Managing the Relationship Between Religion and Public Policy


Rajin Singh

Earlier this year, Lawrence Martin wrote a piece asserting that religion should be a subject of inquiry if it adversely influences policy. He turns our attention to the string of seemingly anti-scientific policy decisions of the federal Conservative government. The decision of the government to act as an intermediary between public scientists and the media, the curtailment of Canadian statistical capacity, and its lack of regard for environmental stewardship may all have been motivated by Stephen Harper’s evangelical creed—regardless of whether they were politically expedient choices.

Jeffrey Simpson chimed in to argue how evangelical Christianity has become a force within the Conservative caucus. The government uses a good/evil foreign policy rhetoric that is generally popular with evangelical Christians and strongly supports the hardline Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu. Faith-based groups such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Cardus have also promoted discussion around Conservative MP Stephen Woodsworth’s recent abortion motion. He also implies that instances of religious motivation and influence are increasing in Canadian politics.

For Martin and Simpson, religious groups are re-asserting themselves in the Canadian policy discourse. In order to move this conversation forward, it’s worthwhile to understand how this creates tension to begin with. Once we locate the source of this tension, we can move logically toward a position that manages the relationship between religion and public policy.

Understanding the Tension

Any analysis of the role religion plays in politics begins with the fundamental idea that the state is the ultimate arbiter of coercion. Through policy, the state coerces individuals to conform to certain behaviors and practices. This coercive capacity may be diffuse or concentrated, narrow or broad. It can imperceptibly influence few or impose positive law and regulation that coerces all. The state continues to determine who marries whom and what family planning options individuals have.

Furthermore, Canadians hold a variety of doctrines to which they are deeply committed. These doctrines inform the values from which individuals make their decisions. From a Rawlsian perspective, they are ‘comprehensive’ in how they influence nearly every facet of one’s life. I would separate religious doctrines from secular ones as Canadians tend to at least share a common secular language. The point is that comprehensive doctrines are an influential source of diversity in Canada.

As individuals and groups derive moral authority from their doctrines, they tend to lobby the state to coerce others along doctrinal lines. The state must be the arbiter of coercion among a citizenry divided along closely guarded and deeply influential comprehensive doctrines.

Therefore, the locus of contention is between comprehensive doctrines and state coercion. The state must manage the religious diversity of individuals in a way that mitigates this tension. This leads us to ask another question: How should we as policymakers and professionals consider policy that coerces others? What should the pith of a policy argument look like?

Managing that Tension

In other words, what ‘reasons’ should we give in advocating for certain positions? I argue here that the justificatory language that comprises the normative force behind policy recommendations or advocacy in public venues should be specifically non-religious. In public venues such as a legislature or the public service, policy argument should never be faith-based, especially in a society with the doctrinal diversity such as that of Canada.

This conception of secular reason was articulated by American philosopher Robert Audi in the late 1980s. He argues that policy rationale used in the public sphere “should not depend on the existence of God or theological considerations, or on the pronouncements of a person or institution qua religious authority.” It is not sufficient to publically argue against same-sex marriage or abortion on the premise that a particular God forbids it.

I don’t think this is a novel idea. According to Jeffrey Stout, our public discourse has become steadily secularized by religious individuals ever since the Reformation. Policymakers found it imprudent to build faith-based law in a society divided by faith. Instead, arguments must be derived from the shared language of the public good, which is based in the values of democracy, rights and freedoms and equalities set out in our Constitution. According to Rawls, the U.S. Supreme Court is an exemplar in the use of a particular public reason—it’s been doing it for centuries and getting better at it.

In order to reach the heart of Lawrence Martin’s point, I would take secular reason a little further. This is where many would begin to disagree with me. I take Audi’s point that not only should we use secular reason, but our motivations in advocating coercive policy should also be secular.

In affairs concerning the coercion of others, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, one should be ‘moved’ to argue for or against a certain position not by their faith, but by secular reasons. One should sincerely believe that the policy they are advocating is in the interests of the public good, not in the interests of moving the world closer to salvation.

If I’m going to make the argument that same-sex marriage will erode the social fabric of society, I must believe it will despite the fact that my doctrine forbids it. Furthermore, as a part of my reason, I must understand how it will erode the social fabric in the compelling interests of the public good. The reasons I offer, and the reasons that convince me should be divorced from scripture.

To do so otherwise would be disingenuous. Insincerity is not only intrinsically toxic, but depreciates social and political trust within a democratic society. To make one argument yet personally hold another tends to isolate group from group and denigrate public discourse.

Nonetheless, I make a distinction between what inspires an individual to take interest in a certain position and what reasons motivate an individual to advocate coercive public policy. It would be unrealistic and illiberal to suggest that individuals should not be inspired by a doctrine of their choosing. In 1982, Canadians decided they value freedom of conscience and religion, and through numerous Supreme Court decisions those are freedoms we’ve upheld. The locus of contention, once again, is when faith intersects with coercive public policy.

So let’s go back to the original question of whether religion is ‘fair game’ if it motivates politics. I argued that religious reasons in policy advocacy are a source of tension when they influence coercive policy such as family planning or marriage rights. Therefore if faith-based groups seek to influence policy, the reasons they provide must be secular, and they must be motivated by secular reasons—not scripture. Organizations like Focus on the Family in the United States, or faith-based groups in Canada must reconsider whether they adhere to this principle of secular motivation. The health of Canadian policy discourse depends on it.

Rajin Singh is a MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. He holds a Hons. B.A. in Political Science and History from Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Rajin previously worked as a Policy Advisor for the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation and as Co-Manager of the Global Ideas Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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