Monday 4 August 2014

Separation of church & state 3: Why Solzhenitsyn and I think that the political process is a poor way to achieve moral objectives

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Commencement address at Harvard University (7 June 1978)

Just to recap, I decided to research the topic of the separation of church and state, something that I've been interested in for a long time, as a result of current Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau's recent pronouncement (out of the blue and for no apparent reason) that in future no federal Liberal Member of Parliament, nor candidate for same, may vote other than pro-choice regarding any relevant legislation. Current Liberal M.P.s holding pro-life views will have to keep such to themselves and toe the party line. What pro-choice means exactly was left undefined. [For more information, please see my previous posts on June 18, 19, 21, and July 4, 2014.]

My fundamental question is, Can a person of faith function with integrity is his/her pursuit of what we consider to be faith-informed objectives in a system such as the Canadian Parliament? If not, should we abandon the political process entirely in favour of some other approach to righting the moral wrongs of society as we see them?

I have lengthy political experience myself, but it is all in the municipal arena (school trustee) and
with no party system in place to hinder me in any way from voting my conscience. I have run successfully ten times as a political free agent. Given that even as a school board member important moral issues come to the fore from time to time (see my previous post, I have developed my own rules of thumb for how to think about and approach these in a manner that is consistent with my faith-informed worldview while operating with integrity in a secular, non-sectarian political setting.

But before I explore this line of thinking further, a quick aside. Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (quoted above) had little faith in the long-term efficacy of political reform to effect desirable social change, preferring to place his trust ultimately in spiritual solutions. Given his experiences living in the old Soviet Union, I am in no position to challenge his thinking. It should be added that he was no more impressed with capitalism than he was with communism, if this quote is any indication: Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.

There is a good deal to what Solzhenitsyn says. I've been an active player in the political arena for long enough to see that some good things can come from the political process, even moral achievements. But my 27 years have led me to the conclusion that using political approaches to accomplish moral ends is, more often than not, the last stage in the process, not the first.

[This is why I believe that my friend Mike Schouten of is bound to be forever frustrated in his attempts to convince the federal government to pass any kind of legislation that fundamentally changes the abortion scene in Canada. The rest of the pro-life movement has not prepared the ground to make such a move by the feds possible (cf. the decades of hard, discouraging, fearless, and ultimately effective work done by the opponents of slavery in the U.S. that ultimately made it possible for Lincoln to abolish that hateful institution). Until we do, Mike will be running on the same treadmill on which he currently finds himself. I'll have more to say about this several posts hence.]

So to begin my study of church and state, here are some presuppositions I have concerning why I think the political process is a poor way to address important moral issues in the first place. 

1 - Moral issues are notoriously difficult to legislate. That is not to say that governments don't try. I well remember LBJ's proposed Great Society of the 1960s that sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. But unless there is already a significant groundswell of public support for a particular approach to an issue (e.g., in Canada, supporting gay rights, or in times past eliminating capital punishment), getting a law passed is almost impossible. One only has to look at President Obama's fruitless quest to impose even a modicum of gun control in the U.S., whereas in Canada virtually everyone agrees with his proposals and wishes that he would go beyond them. Even where there is general agreement in a theoretical sort of way (e.g., the need to combat climate change), Joan Public citizen will often draw the line when the government considers a measure that might require individuals to sacrifice, particularly economically (e.g., a carbon tax).

[Curiously, the majority of Canadians polled consistently say that they would accept restrictions placed on the availability of abortion. These vary from an outright ban, to age of viability. Only about 30% of Canadians support our current regimen of abortion on demand. Yet no party has indicated they have any interest in addressing the subject.]

2 - Staying in power trumps ideology. Political parties typically claim to stand this or that way on a
variety of issues, and attempt to differentiate themselves from other parties by emphasizing their superior views. But once in power, the incoming party becomes remarkably like the outgoing one. This is because staying in power, once obtained, is more important than ideology. We often refer to this phenomenon as governing from the middle, which means that politicians and political parties that take what are viewed as extreme views, whether to the left or right, tend to have a short shelf life. Since appealing to the majority is more important than staking out a potentially unpopular position, politicians will often morph into something very different from what they once claimed to be, or even leave one party for another as quickly as a snake sheds its skin.

Thus we witness political musical chairs in Canada, with politicians of allegedly different stripes jumping from one party to another; e.g.
  • Conservatives Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach jumped to the Liberals and into cabinet.
  • Former NDP premiers Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh both became federal Liberal cabinet ministers, with Rae seeking the Liberal party leadership.
  • Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson joined Conservative Prime Minister Harper's cabinet in a similar capacity after saying that he would be Harper's worse nightmare as an opposition MP.
  • Former Conservative Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Joe Clark criticized fellow Conservative Prime Minister Harper, saying that the strong and positive traditions of the Progressive Conservatives have been forced aside. He has from time to time supported Liberal candidates.
  • Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minster Thomas Mulcair is now the leader of the federal New Democratic Party. 
  • Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau came to Vancouver to court the participation of former NDP member of the BC legislature and now socialist mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson as a Liberal candidate.
3 - Governments let prevailing societal norms, not religion, define morality. Related to the above, it is rare in Canada for a politician to refer directly to his/her religious faith as the basis for their moral views. In fact, with the demise of Christianity as an important organizing force in Canadian society, politicians typically let the prevailing societal norms define what the current moral issues are and what should be done about them. For instance, given that most Canadians (approximately 75% in most polls) define themselves as some kind of pro-choice supporter (the definitions of what that
means vary considerably), no Canadian party would dare take a pro-life position.

Various times that I have prepared for an election, the media have asked me and other candidates who make their faith a matter of public record whether we are going to let our religion affect the way we make decisions once in office. The clear inference is that this would be highly inappropriate. I try to explain how everyone has a worldview that affects their principles and priorities, with religion being an important influence in the formation of that worldview with some people, while other candidates may have other influences. I find that such explanations tend to go unreported.*

4 - The courts keep religion in its place - In 2000, the Surrey BC School District attempted to deal with a set of controversial books which were criticized by many vocal parents and groups as promoting, or at least supporting, the gay lifestyle by removing them from use in the classroom. In a B.C. Supreme Court decision, Madam Justice Saunders ruled that the Board violated section 76 of the School Act when it refused to approve the three books because of parents’ concerns, and ordered them to reconsider the matter. Section 76(1) requires B.C. public schools to be conducted on “strictly secular and non-sectarian principles”. The courts generally have kept explicit religious values and practices out of the public arena, limiting their use to independent rather than public institutions. [See my posts regarding faith-based Trinity Western University's attempt to establish a law school and the opposition the university has received from the legal community at and]

Given these realities, how have I attempted to show full integrity to both my faith and to my role as a publicly elected official in one of those strictly secular and non-sectarian school districts? That comes next.


* For an excellent example of an automatic bias towards a politician because he belongs to a certain faith group, look no further than the recent appointment of Gordon Dirks, a former chair of the Calgary Board of Education, as Alberta's new Minister of Education ( His ability to be in charge of a pluralistic, non-sectarian school system is questioned solely because of his denominational affiliation, ignoring his long service on the board of education of a very large, pluralistic, non-sectarian school district. 

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