Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cluttering up the legal landscape with God

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins by affirming that “Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” This week’s minor controversy about God’s presence in the preamble–set off, indirectly, by a Quebec ruling upholding a Catholic high school’s right to set its own curriculum — is no threat to our Constitution, but it is instructive. To a certain secularist mindset, any mention of God is a danger to public life, and any legal recognition of religion is but a short step away from theocracy. That’s not the case in Canada, and the “supremacy of God” preamble is something worth understanding– and defending.

The words were written in 1982 — less than 30 years ago. Constitutions, especially in their fundamental aspects, are supposed to endure more than a few decades without revision. By 1982, Canada already enjoyed a long tradition of religious liberty and democratic freedom, so the idea that putting God in the Constitution is a threat to anything, or a limitation on liberty, or an occasion of division among Canadians, is simply false. Indeed, given that several highly contentious decisions by our courts have expanded the language in the Charter beyond its original text, it is odd to argue that language actually in the Charter should be disregarded.

So say the editorial writers in the National Post.

Having dismissed secularists as wingnuts, which they are not, NP goes on to contradict itself. The first Constitution of Canada was proclaimed in 1867 and between then and 1982 contained no reference to the “supremacy of God” -- one hundred and fifteen years in which God was absent from the land, and the country prospered and grew. As Post put it, “Canada enjoyed a long tradition of religious liberty and democratic freedom”, without enshrining the supremacy of God in the Constitution. So, why bother pissing people off by throwing God into the mix?

The national makeup of Canada was very different in 1867 from what one finds today. Religion is less important to a rapidly growing number of people and among those are many people who think the concept of God is simply anachronistic. Moreover, the dominant religion, Christianity, is in a long decline in Canada

The Post tries to finesse this issue by claiming that it’s OK to put God in because it reminds of us our historical roots. I remember my historical roots: we used to sing "God Save the Queen" as our national anthem and Canada’s flag was a Red Ensign with a small Union Jack in the corner. We used to regularly refer to our country as the Dominion of Canada, and Statistics Canada used be called The Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Funny how selective we are about what historical roots are important and which ones are not.

The Post continues:

The Constitution describes not only who we are–matters of history — but also who we ought to be–matters of aspiration. This is likely what those who object to the “supremacy of God” find difficult. They think that such language excludes from the Canadian project those who do not believe in God. Yet even those Canadians should welcome God in the preamble. Something, after all, has to be supreme. And if it is not God, even understood in the broadest possible sense, then what is it?

Fearsome it would be to live in the land where the works of man alone are supreme. The “supremacy of God” is shorthand reminding us that our laws, even if duly passed, must conform to principles of justice, the service of the common good and the truth about the human person. That is an essential principle, otherwise the rule of law can be put in the service of tyranny. Laws which do not correspond to the truth cannot serve justice or advance the common good.

Memo to Post: those who do not believe in God are excluded by this language, it has nothing to do with what they think. Let me put it this way. Suppose instead of God we identified ourselves by sexual orientation and the Constitution said something about the “supremacy of heterosexuals”, which, after all, is also historically defendable. Would homosexuals feel excluded by such language?

Something, after all, has to be supreme.” Assuming this is self-evident (which I am not conceding), we have the supremacy of Parliament, checked mainly by something called “The Supreme Court of Canada”. I think there is more than enough supremacy to go around in this country without loading up God’s shoulders with the burden.

Then comes this clunker:

Another point should be added. The God of which the Charter speaks remains undescribed — it could be the philosopher’s first cause or the Holy Trinity, or something else altogether. In practice, most Canadians would assume that this is the God of Jews and Christians. The Charter does not say that, but we ought to be grateful that it intuitively points in that direction. The Judeo-Christian tradition is not the only foundation for tolerance between different peoples, or for harmony in a pluralistic society, but surveying the global scene today it is the most secure foundation currently on offer. Certainly the experience of officially atheistic regimes is not encouraging.

The fact that most people would assume that it is the God of Jews and Christians is the whole point why God should not be mentioned in the Charter. Is that what judges will also assume if there is a religious contest with other religions that come before the courts where this language will be referenced? Courts should not be put in the position of picking one religion over another.

And what is an “officially atheistic regime”? This needs some clarification. After all, the new Prime Minister of Australia has declared herself to be an atheist – does that mean Australia qualifies as having an “officially atheistic regime.”

I think if one looks to countries that are “officially religious”, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, as examples, one could make the very same statement. This is why secularism is an important principle that should be upheld and defended.

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