Church and State

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While many Americans have trouble telling the difference between their country and Canada and even more Canadians live in a state of anxiety about that apparent lack of difference, I suffer from no such illusions. There are dozens of deep differences between our societies; one of the most profound is the role of religion in politics.

It is not that the religious do not try to impose their views on us. Most recently the Catholic archbishops have suggested that those who support physician assisted dying cannot expect to receive a church burial. Similar threats have been made in the past; I expect this one will have no more impact than the others. Canadians and, more importantly, Canadian politicians see no particular role for religion in the governing of the state.

Many people, for example, were surprised to discover that Pierre Trudeau, who legalized homosexual acts between adults in the late 60s with the famous line, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” was a deeply devout Catholic. The vast majority of Canadian politicians view their personal beliefs as private. And so do the voters. When it was discovered (after his death) that PM Mackenzie King held séances to consult his dead mother on policy matters, most people simply shrugged and said: well, he did a good job and kept his strange views to himself.He is still regarded as one of our greatest Prime Ministers.

It’s hard to imagine a modern American politician being so open and obvious about their beliefs – or lack thereof. Bernie Sanders is purported to be a rational sceptic but he hardly proclaims his doubts from the pulpit. Ted Cruz apparently wants to create a theocracy. When I consider the choice between him and Trump, I have to say that Trump who is vague about his religion (but still eats Ted’s lunch among evangelicals) is the lesser of two evils.

In part, our politics reflect deeper divisions between our nations. America was founded out of religious persecution. Many of its early settlers were Protestant dissidents, fleeing Catholic or Anglican persecution in Europe. The American founding fathers may or may not have been religious themselves (some were, some almost certainly weren’t) but were well aware of what religion, when incorporated in the state (the King of England was also the head of the church), could do to freedom. They explicitly forbade the establishment of a state religion or of the dominance of one faith over the other. They’ve been fighting about it ever since.

Canada, on the other hand, came later, when class and nationalism were the driving forces of both oppression and revolution. Religion had a role (especially in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution of the 60s) but not a central one. Early Prime Ministers may well have proclaimed Canada to be a Christian country but the near equal balance of Catholics and Protestants in the population made them wary of incorporating much dogma into the law. Since World War II, religion has grown increasingly silent which may be related to why ‘none’ is the answer one in four Canadians give when asked their religion on the census. The number of non-religious is lower (but growing) in the USA – though fewer Americans than Canadians claim to actually be atheists; in part, it may be to avoid trouble.

Maybe this is why it is easier for Canada to accept immigrants of diverse faiths. We were raised to think that religion is nothing to fear; Americans apparently know better.

And that’s ten minutes.

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