Church and State (and You and Me)

What is the separation of church and state? How is it legally established and supported? And how do we think through the related foundational concept of freedom of religion?

Election 44 is finally behind us. If you’ve already had enough of it, don’t worry – this isn’t about that. Many people had something to say during the campaign, clergy being a notable exception. This got me thinking about the broader topic of religion in the public square, which includes the separation of church and state, but goes beyond it. Today, I discuss this from a historical, philosophical, and legal perspective, looking at the state-level and private overlap between religion and societal life in modern Canada.

The Separation of Church and State

A key concept within this topic is the separation of church and state – the delineation of the powers of religion and society, and the establishment of distance between them. An interesting fact is that the concept predates the phrase. The phrase itself is credited to Puritan theologian Roger Williams, who founded the state of Rhode Island. He wrote that “a hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World” was necessary for an authentic Christian church.

The phrase was made popular by US President Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, in response to the association’s concerns on religious freedom and government intervention in the matter. In the letter, Jefferson referenced the First Amendment of the US Constitution as building “a wall of separation between church and state.”

But like I said, the concept is much older than the phrase. Five centuries ago, the Catholic Church had a high degree of political power and influence over European kingdoms. With the Protestant Reformation came a renewed focus on the theology and the politics of such influence, which also extended to the Church of England. Anglicanism became the country’s state religion after Henry VIII founded the church when the Catholic Church refused to annul his marriage.

As America and Canada journeyed through their separate paths to independence from England, they had to consider the appropriateness of this concept of state religion. In Canada, things were further complicated by the mix of British and French colonies, with Protestant and Catholic majorities respectively. Britain faced unique challenges reconciling the role of church and state in this environment after it won the Seven Years War.

The Spectrum of Freedom of Religion

We’ll dive into some present implications in a minute. But first, I want to step back from the Anglo-North American context, where the separation of church and state has a rather specific interpretation. In a broader sense, across time and civilizations, there really is no uniform consensus around this. Instead, I find that the separation of church and state is a spectrum. It’s been framed as “friendly versus hostile,” or as “open versus closed secularism.” Both ends of the spectrum can be approached from political or religious viewpoints.

On one end of the spectrum, religion and politics should never interfere with each other. Politically, this can look like secularism, in the sense of active reduction or repression of religious influence, activity and symbolism in the public square. From a religious standpoint, Anabaptists advocated a similar approach, based on a very literal interpretation of all of the Bible. For example, they held that Christians shouldn’t run for office.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have freedom of religion, and religious accommodations based on historical or pragmatic reasons. This aligns with the broad Anglo-North American approach: religion should be neither prohibited nor coerced by the state. Also on this side of the spectrum, a sound interpretation of the Bible offers several pertinent doctrines.

In the Christian narrative, God created a series of institutions. First, in Eden, He created family. Then, after the flood, He instituted civil government, involving humans in the enforcement and upholding of His rules. With Israel came the theocracy – God himself ruling over His own people. Israel would later become a monarchy – one in which, curiously, priests, prophets and kings weren’t the same person. Then, with Jesus, came the realization of “a kingdom not of this world,” and the establishment of the church as we know it today.

The important fact to highlight is that all these institutions are essentially disjoint. God is sovereign over all of them; but the church doesn’t rule over civil government, and isn’t supposed to delve in human power concerns. Likewise, government isn’t supposed to reach into the church’s mission and internal governance.

The main role of the church isn’t political; it is what we know as the Great Commission, given by Jesus in Matthew 28: make disciples of all nations. Hence, the main calling of a pastor is to preach the gospel. The main role of the church is to disciple people in the Christian faith.

On an individual level, Christians are encouraged to carry out their public vocations from their faith, and to actively engage all legal and ethical spheres of public life. The fall from Eden brought about a way of life that included sin, corruption, and a general rebellion against God’s created order. However, the origin mandate to gently subdue and develop creation still stands. In fact, it was restated to people several times after the fall, and more specifically to God’s people. A stark example of this is in the book of Jeremiah, where Israelites exiled in Babylon are commanded to work for the peace and prosperity of their exile’s destination.

Finally, I want to emphasize that Christianity explicitly excludes the extreme posture of mandating religion through government. It excludes theocracy – government by the church, or religious government. And it excludes theonomy, which is the idea of governing a modern state with the Old Testament laws. Other religions may believe in compelling faith through government, but Christianity doesn’t.

