The Saguenay Case: Another Vestige of Christendom

The Supreme Court of Canada is due to release its judgment on the Saguenay case. And, alas, once again I find myself opposing friends and co-believers on a matter of church and state.

The case centres on the city council of Saguenay, Quebec, that has held a (Christian) prayer in the council chambers before beginning its deliberations. Friends such as Bruce Clemenger of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have argued that in a free country, city councillors should be free to engage in such public prayer if they so choose.

I respond: No, they should not. If any group of Canadians wants to pray, then of course (ceteris paribus) they should be free to pray. But if they are acting as officials, in council chambers, representing the government of the municipality of Saguenay, then unless Saguenay as a city has decided to be officially Christian, its officials ought not to act as a Christian city council, invoking the Christian God at the start of their official work.

I have argued previously on this blog (here and here) that the same logic forbids me from accepting invitations to pray at university convocations, and why Christians ought to be wary, in general, of prayers at public ceremonies. I don’t know why this is a difficult line for Canadian Christians to understand and observe…unless we really just don’t want to observe it…and our failure to observe it continues to entangle us in court cases we shouldn’t contest and to make us look like we are selfishly clinging to our rapidly disappearing privileges as a Christian majority.

Canadian officials and official events—municipal, provincial, or federal—need to be truly representative of the values we all hold in common as citizens of this city, province, or country. Freedom of religion isn’t the issue here, and contesting such matters as if freedom of religion is at stake blurs the very real struggles we are having about freedom of religion in other sectors.

So I hope the SCC finds against the Saguenay city council and tells them that they are perfectly free to meet together before council meetings to pray, so long as they do so as private citizens. But as officials acting as such, to offer a Christian prayer as a preamble to official deliberations is to symbolize Christendom, and (to put it gently) thus to misrepresent both the actual situation and their constituents.

37 Responses to “The Saguenay Case: Another Vestige of Christendom”

  1. BigB

    Okay, I would challenge you a bit on this. By your reasoning, then if we are not invoking the Christian God in our ‘administration’ then surely we should not in the administration of our public schools either and this means teaching evolution as normative and teaching non-christian values as normative and then wondering why your house got broken into and your neighbor assaulted…Survival of the Fittest. we live in a world almost completely without Christian leadership already and you would attack a small group of leaders who are praying because it is the wrong place and time? really? I am of the age to remember when they used to pray in public school assembly. Men never asked permission, they just got up John and went to the front and prayed, guess what? We all bowed our heads. 9 out of 10 people in Canada according to stats-can still consider themselves Christian. You can’t really call us post-Christian.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Well, we certainly should force a non-Christian public school to pray a Christian prayer, anymore than that same school should be reciting the Shahada.

      But, I’m not quite following your logic regarding the teaching of evolution. We should be promoting the teaching of the truth in the classroom, wherever that leads.

      But, that doesn’t necessarily mean turning all the classes Christian. Instead, if Christians were present in the academy, they could be working to overturn bad science, philosophy, etc. so that ultimately, the textbooks and classes reflect something as close to the truth as possible.

      In other words, in a pluralistic society, you can’t just come in and say, you’re going to teach our religion… that’s just the way it is… and we’re not even willing to do the homework to show our position matches reality. Whether we’re right or not, that sounds all too familiar to countries in the world (or times throughout history!), where I’d rather not live.

      Is society breaking down? Absolutely. Should we be doing something about that? For sure. But then lets get to work where we have the opportunity without violating our own societal principals.

      Let’s get busy and TRAIN our children up in the faith and in apologetics and theology in our churches, so they have a foundation to stand on within our secular society. And, lets get busy out in the real world, doing every kind of vocation to the glory of God where we can ultimately make a difference in the public square… rather than retreat into a dying Christendom bubble and lash out legally with our last breath.

      re: “Men never asked permission, they just got up John and went to the front and prayed, guess what? We all bowed our heads. 9 out of 10 people in Canada according to stats-can still consider themselves Christian. You can’t really call us post-Christian.”

      Yep, and witness the results! I’ll bet only 1 of those 9 are a) really Christians and/or b) are capable of passing on their faith in any meaningful way.

