Of Church, State and the Political Engagement of Evangelicals

Bruce ClemengerBruce Clemenger took up the position of president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada on June 1, 2003. He has served as an EFC staff person since 1992. In 1996 he became the founding director of the EFC's Centre for Faith and Public Life, based in Ottawa. (Janet Epp Buckingham now directs the work of the Centre.)

Bruce Clemenger holds a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in economics and history, and a Master of Philosophical Foundations in political theory. He is currently nearing the final stages of work towards a PhD in political theory.

Bruce Clemenger lives near Ottawa with his family. He and his wife Tracy married in 1987. They have one pre-school-aged daughter.

Commentaries about whether Catholic Members of Parliament who voted in favour of redefining marriage should be refused communion, musings about whether a religious right is emerging in Canada, and accusations that churches are seeking to impose their morality on others, have reignited the debate about the relationship between church and state. Our response should be two-fold: first we should respond to the misperceptions that are rooted in stereotypes, misunderstanding, or bias, and second, in a time of continued secularization and differing views about the role of the church in society, we can avail ourselves of the opportunity to engage in a discussion about the relationship between church and state.

Responding to Misconceptions

Frankly, I don't see the controversy about who is eligible to participate in mass as a matter of the Catholic church trying to coerce politicians. Rather, it is an attempt by the church to determine what it means to be Catholic. If a politician claims to be a good Catholic, it is not inappropriate for the Catholic Church to explain what that means for Catholics in public life.

As for the political engagement of evangelicals, political action is not in itself an indication of the emergence of the "religious right" in Canada. The presumption is that evangelicals are fiscally and socially conservative, and a Canadian version of the Republican Party at prayer.

First, evangelicals are not politically monolithic. Canadian evangelicals are socially conservative on issues like marriage and abortion. However, in attitudes towards income inequality and the government's role in society and the welfare state, the views of Canadian evangelicals are similar to Canadian non-evangelicals. If you ask evangelicals whether they are concerned about poverty, they will answer "yes." If you ask them what the role of government is in addressing poverty, they will disagree. Thus evangelicals are not as right-wing in their voting patterns as their American counterparts.

Second, the political engagement of Christians is not unusual. I need merely mention Bible Bill Aberhart of the Social Credit and Tommy Douglas of the CCF/NDP, Christians involved in both ends of the political spectrum in Canadian politics. This begs the question: in light of such musings about the religious right, why is there little commentary about the religious left, or their political aspirations? Nor are pronouncements of churches espousing liberal political concerns met with accusations of mixing church and state. It was the intervention of some Catholic Bishops against same-sex marriage and not the United Church's endorsement of the civil marriage legislation that provoked one Cabinet minister to suggest churches stay out of the debate over marriage. And it was funding from American sources to Canadian religious organizations opposed to the government's legislation on civil marriage that prompted the Justice Minister to wonder aloud about restrictions on third-party spending between elections. Meanwhile, a gay and lesbian lobby group's web site thanks Canadians and those around the world who have contributed to their fight for equality.

Is it only evangelicals who wish to influence our common moral standards? A recent article in the National Post announced "morality legislation opposed." A poll showed that few Canadians, including so-called "social conservatives," are in favour of morality being legislated. The presumption of the article was that "social conservatives" are the ones most likely to want to impose morality. Practically, this is difficult for a minority to accomplish in a democracy and evangelicals are proponents of democracy. Theologically, the various traditions that inform Canadian evangelicals emphasize persuasion in politics and not imposition. Finally, it is governments through criminal codes and human rights codes that "impose" morality, not citizen groups. The criminal code is a moral code and evangelicals, as other Canadians and communities, seek to influence it. What are human rights codes but a means by which we impose certain moral standards on all of us? Both the political left and the political right want common moral standards; the disagreement is not about whether to impose morality but which moral issues should be covered in legislation.

Take the redefinition of marriage. We were told we were trying to impose our morality on others by defending the man/woman definition of marriage. Yet the other side was making moral arguments about why the definition should be changed. And in the end, it is the government that imposes a public definition of marriage — it makes a moral choice.

In all, it is the political engagement of evangelicals or conservative Christians that, it seems, requires an apologetic. Of all the politicians who are open about their beliefs, why is it the evangelicals who are "scary?" Highlighting the political engagement of one group alone — such as the Globe and Mail's focus on candidates with evangelical ties — creates an impression that the group is suspect. It is the first step in a process of disinformation that leads to discrimination and marginalization.

Evangelicals do have strong views on issues such as marriage. So do many other religious and cultural minority groups. Do strong views alone make a group suspect? Such prejudice against specific religious communities will serve only to undermine the fabric of the kind of Canada we want. The temptation in politics to vilify for political gain is no doubt strong; but let us practice the tolerance we desire even when it is not expedient, for that is what true tolerance and respect demands.

On Church and State

Our chief end is to serve God and worship him forever. Our love for God is expressed in a desire to share his love with others by telling them of the story of his love for each of us and by serving through deeds of mercy and justice. Our service to one another is expressed individually and corporately, and through institutions like, among others, the church and the state.

