Canadian Christians And Secularists Contest Including God’s Name in the Un Charter of 1948 and the Canadian Charter of 1982

Canadian historian George Egerton has provided us with two case studies that can serve our purposes of illustrating how the translation process from religious to secular domains works in two epochal moments in Canadian religious and political history: the formation of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights (in 1948) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in 1982). In the first study, “Entering the age of human rights: religion, politics, and Canadian Liberalism, 1945-50,” (Canadian Historical Review, 85(3), September 2004), Egerton observes that in the contentious period of 1945-50 Canada had not yet made the transition to a “new multicultural, pluralist, and increasingly secular national identity” (p. 1).

The state was still partially confessional in nature; and in the fascinating social learning process in the few years before the UN Charter was finally drafted, Canadian political and religious elites took it for granted that Canadian society could be identified as “Christian.” In his speech to the Canadian parliament on 8 September 1939, PM Mackenzie King extolled a “civilization based upon the Christian conception of the brotherhood of man with its regard for the sanctity of contractual relations and the sacredness of human personality” (cited, p. 2). King had already translated Christian notions into the publicly accessible notions of the “brotherhood of man” and “contractual relations.”

During the historically-significant creation of the UN Charter of Human Rights in 1948, Canadian churches participated vigorously in the “background culture” (Rawls) or “civil society” (Habermas). Egerton (2004) says that they “played a vital national and international role in shaping opinion, articulating political values, and influencing policy” (p. 1). The secularization of Canadian society was well underway, but the separation of church and state, while evident, assumed that Canada was a Christian pluralist society whose citizenry was distributed throughout Roman Catholicism and Protestant churches. Canada was not yet fully religiously pluralist in sensibility. But the authority of religion had not yet receded into private and interior spaces. Moreover, the separation of the different domains (science, art, morality), while evident as well, was rejected by most Canadian Christian leaders and politicians (particularly the idea that morality could be separated from the affirmation of human rights). Habermas’ idea of the “linguistification of the sacred”—in the aftermath of WW II—was a repellant notion to those who wanted the first article of the UN Charter to name “God” as the foundation of human rights and anchor them on a solid religious moral foundation.  Some thirty years later, the brilliant Liberal Catholic PM Pierre Trudeau didn’t “think God gives a damn whether he’s in the constitution or not” (cited, Egerton, 2000, p. 90).

In the 1940s both Catholic and Protestant churches understood that they were fighting for “Christian civilization” against the pagan forces of Nazism and communism.  This label was already a difficult and troubling one, given that all of the European countries were “Christian,” and in Germany liberal theology had supported Hitler (the confessional church, often associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, opposed him). So Christian churches were divided and in conflict; one could not talk easily about a bifurcated world of “Christian” and “pagan.” Canadian Catholic leaders in the 1940s drew on the influential work of Jacques Maritain’s neo-Thomist defense of natural law to frame their own views of human rights. And the United Church of Canada’s Report of the Committee on church, nation and moral order (1944) still imagined that it could articulate the “basic principles of a truly Christian civilization.”

The United Church was at its confident high-point: they believed that they could, in fact, translate Christian principles into language and institutional forms that would be in the interest of the “common good.” Influenced by the social gospel movement of the 1930s, United Church leaders imagined a greater government role in planning and provision of social welfare for Canadians and a liberal internationalist foreign policy.  The picture is complicated because great legal thinkers like Frank C. Scott (who was Trudeau’s mentor and son of a prominent Anglican canon) had made the trek from High Church Anglicanism to “humanism, democratic socialism and ‘freedom’ embraced as a ‘way of life’, a social religion” (p. 4). It was not at all uncommon for leading lights of the social gospel movement (such as the CCF leader, J.S. Woodsworth) to translate their Christian socialist thinking into secular forms of political analysis and action. Once they had translated a religious notion such as Genesis 1: 27 where humankind was “created in God’s image” or the declaration in Luke 4:18 to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” into secular socialist vocabulary, they did not return to church worship and participation.

But this sort of erosion of faith was exactly what Catholics—particularly in Quebec—feared. Educated in classical Catholic colleges, Quebec clergy and politicians insisted that “unless faith in God and also belief in religion are firmly and clearly expressed therein” (p. 5) the Charter would be illegitimate. Habermas has spoken numerous times of the necessity of retaining the polyphony of voices in civil society. The Quebec Catholics (and others outside Quebec) still desired—it seems—an integral Christian form of society. Some right-leaning Catholics also feared that if a Charter of human rights removed “God” from its first article then atheists would have to be accepted as equal citizens. This was unconscionable. Clearly, the Christian voices alerted everyone to the depth and scope of human rights in the world. But the UN drafting committee could not accept the Catholic vision of finding the foundation of human rights in natural law. This would be to see through the “perspective of only one world-view” (p. 6). Rene Cassin (1887-1976), a great European legal theorist, argued compellingly that “only a secular approach to human rights could respect freedom of belief” (ibid.). Cassin, then, had articulated a position that conforms to both Rawls and Habermasian requirements that, once inside the governmental gates, confessional language is out of place. However, this dichotomy was not accepted by the Canadian Special Committee on Human Rights and Freedoms, who began its second round of talks in April 1948. They could not abide the separating of confessional language from its secular translation into publicly accessible discourse.