      • Steve Wilkinson

        I must be tired today… I didn’t finish my thought in the second paragraph either.

        What I had intended on saying, is to be careful when using the term ‘evolution.’ I think I know what you mean, but others often don’t. There is a big difference between evolution – as in changes in biology over time and natural selection – and evolution as in – origins of life (chemical evolution), common ancestry through all of biological history, etc.

        When we don’t differentiate carefully, we sound like ignoramuses to scientists who believe they are defending something pretty solid in biology, as well as sneak in a conclusion based on the data which isn’t necessarily the case, under the same term.

      • BigB

        On the one hand you say we should not do prayers in public places and on the other hand you say we should be Promoting the teaching of Truth in the Classroom wherever that leads. Are these two statements in contradiction to each other? If we have no right ot pray do we have a right to assert ‘our’ version of the Christian truth in the classroom? What about our veiw of marriage or premarital abstinence. No? If we are to strictly look at this debate from a democratic nature. How can we say we are democratic unless we allow the consituients of Christianity a sizable group in Canada to govern and forward their agenda in our public forums?……But yest your right, people should be allowed to opt out of prayer time, but not science class, so we must be indoctrintated into their beleifs but they get to opt our of ours. Is this fair?

        • Steve Wilkinson

          I think there are two parts of this problem:

          The first part might be how we handled the situation historically, i.e.: John’s reference to Christendom. At least in the USA (I’m a bit more hazy on Canada), the country was founded out of people fleeing from religious persecution, and they wrote in religious freedom pretty early on. But, then in practice, they often implemented a kind of Christendom. I suppose that makes sense historically, as the competition was largely between flavours of Christianity, not world religions. Prayer as part of the process didn’t raise much objection – and I guess is fitting if you’re all Christians anyway, but were they? – but we can now easily see how there is a bit of contradiction there. If a government is practicing a particular religion, it’s not really a religiously-free country. If, say, Islam then held the majority (which isn’t exactly far-fetched for much of Europe these days), would we (Christians) then be happy to have our public officials opening the meetings with the Shahada? (I feel pretty confident predicting no!)

          Democracy has it’s advantages, but a pure democracy is dung. That’s why in the USA, there is a constitution and it isn’t a pure democracy. (Thank God!) Again, I’m learning Canada, but I’m guessing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is meant to fill the purpose. In other words, democracy is supervised by these charters (at least in theory).

          But, the second part of the problem is that we’ve (generally as a society in the West) fallen for the idea that naturalism/atheism/materialism/humanism, etc. are in a neutral position. And, as a consequence, see disciplines which have aligned with them (i.e.: Science) as neutral in the public square. And, because many Christians withdrew to circle the wagons, and even got comfortable teaching in their own institutions (i.e.: churches), we’ve stepped out and allowed control to these ‘neutral’ forces. Now, we’re the outsider, underdog, etc., wanting the old ways back and unfortunately, sometimes trying to use legal or sneaky ways to get back in.

          But, I’m NOT saying we shouldn’t do prayers in public places. I’m saying entities which are government or public, shouldn’t be leading a particular religion or promoting it directly.

          Now, that said, yes I suppose there is a tinge of contradiction to saying the truth should be taught, but not Christianity directly. But, I say this in support of religious freedom, and a look at how not doing so has historically played out.

          But, I think there is another (much better) way.

          First – and I think John would support this having been a world religions prof – we SHOULD be teaching Christianity to everyone, as well as Islam, Buddhism, etc. in some reasonable manner. Part of the problem with society’s rejection of Christianity is plain and simple ignorance. They don’t even have a clue what they are rejecting…. and they don’t have clue about the alternatives. That’s why the ‘all roads’ type baloney is so prevalent in Canadian culture. World religions 101 would take care of that really quickly!

          Second, Christians need to get busy teaching the Bible, theology, apologetics, and church history IN THEIR OWN CHURCHES!!! My gosh, people complain about the the situation in the schools and then do nothing for their OWN KIDS in places where they can freely teach it all.

