Two Nations, Under God: The Canadian Charter from an American Perspective

 Two Nations, Under God

The Canadian Charter from an American Perspective

By David G. McAfee

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               As an American scholar of Religious Studies- as opposed to Theology- I am accustomed to studying religions and their various effects on society (positive and negative) from an objective point of view. I look at religion from a phenomenological approach and analyze how it came to be, why people continue to practice these ancient traditions, and what similarities each religion holds to one another. In American society, I particularly focus on the hypocrisy of the term ‘separation of church and state- and how it holds little meaning in the American culture in which “IN GOD WE TRUST” is printed on all legal tender, and churches participating in political actions remain tax-exempt. From the pledge of allegiance, to the very laws we live by, religion (specifically Christianity) is sewn into the fabrics of America’s past, present, and future.

                The reason I tend to focus on The United States of America (other than that is happens to be the nation of my birth) is its unique place in the religious community; the USA is able to claim separation of church and state as a founding principle of the nation while creating laws and governmental ideas that are distinctly contrary. This is different from nations that are either openly theocratic in nature or have a truly secular government. Canada, for example, is much more secular in nature- with the most recent government census surveys indicating that nearly 17% of Canadian citizens claim to be affiliated with no religion[1]- this is compared to a miniscule 11-14% in America. It wasn’t until recently, however, that it was brought to my attention that the Canadian government actually recognizes a God. Though the United States of America is a highly Christian nation and it is obvious in our federal and state governments, our constitution remains a secular document that respects the right of all peoples to practice any or no religion; not all nations have this luxury.

                Much like the Pledge of Allegiance in America, the Canadian anthem (O, Canada) was originally created without any religious acknowledgements or undertones. The official Canadian National Anthem, written in 1880, had no mention of a “God” in its original lyrics; through revisions and translations however- the words “God keep our land glorious and free!” were placed in the anthem and have remained there since its official Act of Parliament was signed into law making ‘O, Canada’ the country’s national anthem in 1980. The history of the Canadian anthem is strikingly similar to that of the American pledge of allegiance, which you can read more about here. The religious nature of ‘O, Canada’, though recognized by the federal government as a national anthem, is not unique to Canada in that it is not built into the actual constitution- it is simply an anthem for the nation. This is where the similarities end between the American and Canadian governmental recognition and acceptance of ends.

               As you may already know, the country of Canada features another approach to the supernatural that is governmental in nature… In addition to the anthem, the Canadian government also features a preamble to the Canadian Constitution (or Charter)- that is universally accepted by the Canadian government as a document that guides the nation’s laws and constitutional guarantees- and recognizes Canadian subservience to a higher power. The preamble of the Canadian Charter states “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” which indicates the Canadian allegiance to ‘God’ and, because of this Charter provision, Canada is not necessarily guaranteed any secular liberties. This enables Canadian federal government to have the fluidity between government and church that the United States Constitution does not.

               This fact regarding the presence of ‘God’ in the preamble of the Canadian Charter, though clearly well-known throughout the Canadian provinces, comes as a surprise to many secular activists in America and other nations who are used to a more subtle bridge between church and state. Because of this theism-laced political system in Canada, citizens (regardless of religious affiliation) are forced to endure not only the singing of a theist-based national song, but also Christian prayers before various federal events- including meetings for the creation of legislation. It is surprising to learn that though the people of Canada are less likely to be affiliated with a religious tradition than those in America, the governing body itself, in Canada, has a recognized deity that allows for the trampling of the rights to religious freedom of anybody who does not recognize the monotheistic Judeo-Christian God.


[1] Statistics Canada, Census of Population 2005.  http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/demo30a-eng.htm

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10 responses to “Two Nations, Under God: The Canadian Charter from an American Perspective

  1. how is 14% miniscule and 17% is not?

    • Well, Bill, I would argue that both numbers are much smaller than they should be. However, when you are dealing with POPULATION PERCENTAGES, a few percentage points can make a world of difference. In the case of the United States of America, the 14% number (which is at the HIGH END of estimations as indicated in the article) is 14% of the American population which is around 304,059,724. The 3% difference you’re discussing would account for nearly a million people in America. If we had a 17% rate of religious unaffiliation, the 3% difference would be 912,179.72 people- that’s nothing to sneeze at.

  2. I had sort of the same thought as Bill–a separation of only 3% isn’t all that large and, of course, it represents fewer people in Canada than in the U.S. It all depends on how you look at it–like everything else. Nevertheless, the point you’re making in the article is interesting. Ostensibly a theist, if not a “religious” government in a country that, nevertheless, has a larger percentage of self-identified non-believers than in the U.S. (Hmmm…I wonder if the anti-single-payer-health-care zealots and immigration-fearers have any idea that our neighbors to the north have more overt integration of religion in their government than we do.) Though the governing body ostensibly could, legally, trample on non-theist or pantheist or multi-theist persons’ rights, they apparently don’t. Does this phenomenon, perhaps, have a parallel in the argument of the Religious Right that religion is necessary for morality, yet, regarding the kinds of behaviors they mean–mostly to do with sex–fundamentalists have higher rates of “transgression” than do other groups–e.g., higher divorce rates and rates of teen pregnancy? If what comes naturally is evil, then sin is inevitable. Perhaps because the Canadians don’t feel they have to make a big deal of it, they can simply live and let live with a kind of “de-facto” tolerance for theists and non-theists alike. We, on the other hand, because of the ideal/myth of separation, feel the need to make more of it–whichever side of the issue we’re on. It does seem to me, though, that there’s also more of a missionary zeal among our (U.S.) fundamentalists than among religious groups in Canada–or, at any rate, the missionary zeal is channeled toward other countries, rather than their own– or is it just that I’m largely ignorant of Canadian religious politics–or Canadian politics on any level–let alone the religious distribution and culture of the country? Do we have more Evangelicals and other fundamentalists or does it just seem that way? Am I wrong in my perception that their native groups are more of a factor than ours and does the fact of an entire province that is culturally and linguistically more aligned with France than with England go some way to forcing a broader tolerance in general? Or, even the fact that they never broke from England, though they’re essentially autonomous and have been for much of their history … Just thinking “out loud”…

