by Olivia Lavallee
I was surprised when my historian friend informed me that, unlike our American counterparts, Canada doesn’t legally have separation of church and government because of its connection to the British monarchy. As “Defender of the Faith,” the reigning monarch is the head of both institutions–church and state. Canada’s Church is symbolically protected as a member of the Commonwealth. However, our religious matters are not as untouchable as they appear.
Known as the notwithstanding clause, it “permits Parliament or a provincial legislature to adopt legislation to override section 2 of the Charter–containing such fundamental rights as freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and freedom of assembly–and sections 7-15 of the Charter, containing the right to life, liberty and security of the person, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, a number of other legal rights, and the right to equality.”¹ Established by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during the Kitchen Accords, this controversial loophole is the reason why the Canadian Government can interfere with religious matters; under the pressure of social and culture wars. For example, in 1999, the notwithstanding clause could have been used by the Federal government to legalize children pornography. Fortunately, the controversial motion was defeated with 142 against and 129 in favor.² However, the notwithstanding clause is a match waiting to be lit by the wrong Federal hand.
With the assistance of the notwithstanding clause, Québec has already been able to debate the legality of publicly wearing religious symbols such as crosses; resulting with the ban of wearing face coverings, including the burqa and niqab, in public last year.³ The tension increased with the new Canadian Summer Jobs Value Test, outlining specific mission statement regulations that organizations must agree too before applying. These parameters limited religious organizations access to the grant and suggest the potential need to separate Church and State.
One must not go very far in history to recognize why this is a major issue for society. The life of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is an example of how such issues can impact an individual. When he was approaching his 27th birthday, Bonhoeffer expressed his concerns on the radio on how Germany was idolizing Hitler. In his view, Hitler was mocking God. As a result of Bonhoeffer’s controversial opinion, he was cut off air.⁵ Bonhoeffer’s most notable works include The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, which he wrote while teaching at an underground seminary. Due to his stance on morality, he became a spy, but was later killed as he was involved with the failed July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler.⁶
What does a German theologian have to do with Canadian politics? In April, the leader of the Canadian Conservative party stated in Parliament that “there is nobody that believes that this Prime Minister is committed to free speech when he punishes all those who don’t agree with his personal point of view. . .”.⁷ Arguably, Scheer used the recent Values Test as a bridge to discuss how Trudeau has reacted to certain provinces refusing to support him on the Carbon Tax. Bonhoeffer’s stance during a dark time in Germany may enlighten Christians in how to respond to the recent challenges the Church has had to wrestle with and inspire them to further open a dialogue with government officials.
Dr. Dean at Tyndale University, Toronto, has examined the theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Stanley Hauerwas in his book published by Wipf and Stock Publishers For the Life of the World. He was willing to give some insight on how Bonhoeffer’s theology could be applied to the current relationship between the Canadian Church and the Canadian Government.
Q: In reference to Bonhoeffer, where is the line between following our conscience and obeying the Government?
Dr. Dean: Bonhoeffer had some interesting views regarding the human conscience. Whereas some strands of Catholic theology virtually equate the human conscience with the voice of the Holy Spirit, Bonhoeffer saw the human conscience as a last ditch effort by the fallen human being to justify itself.
So Bonhoeffer wasn’t that interested in conscience per se. Rather, he thought that the true conscience of the Christian is found not within themselves, but in the person of Jesus Christ. In contradistinction to some of his countrymen who were claiming, “Hitler is my conscience,” Bonhoeffer insisted that for the Christian it is Jesus Christ who must be their conscience. In Bonhoeffer’s terms then the question is more accurately framed in terms of discerning the relationship between following Jesus and/or obeying the government.
The first century Mediterranean world was awash in Imperial propaganda which spoke of the Gospel of the Caesar. The Caesar was described as a “Saviour” and “Lord” who brought peace (the pax Romana) to the Empire. In this context, the confession “Jesus is Lord!” had extremely provocative political connotations. For to confess “Jesus is Lord!” implied that Caesar was not. The Romans clearly understood the logic of this confession, which is why they put so many Christians to horrific deaths for failing to offer their pinch of incense at the altar of the Emperor.
So clearly there are times and places when our allegiance to Christ demands us to say no to the state. This must be prayerfully discerned by the people of God in each time and place. Also, as Bonhoeffer observed in his writings and testified to with his life, saying “No!” to the state may mean that we come to experience the wrath of the state, but in our suffering we find that our witness is conformed to that of our Lord.
Q: Do you think that the Liberal’s Values Test goes against Bonhoeffer’s view of legitimate authority (and a leader’s limitations) as individuals may need to come to terms with their own consciousness and beliefs to sign it? Why or why not?
