding of our submissions and
arguments without being ignored, dismissed or ridiculed.
(Neither, of course, should we be dismissive of others. In
fact Christians should model respectful and constructive
engagement, as this too flows from our faith.)
We continually need to practise expressing scriptural
principles in language able to be understood by, and even
persuade, others. It’s not only prudent, but it’s a form of
public witness. FT
BRuCe J. CLeMeNGeR is president of The Evangelical
Fellowship of Canada. Read more of his columns