Don’t blame me.
With all that is going on in the world, it wasn’t I who decided that the House of Commons should spend a full day last week discussing whether to continue opening their daily session with a prayer.
Nevertheless, for those interested in the intersection between faith and politics, the debate on the motion put forward by the Bloc Québécois was fascinating.
The Bloc’s argument is simple: Canada is a secular country with a clear separation between church and state. The House of Commons practice of opening its session with a prayer to “Almighty God,” expressing gratitude and seeking guidance has no place in a modern pluralistic society.
Bloc member after Bloc member explained that religious faith is a private matter, and it has no business in the House of Commons. Daily prayer compromises the neutrality of the state, making those without religious beliefs uncomfortable and the supposedly “Christian” nature of the prayer discriminates against non-Christians.
It is also out of step with the times. As one Bloc MP explained: “Prayer is from another era.”
According to the Bloc, the only solution is to replace the daily prayer with a moment of silence.
Several things struck me about the debate.
Although the motion was eventually defeated, most non-Bloc MPs spoke around the issue, arguing that there were more important topics on the agenda or better ways of changing rules of procedure.
That left the Bloc free rein to put forward their arguments in a way that displayed a shallow understanding of religion, a narrow view of secularism, and an overall lack of imagination.
It is true that fewer Canadians see themselves as religious but there are still millions of Canadians who follow a faith tradition. It gives their lives meaning and purpose. It grounds them and provides them with an ethical framework and a way to understand the world.
Faith is not something that can simply be left at the door of your church, synagogue, mosque or gurudwara. For many, it is part of their identity. It travels with them, even to elected office.
That doesn’t mean that elected officials should try to impose their faith upon others. But it should influence the way they approach problems, their priorities, and their personal comportment.
And yes, many people of faith still pray. Individually and collectively, they use prayer to express thanks, seek assistance, and simply acknowledge their belief in a transcendent power greater than themselves. It is not a practice of some bygone era.
What about secularism? According to the Bloc, secularism means eliminating any semblance of religious faith from the public square. The danger of such an approach is that it often ends up favouring those without religious beliefs and marginalizing everyone else, making people of faith feel unwelcome or even inferior – caricaturing them as unsophisticated and not very smart.
There are much less divisive ways to approach secularism.
Of course, a government needs to be neutral. But what if instead of trying to silence religious voices, it worked to create a level playing field where all perspectives, religious or otherwise, were welcome and nobody felt that they needed to check their identities at the door?
Which brings us back to the prayer issue. As someone who worked in politics for 20 years, including over a decade as an elected official, I see considerable value in parliamentarians taking a minute to come together and recognize the enormity of their responsibilities and seek guidance through prayer.
Where I agree with the Bloc is that the current practice doesn’t align nicely with many faith traditions or recognize those who are not religious.
This is not the first time that a legislative body has had to deal with this quandary. I was a member of the Ontario legislature in 2008 when it reviewed its practice of opening its day with a prayer. Although it was decided to maintain the Lord’s Prayer as part of the daily routine, a different recitation was also added from one of Ontario’s other faith traditions. A moment of reflection is also included in the rotation, acknowledging those who don’t hold religious views.
Why not adopt this approach federally? Why not open each legislative day with a recitation from one of Canada’s many faith traditions, including Indigenous spiritual traditions, or a moment of silence? As a member of the legislature, I remember finding great solace in the prayers of other faiths and their message of love and humility.
It’s interesting that during the debate, the approach taken by Ontario was raised several times but quickly dismissed. As one Bloc member argued, “alternating between various denominations and having a moment of silence and reflection” is an option that “chooses not to choose.”
“Choosing not to choose” between various faiths and those who don’t consider themselves religious -sounds like an imaginative solution for a pluralistic society where everyone deserves to be heard.
John Milloy, a Ontario cabinet minister, is the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College and practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. His most recent book, Politics and Faith in a Polarized World was published by Novalis in 2021. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.