The history of both nations is also largely contemporaneous with the modern experiment which involves the separation of church and state and the guarantee of religious freedom. These values derive from the Reformation, but a radical twist was put on them in the Enlightenment. Thus it is that in both nations religious freedom and church-state separation have been interpreted differently by Christians and secularists. Secularists, who increasingly have the upper hand, it seems, due to their strong presence in certain vocations in the media, academe and the legal fraternity, argue that the separation of church and state requires a radical privatisation of religion; consequent upon this is a denial of the Christian ethos that many would say has underwritten the peace and prosperity with which both nations have been blessed.*
Can a society survive without religion? More to the point, can a society built on a Christian ethos "liberate" itself from that ethos while yet retaining the values and qualities which have made it what it is? While many Christians would blink at that question, unwilling to be seen to be imposing their values on non-believers, secularists have never had qualms about imposing their ideas on believers. Latest case in point, the decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to compel Québécoise school children to attend ethics classes where the dogmas of Liberalism in religion will be taught. George Jonas of the Canadian National Post writes:
"God isn't ecumenical. He spells out exactly what he is, in Exodus 20: 4-5. "You shall not make yourself an idol," he tells prospective worshippers, "for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God."
When a jealous God talks about religion, he doesn't say: "Hey, six of one, half a dozen of the other." On the contrary, he commands his followers to regard him and his cosmology as the truth, and view others as being in error. Those who worship idols are idolaters. This doesn't mean bash their heads in, or give them false measure, but it may mean pray for them, and it definitely means don't tell your children: "Oh, it's all the same."
Jealousy isn't the only thing religion is about, but it's certainly one thing. "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me" is the second commandment in the Hebrew bible. In the Christian bible, it's the first.
God speaks plainly; Supreme Court justices speak legalese. They're different languages. If one looks for an innocent explanation of why the Ottawa Nine ruled as they did last Friday in S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, this may be it - though the real reasons are probably a little more complex or sinister.
Without blinking, the full court held that it's okay for Quebec's education minister to compel believers to describe God to their children, not as they see him, but as non-believers do. It does no injury to their Charter guarantee of religious freedom.
Read the whole report here.
Alert Australian readers will be aware that one state in this nation, New South Wales, has instituted Ethics classes in schools as an alternative to Religious Education. At first glance this might seem to be an appropriate response to increasing numbers of non-religious students, but considering that the Ethics classes were "marketed" not as an option for those who had opted out of RE but as an alternative to RE their introduction was likely an indicator that the advocates of Enlightenment secularism in the NSW Parents and Teachers associations are intent on a longer-term scenario that mirrors Quebec. That can only be construed as an attack on religious freedom and another attempt to revise the historical Australian settlement on church and state by subterfuge rather than debate.
* I'm not for a moment suggesting that a Christian ethos leads to a perfect society (I believe in original sin!). Nor would I agree to sweep under the carpet the sins committed and wrongs perpetuated in the name of Christianity during the history of these two countries or others with similar histories. But I am suggesting that the Christian ethos, over the centuries, gave a cultural form to these societies that was largely positive and self-reforming. One could point to the rule of law, the democratisation of political power, both of which enabled business to flourish and prosperity to be shared, an elevated sexual morality that protected women from exploitation and guarded the foundational institution of the family, the provision of organised charity and health care, the abolition of slavery and wage justice for workers, the cultivation of the arts, the humane treatment of animals and so on.
Enlightenment secularists too often downplay the degree to which such progress and reform was made possible by the cultural form which Christian doctrines (humankind made in the image of God, for e.g.) gave to society and the degree to which the movements which led to these reforms were led by active Christians motivtaed by the Christian ethos ("Love thy neighbour"). Is it merely accidental, one is led to ask secularists, that these positive cultural traits originated in Christian societies and not, for example, in Muslim, Hindu or even Buddhist societies?