Losing our religion
Why the government’s “neutral stance” hurts Christians and our country
by Michael Wagner*
We live in a pluralistic society – we live in a country made up of many different groups that often hold to wildly differing views on the most important matters in life. For example, in the religious realm, Canada and the other developed English-speaking countries contain Christians, Muslims, Hindus, secular humanists, Jewish people, as well as other groups.
In order for all these groups to peacefully coexist, it is commonly believed that the government must be “neutral” on religious and moral issues. If the government was to favor the perspective of one group, the other groups would suffer discrimination or even oppression. Thus the existence of a pluralistic society requires the neutrality of the government.
Different views, same God
In an earlier period of history, this arrangement seemed to work rather well for many Western countries. However, until relatively recently, the plurality of groups within the Western countries consisted almost exclusively of variations of Christianity. Pluralism meant that the government did not favor the Anglican Church, or Roman Catholic Church, or Reformed Church, or whatever. The government was neutral in that respect. But despite the religious differences, the vast majority of people shared a basic Christian moral perspective. Generally speaking, the Ten Commandments formed the basis of a societal consensus on moral issues.
No common ground
But in recent decades the influence of the various churches has declined substantially and large numbers of adherents of non-Christian religions now reside in the Western countries. So pluralism has taken a somewhat different connotation. Whereas the earlier pluralism relied on many shared moral principles, the newer pluralism cannot. The disagreements over moral principles are much deeper now than in the past. This has important consequences as the government attempts to be “neutral” on moral issues.
One belief underlying the modern liberal and pluralistic state is that people should be free to make decisions about important moral issues for themselves. On substantial moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality, the government should not take a position. Instead, individual citizens can act according to their own personal views. But as political scientist Francis Canavan writes in his book The Pluralist Game: Pluralism, Liberalism, and the Moral Conscience, allowing individuals to act according to their own views on important moral issues is not a “neutral” position. Instead, it reflects a particular moral judgment itself.
In making a decision concerning what should be regulated by the state and what should be left to individual preference, the government is not being neutral but taking a definite stand. “Leaving a matter to individual choice is as much a public decision as deciding to regulate it and implies some public scheme of values quite as much as a decision to regulate does.” Canavan emphasizes this point, noting that,
“the decision to leave certain moral issues to individual choice is a public decision that reflects an underlying public moral judgment. Public decisions to leave certain matters to individual consciences may be and often are wise and right, but neutral they are not.”
Perhaps the clearest example of this is the abortion issue. In both Canada and the USA, governments have taken the supposedly “neutral” position of leaving decisions about abortion up to pregnant women. Women who want to keep their unborn children don’t have to have abortions, while those who don’t want their unborn children can obtain abortions. Women are free to act according to their own beliefs, and the government doesn’t decide for them one way or the other.
But this kind of abortion policy is not “neutral” in the least. It reflects a harsh moral judgment about the value, or rather lack of value, of unborn children. The governments of Canada and the USA categorically reject the right to life of unborn children, and protect and assist the abortion industry. This is not a “neutral” policy. Killing babies is never neutral. The governing politicians of Canada, the USA, and many other countries, have blood on their hands.
A similar point can be made regarding homosexuality. When the government gives all the status and benefits to homosexual couples that it gives to heterosexual couples, it is not being “neutral” about sexuality. It is taking a position declaring that homosexuality is just as good as heterosexuality, just as valid as a way-of-life. This is not “neutral.” Instead, it is a public stand on an important moral issue.
The Trudeau two-step
Canavan points to a two-stage argument that is used by the secular humanists to force their moral views on our society. The first stage is a libertarian kind of argument. On moral issues such as abortion or homosexuality, it is first argued that these are areas where the government should not be involved. “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” as Pierre Trudeau so famously put it. So the government ceases to regulate these areas and thereby legalizes abortion and homosexuality.
Then comes the second stage. “These activities are now constitutional rights and, as such, are presented as positive claims on government.” Now that abortion and homosexuality are “rights,” the government must uphold them. “What was originally withdrawn from the power of government should now, we are told, become an object of government policy.” And therefore the government begins “to use its power to promote or enforce new norms in the guise of leaving normative decisions to individuals. The net result is not no norms but different norms and a reshaping of the institutions of society.”
So first we are told that the government has no business making distinctions about sexual behavior. The law should be “neutral” so that homosexuals can exercise the same rights as other citizens. Thus the government takes the “neutral” position that homosexuality is the same as heterosexuality, as far as it is concerned. But then the government becomes involved once again, this time using its power to suppress public expressions of opposition to homosexuality. Its claim to “neutrality” hides its commitment to a particular moral view in favor of homosexuality.
Government policies are never neutral. They are always based on moral principles, i.e., ideas of right or wrong. Certain policies are adopted because they are considered to be “good,” while other policies are rejected because they are considered to be “bad.” These are always moral judgments based on moral precepts. “There is inescapably a public morality – a good one or a bad one – in the sense of some set or other of basic norms in the light of which the public makes policy decisions. These norms are moral norms to the extent that they include fundamental judgments on what is good or bad for human beings, therefore on what it is permissible or obligatory to do to them or for them.”
We live in a pluralistic society, but the government nevertheless always takes sides on the important moral issues, even while claiming to be neutral. Canavan refers to what he calls “the pluralist game” which is “a confidence game by which certain groups press government into the service of their beliefs and goals under the pretense of preserving neutrality among all beliefs.” This is indeed what has been happening.
The myth of neutrality
Christians are told that they can’t “impose their views” because we live in a pluralistic society and people should be free to decide how to live for themselves. But when the government “tries or pretends to be neutral about certain issues, the pluralist game becomes a shell game by which people are tricked into consenting to changes in basic social standards and institutions on the pretense that nothing more is asked of them than respect for the rights of individuals. Much more, however, is involved: on the fundamental issues of social life, one side or the other always wins.”
The pluralist game has been an effective tool against the Christian foundations of the developed English-speaking countries. Instead of “imposing” Christian views, the government is encouraged to be “neutral” on moral issues. However, this does not involve “the advent of a truly neutral state but the replacement of one view of man, with the ethic and the legal norms based on it, by another view.” Secular humanism has been replacing Christianity as the basis of Western society through the use of the pluralist argument. Perhaps we should be more conscious of what’s really going on here.