Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 23, 1999
Faith is basis for democracy
In Saskatoon, a retired judge has said the Our Father should not be prayed in public schools. The Humanist Association, aided by MP Svend Robinson, has called for Parliament to drop the Constitution's declaration that Canada is "founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." And at the memorial service for victims of last year's Swissair crash, a priest and a minister were barred from referring to Jesus and the New Testament.
Colin Downie, past-president of the Humanist Association of Canada, has said the Constitution's reference to God discriminates against atheists.
And Saskatoon Justice Ken Halvorson wrote in his judgment on school prayer that "A feeling of superiority (by one religious group) can lead to schoolyard bullying, demeaning of others, and later, even totalitarianism."
Does religious liberty mean an end to all public display of religion? Does the adherence to religious truth lead to totalitarianism?
No and no.
Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, provocatively, that while "Christians are detained in the world as if in a prison, they in fact hold the world together."
Christians hold this world together by maintaining that there is more than this world. If politics and justice are worth pursuing, it is because they are secondary activities. They are meaningful only because they are contingent on divine order. If there is no divinely-mandated moral order then there is no limit to the power of the powerful.
Religion makes democracy possible by proclaiming that Caesar is not God. His role in our lives is limited. And because it is limited, there ought to be room for political dialogue and persuasion.
Totalitarian regimes - a thoroughly modern invention - have made it their business to eradicate religion. Religious faith testifies to the existence of a power higher than the state and no totalitarian can accept that.
One of the great lessons of the 20th century is that it was the successful defence of the independence of the Catholic Church in Poland by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski which made possible the fall of communism in 1989.
The Church does not propose any political ideology or worldly utopia. Because of its skepticism toward any utopian possibility, the Church opens the door to open-ended conversations on the political level.
To be sure, some of the Church's sons have used coercion to bring about adherence to the moral and religious truths proclaimed by the Church. Such coercion is an affront to human dignity and a stain on the reputation of the Church.
But the Church can at least give a credible defence of democracy. As well, the millions of Christians killed by Communist and Nazi governments in this century is poignant witness to the Church's opposition to totalitarianism.
The skeptical relativism increasingly pervasive in some sectors of society cannot give such a defence. It can only say, "There are no standards, so do what you want." Ultimately, this amounts to a licence for the powerful to trample on the weak.
We are already seeing some of its effects: widespread abortion, a huge gap between rich and poor, a media driven by consumerism and sexual titillation, and excessive state intervention in the family.
The way to end these sad phenomena is neither by the establishment of a state religion nor the abolition of all moral codes. It is by the establishment of a common moral culture rooted in a shared belief in "the supremacy of God."
The existence of religious plurality in society does not eliminate the possibility of such a culture. It rather challenges us to hold a deeper conversation on how a common moral culture is possible.
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