          And third, these kids then might grow up to actually be able to hold their ground in the academy (and maybe not all leave the church), and be able to combat and overturn some of the dumb secular trash being taught, and positively influence thinking and society… not by fiat, but by being the thought leaders and convincing others.

          And yes, because we are a democracy (within the limits of constitution, etc.), Christians absolutely should be able to be involved in government and forward their agendas in the public forum. But, that’s quite different than Christians using government to enforce Christianity.

          re: opt out – I don’t think there should be a prayer time to opt out of. And, if we had more Christian scientists, science book writers, and science teachers, we’d not be in this position to begin with! Yes, working our way back out of the error isn’t going to easy. It’s going to take a lot of work over a long time.

          • BigB

            By your logic….. we should also change all the hospital and prison chaplains to non-christian positions (Which they have started). As you say the government should not enforce a paticular religion. Even more so, we should remove the mention of God from our national anthem, We should never sing ‘God save the Queen’. The Queen’s anual Christmas Message should not mention Jesus (do you want to tell her that?). The Christmas Trees in Parliament should be called seasonal trees (and they are already by some). Can we really do all this, should we also remove “In God we Trust” from the US Dollar Bills? If you really want ultimate seperation between church and state then all these things must be addressed still. Then when we have a truly secular socitey based on whatever rules the majority wants they can vote to outlaw Christianity. What then?

            • BigB

              I know a mayor who during his Christmas season when faced with greeters saying ‘Happy Holidays’ he smiles and says ‘Merry Christmas’, he is a christian and mayor, maybe he should be arrested for assaulting the ears of pageons?

            • Steve Wilkinson

              Why do we want, “In God we Trust” on the dollar bill? Does that, in your mind, accomplish something?

              What I want is for Christianity to ooze out of a Christian populace, not for court battles to grasp onto the last few remaining vestiges of a former Christian society.

              I want an appropriate separation between church and state. IMO, you seem quite confused on where that line is. You keep using terms like ‘we’ and ‘they’ interchangeably between the individual Christian, the church at large in society, government officials, and government officials acting in governmental roles.

              re: “What then?” – Well, then we become the persecuted church and get busy doing what we should have been doing all along… making disciples.

              But, here’s my question to you: As the culture becomes increasingly secular, do you think you’ve really won anything if you somehow succeed in keeping prayer in a city council meeting? What if the next council leaders are Muslim? Would you say the same then?

  2. DJ Brown

    So good to hear you advocate for respect and justice instead of special privilege for Christians, a privilege that our Saviour himself renounced and a privilege that certainly wasn’t taught to the early church, according to the New Testament letters. Thankyou.

    • BigB

      Do you think that those men sinned by praying? Do you think they violated the N.T. teachings? Which Verses?

      • GERALD BEENE

        5″When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6″But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 7″And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.… FROM MT 6

        • BigB

          Is this verse about our heart condition when we pray or is it banning public prayer all-together, what do you think?

          • GERALD BEENE

            Point taken BigB. I still agree that Christian prayer does not belong in a civil meeting. I think the nature of the New Testament teaching directs our efforts toward bringing the fulness of prayer and God’s presence in the individual churches and in situations where all those present can agree on the religion and the prayer prayed. Why force unbelievers to listen to us talk to a God they do not believe in. It could be considered a form of casting our pearls before swine.

            • BigB

              Okay, I see your point about selectivity, but would you agree that prayer could also be great evangelism. You know that in Acts chapter 7 Stephen called the Sanhedrin (whom prayed in public to a god they did not know) to repent and they were the governors of his area, he even prayed in earshot of the pigs (I say this in regards to your comment on pigs/pearls). The very same pigs that dragged him away to have him killed with stones. He wanted them to know that he was praying for them.

              We should pray for our leaders too. Like it states in 1 Timothy 2, that they would be faithful servants of God, and not that they would be secular and ungodly leaders. What kind of prayer would this latter statement be? Why are you people praying that your leaders are timid in their faith or keep their faith to their private times. Pray instead that your governors are Godly men, bold in speech and action for God will judge them by what they do and what they say. Pray that they may be found righteous when his Kingdom comes.

