Monday, February 14, 2005

What Role Religion?

Canada is in a unique place on the world stage. Of the "Western Democracies", we are the country with the youngest constitution, and therefore the smallest body of case law behind us. The United Kingdom has somewhere around 1500 years of assorted case law to draw upon; the United States has over 200 years since their constitution was drafted. Canada - well, our Constitution only reached the legal age of majority in 2000 - a sobering reality. Arguably, parts of our constitution date back to 1867, but the key document - The Charter of Rights and Freedoms - only came into being as a foundation piece of our legislation in 1982.

Ongoing debates in this country have caused me to read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms very carefully lately. I must admit to a growing admiration for the subtlety of the minds that crafted that document - in particular Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed. Whether they foresaw the debates swirling around the country today, I do not know, but they crafted a document that is surprisingly clear and expansive in its content. Where it is incomplete, it acknowledges its incompleteness by using wording that makes it clear that other aspects of liberty may be read in legitimately.

Lately, I've noticed an upsurge in various religious right-wing pundits/columnists/whatever complaining that the religious voice in Canada is being suppressed or discounted. They claim that their legitimate concerns about the legal environment of Canada are being pushed aside, shunned by a legal system that seems to have become amoral.

First, most of these people are comfortably WASP-ish. They are typically of Western-European descent; Christian(tm); and without fail, they all admire George W. Bush and his band of pseudo-religious zealots in the White House today. In general, they stand and decry the "moral relativism" that they see sweeping the nation. They turn and stand on the pulpit of "Tradition", and claim that we are ignoring our past.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms probably positions this nation's government as one that is among the most liberal in the world, but also one that by necessity must also be highly secular. We are fundamentally a nation of immigrants from around the world. When considering section 2 of the Charter, we must realize that it applies equally across all citizens of this land. Since religions are seldom homogenous - within Christianity and Islam there are many subgroups with differing interpretations of their commonly held scriptures - it is unreasonable to expect the courts to rule in favour of laws that would abrogate someone's religious beliefs in favour of someone elses. "'Ah-ha!, gotcha!' will be the claim of the Religious Right movements. After all, doesn't legalizing same-gender marriage overrule _my_ religious beliefs in favour of some atheist?" Actually, it doesn't - the Christian is still free to believe that a same-gender marriage is wrong/immoral/proscribed/whatever. The point is that the individual still has that freedom of belief. Section 2 of the Charter speaks rather clearly to INDIVIDUAL freedoms.

Of course, this raises the inevitable "slippery slope" argument that would suggest that eventually we would wind up removing murder from the Criminal Code of Canada on the same premise. Oddly enough, the Legal Rights provisions of the Charter would preclude that under the Security of the Person clause, which clearly would provide the government with the necessary legal rights to enact laws against murder, assault etc.

Anyhow, I digress somewhat from my original topic. At first glance, it would seem that the Charter pretty much removes religious bodies from direct involvement in the laws of the land. While in some dimensions that will cause the "law to be an ass" from time to time, it's not all bad. The challenge for the churches - be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jedi, is to find a legitimate role in the dialogue of our nations affairs. The historic role of the church as the "moral guide" to a nation's affairs is long past. Nations are too large, and far too diverse for a close association with a church to be practical - especially in countries like Canada where so much of our population comes from all over the world, not just a single region.

An article in the Globe and Mail over the weekend sets the tone quite nicely. The author essentially argues that we should remove the power of the church to solmenize the legal entity of marriage. Churches would still be free to celebrate marriage however they see fit, but they no longer would possess the legal authority to marry (or deny marriage to) a couple. Some may look upon this as stripping churches of their power. In fact, it enables the individual church bodies to become active players on society's stage. Rather than possessing actual legal power, they possess the power to persuade. Of course, this means that some churches may have to make their teachings more relevant to a contemporary audience - but the point is that for any religion to be of social value, it must be a reflection of the era in which it lives. At present, far too many of these bodies are a reflection of an era some 1500 years in the past - and they cling to it in manner that is most troubling.

Religions must adapt to the world. Christianity's own roots in late Imperial Rome are a beautiful example of pragmatic adaptation. "Pagan" rituals were shunned, but strangely, parallel Christian ritual emerged to fill the gap. It seems that our Religious leaders have forgotten that, and worse still, they have yet to recognize that the world in which they exist is not the world in which their faiths were born.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Religion has long coveted political power, yet our changing society is quickly showing how outdated this theory is.

To give rein to the religious right is to also provide for the morality of the Mormans, JWs, and.. yes, even the Satanists.

Taken to logical extremes, that would mean that coffee is morally wrong, but blood sacrifice is acknowleged as an inalianble individual right to worship.

I think that Canada has it right to seperate political and secular power.

I will also point out that the church does NOT have the innate legal authority to perform marriage; no more than anyone off the street has the power to perform as a justice of the peace. It is a license granted by the province. As well, a marriage license is also required.

Now, this does not address the rights of the church to deny the sacriment of marraige to any two people with a marriage license, although it would be an interesting legal battle to watch.

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