Posted by: gcarkner | March 20, 2013

The Age of Rights

Entering the Age of Human Rights and Pluralism: Public Religion in Canada from MacKenzie King to Trudeau

 George Egerton PhD, Professor Emeritus History, UBC

What wisdom can we find in the longer history of engagement between religion and politics in Canadian history which can shed some light on our present choices? These are some concluding remarks.

First, I would argue that the resistance of some fundamentalist Protestants and Quebec ultra-Catholics to the protection of human rights, an aversion mixed sometimes with xenophobia and anti-Semitism, is to be shunned by all Christians. Both Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity developed rich theological rationales for human rights protection, both internationally and nationally; this framework should be powerfully sustained in contemporary theological and political engagements.

However, the leftist, social gospel wing of Protestantism, represented in such figures as John Humphrey, Frank Scott, King Gordon, and Arthur Roebuck, in embracing the human rights agenda often abandoned any legitimating reference to religious foundations which might prove embarrassing in the context of pluralism. The liberal Protestant Canadian churches have also in the main traveled this path, accommodating liberal cultural agendas of extending human rights without a sense of constraint when this process involved violation of classic religious teachings. The result has been not only debilitating internal division within these churches and the loss of a distinctive prophetic voice in culture, but also the loss of any religious conscience within the secularized governance of Canada.

While the governments of Diefenbaker and Pearson welcomed and promoted a religious pluralism, broadened out from the previous traditional Christian pluralism, Trudeau was determined to smash the clericalism of Maurice Duplessis’ ‘grande noirceur.’ He succeeded, perhaps well beyond his intentions, as Catholic Bishops have had to puzzle repeatedly over whether to excommunicate Catholic Prime Ministers.

Second, my study of the patterns of church-state, religious-political relations in Canada strikes me as demonstrating clearly that Canadians have historically and consistently chosen to place their ultimate national norms, laws, jurisprudence and constitution under ‘the supremacy of God.’ The campaigns to remove this expression from the constitution have all led to political disaster – as former NDP MP, Svend Robinson, repeatedly discovered. The constitutional acknowledgment of God represents the deepest Canadian fusion of liberal and Christian values, mutually reinforcing and constraining in a dynamic, enduring matrix.

Where religion came to trump liberal values (as in Duplessis’ Quebec or Aberhart’s Alberta) or, equally, when liberal ideology trumped core religious teaching (as in Trudeau’s legacy and today’s secular jurisprudence), church and state have both lost something precious. Without the priestly, pastoral  and prophetic functions of religion, modern western states all face ‘legitimation crises’ in face of the challenges of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, exhausting consumption, and political corruption.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Traditionally, Canadian religious and political leaders defined Canada’s national identity as a ‘Christian democracy.’ In the circumstances of today’s demographic multiculturalism, this formula is no longer possible; nor is nostalgic longing for the reconstruction of Canadian Christendom. What is possible and is indeed an emerging dynamic in Canadian civil society is the formation of religious coalitions representing the common values of all the major faiths to guard what is precious in the human person and the religious freedoms of faith communities, in face of ideologies, politics, and jurisprudence which would subvert these.

Will the definition of Canadian pluralism and multiculturalism be religiously friendly, as in our longer tradition, or religiously hostile and exclusionary, as in recent experience? This is where we as Christians are at in the age of human rights.

This brings me to my third and final conclusion. It is crucial that Christian and other major faith communities understand the challenges and opportunities of living in an age and culture of pluralism. We need historical perspective, legal insight, media smarts, and courage to speak out and mobilize in defence of religious freedom. An array of Protestant and Catholic organizations, and inter-faith think-tanks and lobbyist coalitions — like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Cardus, the Manning Centre – have responded to the challenge or shaping and presenting well-informed, positive responses to the challenges of human rights and pluralism in Canada. Let us support these organizations as they defend our human rights and freedoms as Canadian Christians.

~ Dr. George Egerton, Professor Emeritus History, UBC  (full text available from

Entering Age of HRts CHR

Writing the Canadian Bill of Rights CJLS 2004


Also see: Francis S. Adeney & Arvind Sharma (eds.) Christianity and Human Rights: influences and issues. SUNY Press, 2007; Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity; Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Chapter 4 “Subjectivizing Morality”). Harvard, 2012. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, the State & Self. (Gifford Lectures)

Other Heavyweights in Christian Political Theory: Oliver O’Donovan at Christ Church Oxford, James Skillen of Centre for Public Justice in Washington, D.C., Richard John  Neuhaus, First Things Journal in the USA, Cardus and Convivium Journal in Canada.



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