    • Meredith-

      Beautifully said! I agree with everything you said! I’d just like to address two points that you bring up. Firstly, in regards to the 3-5% difference in religious affiliation: Though the number may seem small, the FORM of religion (primarily Christianity in both nations) is much more moderate in Canada. All studies show less Christian extremism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism, which makes them “less religious” (at least in my eyes) than Americans- I should have addressed this in the articles. This is a point you bring up later as a question, and I think your ideas describing the possible rationale behind their added tolerance are great. :)

      And my second point is simply that, while Canadians in general are more liberal Christians with less fundamentalism and have a smaller percentage of affiliated religious people, it is a huge problem that the monotheism is built into the constitution: All it takes is one group of people in power to take advantage of that and the laws and customs of Canada could take a turn for the worse, with absolutely no separation between the Church and the State.

      I’m trying to address your points but I agree with you on every single one, so I’m going to end here and thank you for your wise thoughts and helpful participation.

  3. Stephen Harper is one scary dude, esp. for nontheists.

  4. Jessica Anderson

    Thank you David … and Meredith :)

  5. I believe that America,canada and Mexico should be incorperated so that we can all live in poverty.

  6. Wow! As a Canadian who has referred to the Charter on several occasions in my life I honestly never knew that preamble was there. I must have a habit of skipping “introductions” I guess. I usually just skim right down to where it talked about how we are free to believe (or not believe) whatever we want and cannot be discriminated because of those (lack of) beliefs.
    I honestly thought that we had separation between church and state (except Quebec due to agreements to preserve culture and catholicism –ironically Quebec have the highest concentration of atheists.)
    It is odd, that the US, which technically has separation of church and state, yet to hear an American politician give a speak it seems peppered with god compared to a Canadian politician, who rarely would give it a mention (Harper only recently did, cautiously however because Canadians are more likely to elect an atheist or a Muslim over an open Christian. Article: “Mixing politics, religion bad idea in Canada, poll suggests “ http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=61a83d87-2b84-4344-9671-ae3272cb9878&k=62108)
    RE: “monotheistic Judeo-Christian God.”
    It doesn’t clarify “which” god; Muslim Canadians believe it applies to their God too. Leaves us atheists out in the cold though :(
    RE: Meredith’s comments on how Canucks don’t make a big deal out of it, but the US does:
    I think it is one of the side effects living next to the US. Canada used to be more religious than the US, but then the Cold War came along and religion started to decline in Canada and increase in the US. “God” was added to the US money and pledge and if you weren’t Christian you were a dirty commie. I guess being on the outside seeing this happening combined with our country trying to find our own identity led us down a slightly different path.
    Also how each country came into existence. For EG with going west, in the US it was people first, then the law. In Canada, it was the law first, then the people. (side note: Story about Sitting Bull and the RCMP that you probably didn’t learn in school: http://www.historynet.com/sitting-bull-and-the-mounties.htm .) People didn’t come to Canada to escape persecution, but rather for trade/business. We didn’t fight for our independence, we grew into it. Even our national anthems. Canada’s is all about pretty scenery and that we will protect it. The US anthem is full of awesome sounding action, but also full of conflict.
    Our histories and the symbols really reflect how we act as a whole in the present. Canada, the boring, based on law, orderliness, fur trading and not really much conflict. Heck, our “Civil War” lasted a mere 20 minutes with the only casualty being the tavern where the rebels drank getting burned to the ground (everyone was asked to leave first of course!) But the US, on the other hand, has had so much conflict for such a young and free nation that it really isn’t a surprise that the whole religion and state thing is constantly being made an issue (as permy knowledge from infotainment channels such as CNN, FOX News, MSNBC etc.)
    RE: more fundamentalists in US
    I know this is just a personal anecdote, but I live next to a couple that’s business is a Christian production company. They gave up on putting on shows in Canada LONG ago because at most they would get 100 attendees.. in the US.. thousands and thousands. They are doing pretty well thanks to Evangelical Christians!
    Church is a little different here, too. Our largest protestant church was in full support of gay marriage and testified on its behalf. They also have an atheist minister at one of their congregations.. but that is another story.

  7. Although the ‘Supremacy of God’ term is in the preamble to the Charter, lawyers don’t pay much attention to it or regard it as having any particular force. Religious rights in Canada are entrenched in the Charter in a freedom to/freedom from model- so you have the right to practice your religion, and I have the right to be free of any impact from your religious practices on me. There is also a line of case law from the Supreme Court mandating that one group’s freedom of religion cannot be used to ‘trump’ other groups’ equality rights, which was used to prevent religious justification of discrimination against homosexuals in the public sphere. ‘God’ does make it into our law, but never overtly into our jurisprudence.

  8. Canada is a far more liberal thinking culture than the US in every respect. As Gaylene notes, Stephen Harper is a scary right-wing Christian fundamentalist by our Canadian standards. He’s actually much more left leaning than Obama or any other US Democrat. You know, it’s all relative.

    And just because God is mentioned in the Charter and “Oh Canada” doesn’t mean anything. Most Canadians are not about to shove God or religion down anybody’s throat because we just don’t care. You can think whatever you want, vote however you wish, buy GM, Ford or Toyota. Meet ya for a beer after the hockey game Saturday night. If you go to church the next morning good ’nuff too. It means you won’t be waking me up with your lawn mower.

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