The central issue for the Joint Committee—in the words of Quebec Liberal Eugene Marquis—was that “we derive our rights from God, and not for ourselves” (cited, p. 7). So it was essential that the first article read: “All men are born free and equal in dignity being vested by the Creator with inalienable rights.” This position was articulated by the US National Catholic Welfare Conference (February 1947) and the Lambeth Conference (a gathering of world Anglican bishops who met in 1948). They insisted that a “divine referent” had to be the foundation for the Charter document. How might an open secular citizen listen to this form of religious language? The concern seems to be that without divine referent human rights could easily be abused.

Put slightly differently, the pricelessness of the dignity of human beings would be set aside; action to defend and sustain human rights would not be understood as a “call from outside” that must be heeded. Formed in 1948, the World Council of Churches (WCC)—the nemesis of conservative Christians ever thereafter—did not call for an “explicitly confessional Christian reference to serve as the foundation or preamble for a declaration that was to be ‘universal’, inclusive of the plurality of religions of UN members, and respecting the freedoms, as well, as the non-religious” (p. 8). As both Rawls and Habermas have argued insistently, the problem of pluralism must act as brake on carrying confessional language into the public political domain.  The WCC rejected the idea of imposing their “theological principles on those subscribing to a universal charter, so long as the latter was ‘acceptable from the Christian standpoint’” (cited, p. 9). The latter phrase—“acceptable from the Christian standpoint”—gestures to what we can call a “successful translation” from the religious point of view.  However, this did not satisfy the Canadian delegation to the Economic and Social Council of the UN. They wanted to go “on record” that the “name of God” ought to be “embodied in the first article of the declaration” (p. 9, footnote 40). Here, the separation of the background culture of civil society and the public political domain has been rejected. Christian politicians who were elected to parliament did not believe—at least in the aftermath of WW II—that they had to translate their religious sentiments and beliefs into publicly accessible, secular language.  But the transcendent referent proved to be unacceptable to the UN. As Egerton expresses it, this inclusion was “inappropriate in a universal juridical text addressing peoples of all faiths, and none” (p. 9).

Canada was on the cusp of a breakthrough toward a secularized modern consciousness. Rene Cassin, a major player in UN deliberations, articulated a position compatible with Habermas and Rawls. He declared that “’law could have no other source than the will of the people,’ [and] this best captured the prevailing liberal ethos of the third conference…” (ibid.). This robust declaration echoed down the years from the Palais de Chaillet, where in 1789 the great declaration of human rights was announced. An “incipient pluralism” had wrenched itself free from “triumphant confessionalism” (p. 10). In Canada, Frank Scott and J. King Gordon, an early proponent of “Christian socialism,”  propounded a new secular form of jurisprudence. Egerton says: “Neither Scott nor Gordon, despite their Christian patrimony, had intimated any need for a religious referent to ground or legitimate human rights” (p. 12). They were content to extract the rational kernel from dogmatic teaching: the “inherent worth and dignity of the human individual who was therefore, as an assured axiom, possessor of certain rights” (ibid.).

Prominent intellectual and Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Dr. R.S. K. Seeley captured this successful translation with these comments: “while support for the idea of human rights was largely axiomatic in Canada, this was so only because Canada had absorbed into our corporate thinking the Christian doctrine of man where human rights are based” (p. 13, footnote 65). Thus, Sir Arthur Roebuck’s clarion call (Roebuck was a progressive Liberal with a distinguished record of defending the rights of Jews and workers) pressed Canada toward a new future: he “called on Canadian legislators to inaugurate a new era in national self-definition” (p. 13). For him, Canada could be sovereign with guaranteed human rights and fundamental freedoms. This position resonated deeply with Canadian civil libertarians, social democrats, social gospellers and the liberal and radical left.

The old Canada seemed to be disappearing. But for “conservative Protestants and Catholics alike, a secular pluralism was about as disconcerting as communism” (p. 14). The path from Christian pluralism to religious pluralism (which included other faith-communities) was rocky and strewn with potholes. Nonetheless, in the 1950s, Egerton argues, this new decade “would see Canadian Liberal leaders continue to speak of Canada as a Christian democracy, a responsible and proactive middle power defending Western Christendom against the ideological and military menace of Communism” (p. 15). This fictive social imaginary would take a decade or two to disintegrate.

