An argument for separation of church and state in Canada
| The Church that we see in Canada is far more than a community of pious folk who have a dearly held set of beliefs by which they choose to live their lives. It is part of an industry of vast proportion and bewildering complexity with mighty corporations that own far-flung properties and employ untold millions of people. It coaxes, cajoles, commands and threatens us all and it punishes those who don’t heed its message. It runs schools, universities and hospitals. It collects taxes and publishes books and newspapers. It’s into banking and insurance. It props up governments it likes and helps topple those it doesn’t like. Various components even make war, sometimes against those benighted hordes outside the Faith, and sometimes against each other.
The separation of church and state is an admirable concept. Ideally, it would keep governments from meddling into church affairs and would be the best hope there is for future freedom of religion. At the same time, it would keep the religion industry from inserting itself into the realm of government where its purpose has always been to safeguard and advance its own interests. Keeping the Church out of government would also offer hope for eventual freedom from religion, a principle just as important as freedom of religion. In Canada, although this concept of separation has often been held up for curious examination, it has never been seriously considered. Why not?
It all began centuries ago in Europe at a time when the distinction between church and state was so blurred that it was hard to tell who was governing what. Generally speaking, we could say that the kings collected taxes and waged war while the church collected taxes, dabbled in good works and squabbled with the kings over just about everything. A loose formula of one part cooperation to two parts tug-of-war is still in evidence almost anywhere one may care to look.
Early in Canada‘s history, separation of church and state was inconceivable. Clerics were along on the earliest voyages of discovery and were there to help establish the first settlements. Priests and nuns worked alongside the soldiers, traders and farmers, often under dire conditions. Because part of its role in France had been the education of the young and the care of the sick, the church simply carried on with those functions in New France and has continued to do so to this day.
British colonists too had come from centuries of theocratic conditioning. A good part of their history is about the struggle for political dominance between Protestant and Roman Catholic factions. It would have taken an impossible leap of imagination for these settlers to have denied the church a seat at the governmental gaming table. So, from its beginnings, government in Canada has featured a clear working partnership between Church and state.
For most of our history, changes of elected government had only small effect on the partnership because the Church held equal sway with both Whig and Tory. With the churchmen shrewd and stubborn bargainers, they tended to get their way. Schools became the educational arm of the Christian faith. That wasn’t all bad because pupils got a firm grounding in the three R’s, developed diligent work habits and became good at memorizing patriotic odes. But the young captive scholars also had a daily Morning Prayer, Bible stories, hymn singing, celebrations of Christian festivals, inspirational stories about Christian fortitude and routine exposure to Christian symbols and images. It was universally excepted that, like milk and oatmeal, Christianity was an essential nutrient for the young and, whenever necessary, should be force-fed.
In a few communities where the population was almost entirely Roman Catholic, the Church simply took over what had been intended to be the public school. Schools were staffed entirely by nuns who wore their religious habit. The parish priest was a frequent and welcome visitor and classroom walls bore crucifixes and framed pictures of the Virgin Mary. At public expense, a nunnery was built to house the teachers and their support staff.
In some such instances, the few non-Catholic parents, not wanting their children exposed to so strident a Catholic environment, would set out to establish a school of their own. A typical result once existed in Quinton, Saskatchewan where, on the village outskirts, there stood a modest little one-room school, the pride of Protestant Separate School District Number 10. More centrally located sat the much handsomer multi-roomed public school that had been hijacked by the Catholic majority. It’s an amusing irony that parents seeking to establish a school district with no affiliated religion had to apply as a religious minority, in most cases as Protestants. This seems to suggest that Protestantism, in somebody’s mind, was the equivalent to no religion at all. One could almost think the Pope himself had thought that one up.
Over many years at the table, churchmen dealt themselves a long succession of winning hands. There were land grants and subsidies. Church buildings became exempt from taxation; donations to the Church earned income tax credits; education of our aboriginal population, in large part, was contracted out to the Church and laws were passed requiring everyone, Christian or not, to honour the Christian Sabbath.