Modern Society

That said, Christianity has definitely influenced Western civilization in this matter, going all the way back to Augustine, then through Martin Luther all the way to notable English philosopher John Locke. Locke deemed earthly authorities incapable of clearly judging which religious beliefs were true and which weren’t. Therefore, he considered them unable to impose religion. He also contributed significantly to the concept of social contract, which legitimizes government as a result of partial surrender of individual rights and freedoms in exchange for guarantees or protections of other rights and the social order. From these ideas, Locke saw personal conscience as unassailable by the state, and advocated for religious tolerance.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines freedom of religion in Section 2a, which simply states that everyone has the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion. Supreme Court of Canada decisions on these freedoms entail the separation of church and state, as a dual protection – the upholding of personal religious beliefs, and the prevention of state-imposed religion. The country’s legal framework fleshes this out into multiple aspects: marriage, education, hate speech, taxation of churches, their roles in elections, and several others.

Remember that Charter rights only apply to government action. Freedom of conscience interactions among individuals, and between individuals and non-government entities, are regulated through other instruments, such as human rights codes.

There are multiple legal cases involving these freedoms. One example is the R v Big M Drug Mart case, which was the first challenge ever to Charter Section 2a. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Calgary’s 1906 Lord’s Day Act, which limited commercial activities on Sundays, was unconstitutional.

In Mouvement Laïque Quebecois v Saguenay, the Supreme Court found that a traditional prayer to open a municipal council session amounted to state infringement of an atheist’s freedom of conscience.

When it comes to education, Charter Section 29 preserves the constitutional status of separate schools, which serve religious minorities since the times of Confederation, like the Catholic school boards in Ontario. In 1867, depriving these schools of state funding meant that provinces would violate the freedom of conscience and religion of these minorities. Over the years, that viewpoint has evolved. Several provinces have extricated themselves from this requirement. In present-day Ontario, there are questions around extending state funding to denominations beyond Catholicism, or removing funds from it, although this is deemed politically unfeasible.

Two Thoughts

As you can see, this is a pervasive and consequential topic. I just want to offer two thoughts that I think can help believers and non-believers alike when discussing these issues.

The first thought is that the primary role of churches I outlined earlier, plus some specific legal restrictions, imply that political discourse in Canadian churches can feel a bit sparse. Like I said earlier, the primary role of pastors, preachers, and churches in general, sits more in the sphere of God’s kingdom. Also, churches in Canada typically operate as registered charities. This affords them tax-exempt status, recognizing their contribution to public benefit. A consequence of this is that churches can’t be partisan, and clergy are very limited in what they can say or comment on, especially during an election.

Due to these two factors, you could attend a typical church for months and still not get a clear picture of its political views. This doesn’t mean that no religious charity in this country ever gets involved in law, politics, and societal issues from a religious perspective. Two charities that do, whose work I’m aware of, are the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities and the Christian Legal Fellowship. I am in no way affiliated or involved with them – just aware of the fact that they think and operate in this space more directly than churches typically do.

This is something to keep in mind if you find that your local church doesn’t engage in politics deeply or often enough. It’s just not its main mission, and there are limits it accepts in order to maximize its impact on social welfare.

The other thought I want to explore is the conflation of church-state separation with the individual freedoms of conscience and religion. I perceive that the backlash against church intervention in state matters and state-sanctioned religion often extends against personal religious expression.

Every once in a while, an acquaintance or public figure will say something like, “I don’t mind religious people, as long as they keep their religion to themselves.” This is a blatant intrusion on a number of rights and freedoms. Within reasonable limits, every person communicates and expresses their world view in various ways. The idea that believers can’t bring their beliefs and principles into their ordinary duties and tasks and interactions is ludicrous. Every single person has a worldview, and that worldview influences their decisions, their behaviour, their vocabulary and the things they choose to promote or advocate for. This is especially notorious today, when topics that used to be off limits at work and elsewhere – because they were considered too political or personal – are now the very topics that organizations rally and shape themselves around.

The ability of non-theists to reject religion, and to communicate and express and advocate their viewpoints, is based on the same freedom of conscience that allows believers to embrace their faith and to communicate and express and advocate it. The negative consequences of religious impositions on civil government are well understood; but having theist worldviews forcibly pushed out of the public square isn’t any better.

As Christians, we understand that human coercion plays no part in evangelism and conversion. We should always be ready to defend, explain and even persuade, to the extent that others inquire or are willing to listen. And I would expect non-believers not to confuse, in the words of theologian Wayne Grudem, freedom of religion with freedom from religion. In fact, plainly put, I think this latter state simply does not exist – not even in the most extreme secular society. It’s just a different philosophical viewpoint; its own kind of religion.

I celebrate that our rights and freedoms encourage a healthy debate of ideas, where unencumbered logical persuasion, not oppression or shame, dictate mainstream outcomes in law, government and society. I hope you will join me in advocating this viewpoint, no matter which side of the religious spectrum you are on.

Published: September 26, 2021