In fact, Egerton’s astute analysis of the role of religion in the public sphere during the making of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reveals the extent to which the Liberal, Christianized vision of the 1950s had fallen apart at the seams. The monumental significance of Prime Minister Trudeau’s patriation of the Canadian Constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “hereby bringing to an end the anomaly of Britain’s long-term, reluctant custody of the BNA Act, the Charter contained the brief confessional preamble ‘whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law’” (p. 90). The BNA Act of 1867 had not mentioned “God” and the UN Charter didn’t, either.

What was confessional language doing in the 1982 preamble? This conundrum is captured by Egerton (“Trudeau, God, and the Canadian Constitution: religion, human rights, and government authority in the making of the 1982 Constitution,” in Rethinking church, state and modernity [2000]): “Indeed, the language of the preamble seemed somewhat anachronistic in an increasingly secular age that had witnessed the retrenchment of religion in public life, and where Trudeau and his constitutional advisers had started out with the intention to separate politics from religion” (p. 91). In the Globe and Mailon April 25, 1981, Trudeau had stated that it felt “strange, so long after the Middle Ages that sane politicians felt obliged to mention God in a constitution which is, after all, a secular and not a spiritual document” (cited, p. 91).  Egerton’s (2000) analysis posits that the “records generated by constitutional debates and decisions, and especially the seminally important quest to define and constitutionally entrench human rights, illuminate most clearly the historical shifting in Canada from a Christian to a post-Christian political culture—with the secularization of the state and privatization of religion as favoured by the liberal-pluralist perspective of Pierre Trudeau” (ibid.). We have already seen that Canada had desired that the UN Charter be anchored in a religious framework.  But after a brief religious revival of sorts in the 1950s and 1960s, the deeper forces of modernity rendered the “language used by political and religious leaders leading to constitutional recognition of the supremacy of God as foundation for state authority and human rights would soon be widely viewed as triumphalist, exclusivist, and patriarchal, if not worse, in a culture of liberal pluralism” (p. 94). That’s a harsh judgment.

During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Trudeau was embroiled in several conflicts. The Quebec separatist movement under Rene Levesque’s charismatic leadership threatened to tear Canada apart, and other ethnic groups were becoming increasingly culturally assertive. Trudeau also well knew that the old Quebec conservative Catholicism of Premier Maurice Duplessis era had led to the violation of human rights (of Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and communists), contributing to the corruption of the natural law tradition. As early as 1967, Trudeau had spoken to the House of Commons with this perceptive words: “We are now living in a social climate in which people are beginning to realize, perhaps for the first time in the history of this country, that we are not entitled to impose the concepts which belong to a sacred society upon a civil or profane society. The concepts of the civil society in which we live are pluralistic, and I think this parliament realizes that it would be a mistake for us to try to legislate into this society concepts which belong to a theological or sacred order” (cited, p. 95).

Trudeau did not think that the church could serve as “conscience of the nation” any longer;  now it was a “privatized supplier of spiritual services to consumers” (p. 97, footnote 9). Trudeau’s thinking indicated that he had uncoupled Christian morality from law, and believed that Canadians could act in accordance with the law without necessarily seeking transcendental guidance or motivation. However, Catholics and evangelical church representatives were “troubled by the separation of Christian morality and law” (p. 97). But the “voice of traditional Christian morality and jurisprudence no longer was expressed by the elites of the major national parties” (p. 98). That task fell to marginalized politicians and evangelicals outside the mainstream church traditions.

Yet residues of the confessional state—of the intrusion of religious beliefs and practices into the parliamentary domain—still existed as Parliament was opened each day with prayer. As Trudeau and his advisers moved towards creating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they certainly did not want to have a Charter that had a divine referent. In the intense period between 1980-2, Christian churches did not evacuate civil society or forsake speaking in the public spheres. But they had shifted ground from that of thirty years ago. They were, perhaps, more or less confident that a successful translation had occurred from religious affirmations of creation in the image of God and the notion that morality stays on track when it flows from devotion to the loving God who desires our flourishing. Now, Catholic leaders worried that their hard-won struggle for communal rights to have funded Catholic, separate schools would be voided because of Trudeau’s accentuation of individual rights (Trudeau worried that if he opened the door to the idea of “collective rights,” separatist Quebec would drive right through). The Catholic struggle has to do with protecting their right to live an authentic spiritual and religious life under the Canadian constitution. Protestants, on the other hand, with their adamant commitment to social justice (mandated, the United Church leaders believed, by the liberation teaching of Jesus of Nazareth), were “anxious to see provisions extended to cover the concerns of civil libertarians, Native peoples, and women” (p. 101). This is a potent example of how the social gospel religious imaginary translates into demands within the secular, public political domain.