And why not? Those in power sincerely believed that the Christians had a monopoly on human decency and that the Church was the sole guardian of all that was good in this life. Without the watchful eye of the Church, human society would degenerate into licentiousness and misery in this world and to damnation in the next. For the sake of all humanity, they needed laws to strengthen even more the mighty arm of the Church.
Legislation like The Lord’s Day Act was a boon to the labouring class because it gave workers at least one day a week free from the fearsome grind of heavy labour. This day off for workers turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, because the very law that gave the holiday also prevented its recipients from enjoying it as they saw fit. They couldn’t hunt, not even if their cupboards were bare. There was no shopping because stores had to be closed as were most public gathering places that were likely to distract the multitude from pious meditation. Theatres, bars, billiard halls, rinks, libraries and golf clubs sat empty and silent while churches had to hold three services every Sunday in order to accommodate the throngs who could find nothing better to do.
Not all retailers had to close their doors. Drugstores could stay open, but they were restricted in what they could could sell. In the United States, where they had similar blue laws, druggists in Evanston, Illinois found themselves prohibited from selling ice cream sodas on a Sunday. Some canny merchandisers outwitted the soda police by omitting the soda and serving the ice cream and syrup in a bowl. The deception caught on with customers and they were soon demanding Sundays every day of the week often with nuts, fruit and chocolate sauce. When local Methodist leaders objected to naming the dish after the Sabbath, the name was changed to sundae.[
The Sabbath laws had a stranglehold on commerce. Post offices and banks were closed. Streetcar, train and ferry service was curtailed. If they were dated on a Sunday, legal documents including receipts and cheques were not valid and were of no use to anyone. Oddly enough, as broad as the prohibitions were and however rigidly they were enforced, not all Christian denominations can even yet agree on which day is indeed the Sabbath.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Church had embedded itself so deeply in the Canadian psyche that the public came to take its power and its privileges quite for granted. Observance of the Lord’s Day symbolized the public's recognition of God’s dominion over all and an order of things that was never to be questioned.
But that was then. This is now. There is a rising tide of religious skepticism which will not be denied. History has shown over and over again that religious leaders are affected by the same affliction as kings and prime ministers. The longer they stay in power, the less able they are to exercise their power unselfishly. Around about 1880, Lord Acton put it very succinctly when he wrote: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is, once a person gains power, the temptation and the tendency to use that power for one’s own benefit grow irresistibly. This is true of all of us, individually and collectively, saints and sinners alike. It happens all the time.
Hospitals financed through the government but run by the Church are meeting with sharp disfavour. Neither patients nor their doctors are willing to have their treatment options, most notably in the field of reproductive medicine, decided for them by a remote cabal of celibate males whose views are shaped by religious dogma and not by medical expertise. For that reason, residents in and around Humboldt, Saskatchewan in 2007 ended a century-old relationship with the Church when they voted that their new hospital should be publicly administered as well as publicly financed.
Over time many of the niggling provisions of The Lord’s Day Act were successfully ignored and the errant public danced, played cards and performed on stage without fear of arrest. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Lord's Day Act in 1985 on the grounds that it contravened the freedom of religion and conscience provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
So that’s it. The Church-state partnership worked well as long as there was no possible alternative, but more and more Canadians are putting their faith in themselves rather than into a capricious god that is bountiful one day and destructive the next. The partnership worked well too when we had a somewhat homogenous Christian population. But immigration during the last half century has brought in devotees of a dozen Eastern religions, some of which are every bit as exacting in their beliefs as Christianity ever was. They will try to elbow their way in to share the favoured position that Christianity has enjoyed for so long.
Are we ready for that? The signs don’t seem to point that way. It appears that we might be less ready now then we might have been a decade ago.
There is only one solution. Divorce. The church will have to be cast out from the matrimonial circle and made to stand on its own feet at a chaste distance from government. No favours for old time’s sake. No hidden subsidies. No mutual back scratching. All the adherents of all religions can practice their faith as they see fit. They can keep it private and personal or they can proclaim it to the skies with as much outward show and as much joyful noise as the neighbours will tolerate. They can do their thing in a sparse little meeting hall or in a temple so glittering and splendid it can be seen from Mars. But they will do it entirely with their own energy and at their own expense. Separation should mean just that.