While hardly news, it sometimes bears emphasizing: secular societies have not been generous to the pews of liberal-minded churches. The result, unfortunately, is that a tone of regret can often be detected when United Church people discuss the secularism of modern times.
I’ll go out on a limb here and assume few Observer readers think church should be mandatory. A core United Church value is that people should be able to make up their own minds about what they believe and what they do with their Sunday mornings. None of us would want to renounce either a progressive theology or a free society. And so whatever it means for membership numbers, it’s a good thing that our society has evolved this way.
Secularism is the principle that public institutions need to serve all citizens equally, meaning that our government should have no role in promoting one religion above others. Although Canada doesn’t have the history of outright theocracy that many European nations do, I think those of us in the under-30 crowd often forget that secularism is still a relatively new thing for this country. At General Council last summer, I was amazed to learn the United Church was formed by an official act of Parliament: the United Church of Canada Act, which received royal assent in July 1924.
Okay, so this isn’t the most nefarious mix of government and religion one can imagine. But less than a century later, it’s absurd to think of our Parliament getting involved in founding a church. There are symbolic ways in which we still aren’t secular; our head of state, the 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, holds the title of “Supreme Governor” of the Anglican Church. But in practice, Canada has a remarkably firm separation of government and religion today. Few Canadian politicians are willing to even discuss their faith publicly.
The famous counterpoint to this is the United States, where every presidential frontrunner makes his or her faith a prominent campaign plank, and evangelical churches are not shy about exerting their influence on (mostly Republican) politicians. It’s a strange sociological puzzle how a country with an explicit separation of church and state in its constitution has become the most religious western society — far more so than the many European democracies with monarchies closely connected to an official church.
But even so, the United States is not the chief cautionary example to keep in mind when we think about the value of secularism. If the evangelical lobby there was nearly as powerful as it claims, Barack Obama wouldn’t be on his second presidential term and same-sex marriage wouldn’t be steadily gaining ground.
Instead, we need to remember the number of countries around the world where the government sees religion as its highest order of business — taking the choice entirely out of its citizens’ hands. I have a friend from Iran who is an atheist, but every Iranian government document about her declares her a Shiite Muslim simply because of her family background. She absolutely despises this, yet it is perhaps the least troubling way that religion and government are one and the same in that country, and in many others.
So let’s keep the mournfulness out of the conversation when we talk about today’s culture. Secularism is very much a complement to the United Church, despite the occasional appearance to the contrary. If it means the church has to work harder to reach out to society, that’s probably a good thing too.
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