Thus, the main goal of the Anglican and United Churches of Canada was to extend “rights and entitlements for the underprivileged as the principal justice issue. Neither of the official briefs suggested that a reference to God should be restored or included in the Charter’s preamble (Parliament 1981, session 57, 13 Feb 1981” (p. 101). The social gospel tradition draws upon Judaic themes of attending to the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan and the gospel annunciations that Jesus came into the world to tend to the least among us.

These orientations did not particularly sit well with a “loose coalition of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians” across Canada who felt marginalized by Trudeau’s secular form of jurisprudence and human rights. They feared that their own moral understandings (within confessional communities) of divorce, family law, sexual permissiveness, public education, and human rights would be undermined; for Catholics, the legalization of abortion had to be resisted; it violated something so fundamental that a secular translation was inconceivable. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) faced the new challenges and was propelled into public life with considerable vigor. Canada had several prominent evangelical Christians in parliament—David Crombie, a Conservative Party member from Ontario, Liberal senator David Smith and Jake Epp, a Mennonite  Conservative from Manitoba—who had few qualms about using religious language within the parliamentary domain. They weren’t willing to play ball with John Rawls.  Crombie believed heartily that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms needed a reference to “God” in its preamble as well as to the dignity inherent in the human person and the moral and spiritual basis of law. Epp simply took the preamble from former PM John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights in 1960. Objections quickly followed that this inclusion of “God” did not respect pluralism and freedom of conscience.

Unhappy at the possibility that God would not be in the Charter, the EFC mobilized an aggressive campaign to pressure the Canadian parliament to write “God” into the preamble. Senator David Smith perceived that evangelical forms of Christian expression were “growing and mainstream churches declining.” Sarcastically, Smith derided the “non-evangelical bleeding heart United Church activists worrying about California grapes, Noranda mines in Chile, abortion on demand and civil rights for gays.’” In the end, despite Trudeau’s ardent desire, the “God” who didn’t “give a damn” whether He was in the constitution or not, ended being included: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” Confessionalism had slipped through the parliamentary gates.

Now, Egerton asks the question: “What does this signify to us with regard to the religious dimension of the constitutional struggle and, more broadly, the relations of church and state in late-twentieth-century Canadian political culture?” (p. 106).  First, the evangelical lobby had worked effectively and successfully by mobilizing civil society and through finding sympathetic parliamentarians (especially Crombie, Smith and Epp) who could speak on behalf of a significant number of Canadians. Egerton comments: “Without this mobilization there would have been no ‘sacred canopy’ (Berger 1967), however small, erected over the new constitution” (p. 107). Perhaps the EFC and its sister travellers thought that with “God” in the preamble Canadians might be reminded of the One who stands in judgment our often despicable actions. Second, Egerton comments astutely that this “constitutional success, however, did not mean that the deeper cultural tides of de-Christianization or secularization had been reversed or that the traditional role of religion in Canadian political history had been restored” (p. 107).

Rather, he thinks that “God’s” inclusion resulted from “tactical political calculation.”  It did not at all reflect a commitment to “philosophical or theological convictions expressed by Conservatives such as Jake Epp and David Crombie, let alone the EFC” (ibid.). In fact, Egerton rightly remarks that in post-1960 years the “Canadian church-state relationship would be transformed as the Christian religion would see the state largely divest itself of religion’s ‘priestly’ function of legitimating government authority and law, and delineating national purpose” (ibid.).

Third, the ideology of pluralism pushed “traditional religion” aside in “defining public purpose for political and legal institutions” (p. 108). In Quebec, during the Quiet Revolution and the enraptured heights of separatist movement in the 1970s, “nationalism” supplanted “Catholicism” as signifier of collective identity. In turn, Anglo-Canada no longer needed the United Church as its spiritual companion and counsellor. But Egerton wonders out loud if the “de-Christianization of the Canadian state” has left the liberal-pluralist and multi-cultural state of Canada bereft of “one of the few bridges that traversed the two solitudes” (p. 109). He concludes with a somewhat foreboding observation: “The capacity of modern democratic governments to perform successfully without religious legitimations has a very brief and untested history. Equally, it remains to be seen if religion will remain within the peripheralized and privatized spheres assigned to it by a liberal-pluralist jurisprudence” (p. 109). These words were written prior to 9/11.

In the last decade, we all have had to learn that we inhabit a post-secular society and complementary learning processes have to be constituted. It is hardly acceptable to the Rawlsian and Habermasian visions of liberal democracy to conduct our social and political affairs as if religious faith-communities have been emptied of substantive content that may be vital to movement beyond the nihilism of neo-liberal ideology and practice. But these rather positive words must be complemented by some serious and difficult considerations.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.