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What is a Secular Government?

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Religious Freedom in a Secular Age by Michael F. Bird.

Zondervan Reflective, Grand Rapids, Mich.; 2022, 187 PP. $23.99 Canadian.

In this modest volume, Michael Bird, academic dean and lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, is addressing what is often a poorly understood meaning of “secular” when it relates to government.  

For many today, their notion is that “secular” must mean that any religious or faith perspective must be excluded from the public square. Worship and faith should be restricted to church, mosque or temple settings, but have no place elsewhere. It takes little reading of public sentiment to learn how widely it is held. A Christian voice ought not to be heard in the public square.

On the other hand, many Christians in settings within the church community, would like to see a government that is clearly and actively sympathetic to them. This has often found expression in recent U.S. presidencies and certainly here in Canada too. It runs the risk of “marrying national and religious identities” and happens in many countries. 

In contrast, Bird argues for what he terms the true nature of secularism, “not an attack on religion, but…a political settlement designed for creating space for people of all faiths (or) none.” As Christians, we should not be arguing for a privileged position, but for all groups whatever our faith. Furthermore, he wants such secularism to be seen as freeing rather than limiting religious expression. 

But Bird is realistic, he knows this will be a growing challenge, with a “potentially uneasy relationship between the state and religion.” Hence he calls for Christians to adopt what he calls the “Thessalonian strategy” as a way of maintaining a Christian witness in a post-Christian society. This is “offering an intelligent and compelling alternative to militant secularism.” And he encourages Christians to embrace “a grand new age of apologetics by being prepared to defend the Christian faith and the freedom of all faiths in a secular age.”

We need only think of the wording of the preamble to Bill C-4, the so-called anti-conversion therapy legislation passed by our Canadian government to sense the meaning of militant secularism. It states that conversion therapy causes harm to society because it is “based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” In effect, it is saying that what persons feel about themselves, even if their biology would argue otherwise, the feelings should trump biology and to argue otherwise “propagates myths and stereotypes.” 

Presently, medical practitioners and nursing homes face serious challenges for their refusal to participate in medical assistance in dying (MAiD).

In his book, Bird explains how various versions of secularism pose challenges to religious freedom and explains what it is and is not. He calls it a way of creating “appropriate spaces for religion to be pursued…and, on the other hand, [to] establish spaces that are desacralized to make them common to all, irrespective of someone’s faith or lack of faith.” It was exactly this that led a group of us to organize a Conference on Faith and the Media in Ottawa some years ago with all the major religious groups in Canada present to talk about how we might help the media understand how our faiths directed our actions. We saw it as an exercise in creating a civic culture that respected all faiths or no faith, though we tried to exclude cults (such as Scientology). 

A few additional points. Part of the context here arises out of the enormous pressure being placed on faith communities such as ours to become LGBTTQ* affirming, in the face of long biblical interpretive traditions that would not support such affirmation. Even for single persons to dissent today invites national attention: think of recent NHL players who did so. 

Moreover, the process of desacralization has become so strong that it is the practice of believers that is now coming to be seen as evil, the Bible as the source of prejudice, intolerance and hate, and virtue the mantle of those with “progressive” values. Orthodox Christians, especially those of evangelical persuasion, are increasingly viewed as aliens within their cultures. 

How, then, are we to respond? Christian leaders offer a variety of directions.  

Bird suggests that Christians embrace a “Thessalonian strategy.” It deserves close attention. He says it can work best in a society that practices “confident pluralism” where victory is “not vanquishing your adversaries, but winning their respect, living at peace with them and affirming their right to be who they are.” 

He argues against trying to restore what he calls a “Christian America” (or Canada): that is, get every Canadian “converted, baptized and enrolled to vote.” Nor is he in favour of thinking of ourselves as “Christians in exile.” We are citizens who’ve been “outvoted literally or metaphorically,” but we still have the rights of citizens. 

Though he commends elements of “faithful presence,” Bird believes the Apostle Paul sets an example in Acts 17, when he visits Thessalonica, that suggests a more confrontive approach. Paul and Silas had a “well-earned reputation of turning the world upside down.” It was Jesus-centred, gospel-centred, subversive. They weren’t political activists. They didn’t argue for a theocracy. They offered a more compelling worldview. Bird says he is “advocating [for] a Christian-sponsored cultural pluralism in which all religions are free and respected within a diverse culture under a secular government.”  Such a culture will give Christians (and others too) great freedom to witness to their beliefs and live out their faith. It is a strategy that will help Christians avoid “the seductions of civil religion.” 

More could be said about Religious Freedom in a Secular Age. Can his suggestions work in countries with very little history of Christian influence and parliamentary democracy? I wonder. Clearly, we live in a time when we find ourselves face to face with many people of other faiths and no faith. How can we foster a culture that offers a way to live together with a generous spirit and resist government pressures to force faith and practice into narrow confines of its making?  That’s the challenge we face.

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