Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why religion should not meet politics

Secularism is simply the principle that government should be neutral in matters of religion. Neutrality implies that governmental bodies should neither support nor suppress religious belief or its expression among consenting adults. Michael Den Tandt, in a June 25 Ottawa Citizen article, "When religion meets politics," seems to equate removing unjustified governmental support for religious institutions with a campaign to remove all public declarations of supernatural belief.

The article asks, "Why should [...] churches, temples, mosques and a staggering 86,000 registered charities receive exemptions from paying business tax? Why should they be allowed to issue tax-exemption receipts to donors? And why [...] should churches get a pass on playing politics when, say, The David Suzuki Foundation does not any longer?"

Why indeed. Instead of answering these highly relevant questions, however, Mr. Den Tandt deftly avoids them. He first accurately acknowledges that once a serious discussion begins on the special treatment religious institutions receive in Canada, it quickly becomes clear the status quo is unjustifiable. Rather than directly confront this, however, Mr. Den Tandt dodges by calling it a "can of worms" that "would have been wiser to leave unopened." This is not how one should address serious questions of public policy.

The remainder of the article meanders into largely irrelevant tangents. Of course many Canadian politicians, past and present, espoused strong religious convictions of various sorts. But Bill Blaikie and Tommy Douglas (among others) are remembered for their contributions to the fabric of Canadian society, and to the continued well-being of millions of Canadians. Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin may have been practising Catholics, but that did not stop them from liberalizing divorce laws or legalizing same-sex marriage (over the strenuous objections of the Papacy) during their tenures as Prime Minister. Their religious affiliations are of interest to biographers and historians, but are as relevant to their political legacies as their height or favoured sports teams.

Religious belief may inspire one to advocate for any given political position. But it is not a reasonable defence of public policy. It should be a basic tenet of governance that justification for a law be accessible to all, not just those that deem a particular scroll to be sacred. Insisting on objective, demonstrable criteria is not an attack on any faith group - adherence to this principle ensures that all of Canada's many religions (and the increasing number of those that profess none) are able to fully participate in all aspects of the political process.

The article then confuses cause and effect. Mr. Den Tandt openly acknowledges that "today's NDP is a dominantly secular party," and observes that the United Church agrees with most of its platform. This is not because the United Church has significant influence within the NDP, however; it indicates that the United Church, more than most other religious institutions, has allowed secular ethics to determine its stand on many issues such as same-sex marriage.

Instead of defining a non-secularist approach or defending its morality, Mr. Den Tandt instead rambles about the wisdom of "picking a fight with the churches." Of what relevance is this to the question of why religions receive over one billion dollars every year in public subsidies through tax credits?

The final two paragraphs are an interesting contrast. "Tighten up on the books, by all means. Reinforce the rule that says registered charities - whether religious or secular - should devote no more than 10 per cent of their resources to political work." This is excellent advice - something that most secularists would heartily endorse.

But the final lines then pose a mystery: "But then, for Heaven's sake, leave the churches alone. Let them say what they please, about what they choose." If the churches are anywhere near as politically active as Mr. Den Tandt states, enforcing the law that restricts political activism from charitable organizations would have a major effect on religious institutions.

Conversely, one could grant churches the right to participate in all aspects of the political process, including fund raising, campaigning for candidates, and soliciting legislation favourable to their philosophical perspective - as all other organizations, corporate and non-profit, can today (within limits). In return, churches would be taxed on their property, no longer receive tax credits merely for proselytizing, and clergy would pay income tax on their salaries - as all other organizations, corporate and non-profit, must do today.

"What was Senator Eaton thinking?" I surmise that she believes it is time for Canada to openly embrace a secular approach to governance. It is a sound, wise, moral, and - given the reaction of Mr. Den Tandt and others - courageous action to publicly call for it. Bravo, Senator Eaton.