Election campaigning is now in full swing in Canada, and I’ve seen a few misunderstandings arise over what exactly the separation of church and state entails.
First off, and perhaps most importantly, separation of church and state means that laws cannot be justified on the basis of “God wills it” or “It’s the Christian thing to do”. Laws need more basis than that, and there needs to be enough votes for the law to pass.
Slightly more contentiously, leaders in various religions must be aware of the power they hold and the influence they have, and be careful in exercising it. Advocacy is important, as is challenging policies that are cruel and harmful–but telling one’s congregation how to vote is to be avoided and encouraging political representatives how to vote must be done with care. On the opposite side of the coin, legislators don’t get to control practitioners of various faiths, nor do they get to privilege one faith over another. Admittedly that last is sometimes harder to do in practice due to entrenched biases and long history, but the attempt is at least being made, and I feel we are getting better, slowly but surely.
What the separation of church and state does NOT mean, is that faith has nothing to say on politics or that people of faith should stay out of politics. Indeed, if one’s faith does not motivate them to change this world, to get involved in relationships with neighbours (in short, to get involved in politics), then I must question the premises upon which that faith is based. We tend to view politics as this elite legislative process but in a nutshell politics is concerned with two basic questions: “How should we relate to the people around us?” and “How should we relate to the natural world?”. Faith asks the same questions but adds “How should we relate to the divine?”. As such, there is and should be a lot of overlap between faith and politics, and faith should inspire our engagement with politics, with relationships in this world.