Dr. Dean: Towards the end of his life, Bonhoeffer was grappling with his own Lutheran tradition, as he thought about what reconstruction after the war might look like. He was terrified by the way a theology of the “orders of creation” had been utilized to underwrite the racist political ideology of the Nazi state and recognized that this way of thinking could be used to underwrite whatever happened to be the status quo. So returning to Scripture, he formulated his doctrine of the mandates, which remained a work in progress throughout the rest of his short life. The mandates refer to ways of shaping particular aspects of life that are commanded by God in Christ. Bonhoeffer lists four of them: government, marriage and family, work, and church. Bonhoeffer made a distinction between government and the state, in that what God commands is not a specific form of the state, but rather the authority of governance. The government, for Bonhoeffer, exists for the sake of preserving a peaceful and just external order. Since the Gospel advances by the preaching of the Word and not by the sword, the government cannot be expected to advance a specifically Christian agenda. The government’s task of providing a just and peaceful order can be threatened by either too much or too little law and order. The authority of government comes from God alone, but Bonhoeffer observes that when this is forgotten those in authority will inevitably exercise an improper authority that forgets the delimited character of government and attempts to claim all of life under the authority of the state.
Perhaps we see something similar going on with respect to the current Canadian government and the “Values Test.” With the erosion of the common shared inheritance of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which Western society was built, a vacuum has been left behind. But nature abhors a vacuum and we seem to be witnessing the rise of a secular ideology that is being positioned to function as a type of civil religion. This observation is not new with me. I recently heard John Stackhouse from Crandall University and Bruce Clemenger from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada share similar observations in public addresses. And, Douglas Farrow at McGill has been commenting on this phenomenon for some time. Perhaps, what is new is the presence of such an eager evangelist for the establishment of this new civil religion occupying 24 Sussex Drive.
In such a context, Bonhoeffer’s writings seem to suggest that it is important that there is a church capable of speaking truthfully to the state, reminding it of its mandate, and standing as a boundary against its hegemonic claims. That being said, it must also be noted that there is nothing that says the church has to take the government’s money. Christians are free to say no and not sign the attestation or offer an alternative attestation—as many Christian institutions and organizations have done.
Q: Why do you think the Americans have made Church separate from State, but not Canada? Is it our complacency?
Dr. Dean: I think there are a variety of complex historical factors that play into that development and it would probably be best if I were to leave the tracing of those developments in the hands of a trained historian.
Interestingly, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay in 1939 after his second visit to the United States just before the beginning of the Second World War in which he shared some of his observations about how the history of established and disestablished churches played out in different contexts. Coming from Germany, Bonhoeffer was familiar with a state church system that dated back to the Reformation which was the fruit of the Reformers’ appeal to the magistrates to affect the Reformation in their lands. In Bonhoeffer’s Germany, pastors were officially civil servants, trained in state-run institutions, receiving their salary from the government. As a result of this arrangement it became very difficult for the churches to distinguish their loyalty to Christ from their loyalty to the state. They were often understood to be virtually synonymous. Hence, many Christians were taken in by the Nazi propaganda about recovering Germanic greatness and Hitler’s promises to take Christianity under his firm protection.
But when Bonhoeffer turns his attention to the United States, he makes a surprising discovery. While one might think things would be drastically different in America due to the formal separation of church and state, Bonhoeffer discovered that there the most radical secularization of the church had occurred. During his time in New York, he observed that many of the great mainline congregations seemed to have abandoned a specifically theological agenda for one of shoring up American society. Today the mainline denominations have been pushed increasingly to the sidelines, but this confusion of the United States of America with the Kingdom of God continues to occupy the imaginations of Christians in the U.S., except that is now the Evangelicals or rightward-leaning Christians who seem to occupy a more prominent social position. (I am hesitant to use the word “evangelical” in this context because of the way it has come to be used in the popular media to refer to a right-wing political interest group. According to its theological and historical roots, the word “evangelical” suggests a person or movement that is characterized by the Gospel (the evangel).)
From Bonhoeffer’s observations about the different arrangements in Germany and the United States, it seems like the far more important question is not about the exact nature of the formal relationship between church and state, but rather about whether there is a church that knows who it is as the body of Christ and is clear on what it is to be about as ambassadors of its crucified and risen Lord.
Olivia Lavallee is an entrepreneur and a student at the University of Victoria studying English. She has lived in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and North America, which exposed her to a variety of cultures and religions. Recently, she has become increasingly interested in social philosophy as well as interaction between societies and their religious institutions.
- Quote from David Johnson and Philip Ronsen’s article Current Publications: Government, Parliament and Politics October 16, 2008.
- Refer to CBC’s news article Reform Motion on Child Pornography Struck down February 02, 1999. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/reform-motion-on-child-pornography-struck -down-1.194501.
- Refer to Ashifa Kassam’s article published by the Guardian Quebec Passes Law Banning Facial Coverings in Public. October 18, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/18/quebec-passes-law-banning-muslims-from-wearing-face-coverings-in-public.
- The best-selling novel, God’s Smuggler, is the testimony of Brother Andrew and how he smuggled Bibles through the Iron Curtain.
- Key dates of Bonhoeffer’s life found at PBS. 2006. http://www.pbs.org/bonhoeffer/timeline.html.
- A more in depth look at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be found at Christian Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html.
- During a debate on the carbon tax, the leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Sheer, points out how Canadians struggle to trust PM Trudeau after the Values Test. Youtube Video, 1:25, April 27, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TfI1cF-kTY.