While the church and the state are distinct and have separate callings, they do have some tasks — such as the pursuit of justice — in common. This commonality can contribute to both confusion and inappropriate expectations unless we are mindful of their respective roles in God's creation.

While the phrase "separation of church and state" is often invoked in Canadian debates, there is no such constitutional doctrine in Canada as there is in the United States. The constitutional provision for Protestant and Catholic education and ongoing government funding for faith-based programs shows there was no intent of our founding fathers for the strict separation that exists in France or is being debated in the United States.

Yet there is wisdom in the call for the separation of the two. In a society that understands institutions like the state and family to be human constructions, it is crucial to reflect on the divine intent for the state.

I believe the state is a creature, an entity instituted by God and, like others such as the family or the institutional church (as distinguished from the Body of Christ); it is created and designed by God to serve God in the fulfillment of its given task. We are told that the governing authorities are God's servant to do us good (Romans 13:4). It has a unique structure; different than that of the family, a church, a school or a business. And, like all of these structures, we can speak of it having a spiritual direction. A family can be a Muslim family or a Hindu family or a Christian one — while the structure is similar, the faith commitment or spiritual orientation of the family will differ. Likewise with ecclesiastical institutions, and, I argue, with the state. All states will have executive, legislative and judicial functions, whether these functions are divided or not. Similarly, all states will be directed by something variously described as an ethos, a vision of life, a worldview, a philosophy or a faith perspective.

This spiritual direction of the state will be expressed in its constitutional documents and reflected in the ethos in which the constitution, laws and public policy are shaped and interpreted. These will contain some basic commitments and give priority to certain principles. For example, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a self-interpreting document. It refers to rights of freedom, of life, liberty, and security of the person, and of equality, among others. While the inclusion of these concepts is an indication of the character of Canada, these terms are not defined and the various political parties would understand these terms and apply them differently, in accordance with their particular ideology.

At its core, the state is oriented towards the pursuit of justice in the public sphere. It adjudicates between members of society, individuals and institutions, and it protects rights and holds us to our responsibilities in our common life together. Stated another way, government undertakes a specialized activity of individuals and institutions that make and enforce public decisions which are binding on the whole community in the pursuit of justice and the good of all. Its distinction is its "power of the sword" (Romans 13:4). While other institutions in society exercise forms of coercive power — family/parents (corporal punishment), churches (excommunication), schools (withhold degree), business/unions (firing, strikes) — the government retains power of life and death (having a standing army and a police force authorized to use lethal force). Governments cannot depend solely on coercive power, however, or their legitimacy will be eroded.

Other institutions also pursue justice and exercise power. The elements of politics are the exercise of power (influence, coercion, authority) and justice, and these apply to all human relations and social structures — family, schools, businesses, voluntary associations, and religious institutions. What distinguishes the state is the power of the sword, its adjudication between other members of civil society, and its responsibility to promote justice in the pursuit of the common good.

The church also has a calling to pursue justice. Living Faith: A Statement of Christian Belief of the Presbyterian Church in Canada states: "God is always calling the church to seek that justice in the world which reflects the divine righteousness revealed in the Bible" (8.4.1). Justice involves how we treat people (8.4.2), protecting the rights of others and protecting human dignity (8.4.3), concern for the poor, for employment, and health (8.4.4), for fairness, protection and concern for victim and offender (8.4.5) and in its opposition to discrimination and in support of dignity, respect and the exercise of power for the common good (8.4.6).

The task of the church is much broader than the pursuit of justice, yet its concern for justice mirrors that of the state. However its role is different. The church has a prophetic and teaching role with respect to government. It should call the government to account for its use of power and urge it to exercise its proper authority for the common good. In this role it is to persuade government to fulfill the government's task, not to try to coerce the government nor seek political power.

Yet the church's responsibility to seek justice does not end there. There are ways in which the church in its role can see that justice is done. Indeed, on most issues on which the church may speak to the government, there is a corresponding task for the church and its members.

Take the issue of euthanasia for example. A private member's bill was debated in the House of Commons before the election was called. The bill would allow anyone to kill another person experiencing severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief, or who suffers from a terminal illness, if the latter is at least 18, if that person has expressed the free and informed wish to die. Churches should speak to the issue. They should also promote care for the vulnerable and be present in the palliative care wards. Are we visiting the sick? Are we seeking to address the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness that often accompany the request for assisted suicide and euthanasia?

Thus the church has a political task. It also has a social task. These tasks flow out of its broader mission and mandate, and it is this broader purpose that qualifies how it engages in these tasks. Otherwise, the church is seen and understood to be a social service agency or a political actor. It is so much broader than this.

We should be politically engaged, as individual citizens and as churches. The participation of the church in politics is part of its mission, but its engagement is that of a church in the fulfillment of a broader mandate under the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ.

As acknowledged in Living Faith, Christ sends us into the world where we are to proclaim Christ in word and deed (9.1.1) Hence the mission of the church is two-fold: mission is evangelism, and mission is service (9.1.2 and 9.1.3). Let us be faithful advocates for the Gospel and stewards of that which God have given us, including church and state.