              • GERALD BEENE

                BigB. I like your heart. I would pray publicly for people on the streets, for healing or to receive Christ. I believe a government leader may speak of his faith while living it out with integrity. Prayer is holy, and I hate to see it lowered to the lowest common denominator that anything that becomes government sponsored tends to go to. Also we are called to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and I would not want someone to force me to bow with respect while they addressed their God that I don’t believe in. Praying for out leaders in I Timothy is part of a suggested order of service for the local church and that goal is indeed for good leaders and for leaders to come to Christ. If I was the mayor of my city, I would prefer to lead with my integrity and speak to Christ quietly to those around me and I would not try to get unbelievers to stand at attention while I prayed. I think Stephens situation was a little different than a normal city council meeting. I see your point that he could have been casting his pearls before swine. Have a blessed and honored night 🙂

                • BigB

                  Did you say that 1 Timonthy does not say pray for our secular leaders? Are you sure? IF we are to pray for our secular leaders then should we pray that they are Godly? Should we we pray that they would be men of prayer? Should we pray that they encourage others to pray? Not force but encourage? Or should we pray that they keep their prayers private and not mention Jeusus publically?

  3. Steve Wilkinson

    Hi John, I don’t think I could have said it better. And, you are spot-on in that this hurts the very real situations where religious liberty is clearly being violated (situations in Indiana and Abbotsford quickly come to mind, being fresh in the news).

    I just wish these folks would put a fraction of the time, effort, and money into promoting Christian education and apologetics in churches, rather than pretending that a show of prayer in the public square does much of anything positive in our current society.

  4. Debbie Jespersen

    I believe that every Christian is called to live as a follower of Christ’s teachings, and not to live like Him, but uniquely, to give Him permission to live in every choice we make.
    Are we possibly desiring to put a ‘righteous appearance’ on matters of community, to placate our own Christian sensitivities?.
    Will praying at the beginning of a non-Christian event be God-honoring,when the ‘offerings of the wicked’ are detestable to Him? Proverbs 15:18; 21:27
    I also agree that it is counterproductive when we blur the lines between what is important and what is not important in God’s eyes.

    • BigB

      You know that the irony of this whole discussion is found in the example of the WWE. The wrestler HHH calls himself the Kings of Kings and that the wrestler Stone Cold uses the phrase Austin 3:16. The WWE is shown all over North America. Not one Christian that I have seen has written about why this is wrong. Instead ‘we are’ attacking those who pray and afraid they may be hypocrites or offending our pageon neighbours. Or do I have it all wrong?

  5. Jim

    I think we too often complicate matters unnecessarily. As chosen called out witnesses of grace we are not called to impose our will or our faith on others.

    • BigB

      Of course we should not force people to pray, but why should pageon freeedoms become christian persecution? If not now on this then later on another issue! Aren’t we helping their agenda!

      • Jim

        Hi Big,

        “Persecution”…welcome to Christianity 101. The symphony of pain that the Christ endured should provide insight into the natural minds and worldly response. We are not called to be conformed to the mind of Christ ( a discipleship of the mind) not conformed to the world. We pick up the cross (the banner of grace) to witness to the world not to be concern with the world order or agenda. We should be focused on gathering the elect, edifying the body and walking in the spirit.

        • Jim

          Oops…lesson in checking for typos…should read; ” we are called to be conformed to the mind of Christ.”

        • BigB

          Did you say we are not to be concerned with the world order or agenda, so should I not be concerned with ISIS who is killing Christians? Should I not be concerned that we going to start assisted suicide next year in Canada? I disagree, we should not only be concerned but pray for those Christians it effects as well as doing the other things you mentioned.

          I have to admit I have not experience much of persecution 101, I skipped that class but as far as persecution is concerned, you must admit unless you came from another country you don’ t really know what this is like either.Am I right?

          • Jim

            Hi Big B,

            You have a lot on your plate don’t forget to circle the wagons.

            • BigB

              Your mistaken there is no point in circling the bandwagon, if you check the news, I’ve already lost my position, What your hearing is the echo of an old sentiment.

              Most of the city councils in UK and now, this week Saskatchewan city’s they have lost the right to pray. I have also heard that Prince Charles will be crowned defender of the faiths instead of defender of the faith. He will not be crowned in a christian service but a multi-faith service. But maybe I’m the only one that cringes at the thought.

              • John

                Thanks, Bret. Maybe take a breath now and we’ll let some others carry the conversation, okay?

              • Jim

                Hang in there brother it all works out in the end. Look to grace for the cure. Saving faith saving grace. If I can reference your WWE example, I am tapping out.

                All the best, Jim

  6. BigB

    If I would be forgiven for one final comment. I thought it was appropriate to show the text of the Supreme Court Ruling that is about to Role throughout the land and I think all will agree the text below leaves little doubt the last vestiges of any Christian Government will now begin to be swept away. As they say:

    “Finally, the reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.”

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Thanks for that quote… it provides some humor (mixed with sadness) at the end of a long day. Wow, rational thought has just left the building, huh? Proof-positive of the effects of the fall on the human mind. The sad part is that was probably written by someone who we’d otherwise consider intelligent. (It’s even worse when read in context.)

      But, I couldn’t help but comment on the ‘Christian Government’ phrase. I don’t want a Christian Government. I want a lot of Christians participating in government. If you don’t understand that distinction, you need a church history course.

      • BigB

        Why finish with an insult? I had already walked away…to let other people chat. Church History…hmm let me think, I’ve learned the story of Nero’s garden parties, you know the non-christian emperor that lit Christians on fire to provide light while he sipped his tea….but hey…I’m sure that will not happen again (Tea parties happen less and less these days),

        As you say, Maybe now it will be a government of Christians, and not a Christian government, that is….Christians who are governors that are legally bound not to mention Christ in any way. You know ‘proclaiming Christ’ is the very same reason Polycarp was burned who was taught by a John the Disciple of Christ, but hey, there I go talking about church history again. I’m sure Polycarp would love to go to work as a Christian for a government that can not consciously profess a Christian faith since he died for it.

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Church history is littered with attempts at Christian governments… and with that hindsight, we should recognize the terrible results. In other words, we should know better than to go there, as tempting as it is.

          I’m not sure whether you are aware of that or not, and if that was insulting, I’m sorry. I guess we all forget aspects of our education (I suppose I’m lucky if I’ve retained 10% of mine… or at least the ability to quickly recall it on demand in every situation).

          So, assuming you are aware of this, I’m then concerned that you’re trying to blur that line in ways which put us into the Christian government camp.

          And, I guess I’d ask of you, can we please stop the exaggeration and straw-men?

          No one is saying (I hope) that a government official can’t proclaim Christ, pray, etc. (Go re-read John’s article, as he states that pretty clearly). The point is that IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL, they shouldn’t be forcing Christianity (or any other religion) into/onto government sanctioned activities.

          So, for example, a politician might get some flack for saying ‘God bless Canada!’ but IMO, that’s part of his/her religious freedom to do so, if it was just their personal testimony or response to something. If they want to take a minute before a meeting begins, and pray about the meeting, they have that right.

          But, in their capacity leading some governmental meeting, it’s quite another thing to say, ‘Now let’s all bow our heads and ask Jesus xyz.’ And, it’s even worse, IMO, to try and offer a generic prayer (even if that is less controversial).

          If we see the government persecuting someone for proclaiming Christ, then by all means we have the right to go after the government for that infraction.

          • BigB

            Okay Steve….my straw man is just as bad as you saying that every christian government failed in every way! But hey, you remembered all those good stories too in your 10%, I’m sure.

            I also noticed you wrote…”No one is Saying (I Hope) that..”….If that’s what you want to believe than that’s fine, but I have encountered many examples to the contrary. I’m sure you will encounter them soon enough too.

            You think this case was really about prayer? I say it was more about the system that decided what freedoms are allowed. Look over the case again and tell me what the whole case tells you about what your rights are. ‘Your religious Freedom’ is whatever they tell you it is at any given time. It’s whatever the Supreme Court makes out the constitution to be saying in their opinion. If this doesn’t alarm you, then that’s fine.

            Take Care.

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