Judeo-Christian heritage? Hardly

I’m really tired of hearing people say “we are founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs” or “we have to remember that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.” It is a phrase that often comes out of the mouth of Sarah Palin, that ridiculous walking ball of Silly Putty (who is so loved because she has no personality of her own and simply imprints the image of whatever is around her). Knowing at least a smattering of history, philosophy and theology, I know this not to be the case. While the country was originally founded by people who were Christian (that fact is not in dispute here, although many argue that many of the founding fathers of the United States were deist or agnostic), the principles that make Canada the country it is have at best coincidental resemblance to Judeo-Christian principles. At worst, they are in direct violation of biblical commandments.

The first thing I want to say is that this idea of Judeo-Christian anything is a complete farce. Jesus was a Jew who preached Jewish principles – nothing he said (including his famous “love your neighbour” bit) was a unique moral philosophy. Where Jesus diverged from the Jewish tradition is in man’s relationship with Yahweh, not in a person’s relationship with other people. Most of the rest of what we would call “Christian ethics” were written by either (the Apostle) Paul of Tarsus who had never met Jesus, or by Christian biblical scholars like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas several centuries after the time of the gospels. The later Christian philosophers were influenced heavily by Greek philosophy (which predates Jesus by several centuries), which was in turn influenced heavily by the Egyptians, and so on back through the ages. The point is that so-called “Judeo-Christian” philosophy, at least when it comes to matters of ethics, does not come from Jesus at all, but from either the Torah or from non-religious, non-divine sources. Anything that Christianity has to say about ethics is either Jewish or Greek/Egyptian in origin.

The second thing I need to say as a pre-amble is that it is impossible to talk about the foundations of Canada without talking about the foundations of the United States. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is, for the most part, cribbed from the US Bill of Rights, which is in itself part of the Constitution of the United States. Say what you will about the Americans, but if ever there was a group of people who figured out a system of secular justice and a stable society without appeal to religion, it was those guys. You may compare for yourself, or you can take it from me that any discussion of the founding principles of modern Canada can be seen as comparable to the founding principles of the US.

It is also important to note that Canada was a part of Britain until 1867, and didn’t establish its own internal constitution until the 1980s. It is necessary then to distinguish between “modern Canada”, with its codified system of rights, and “historical Canada”, which is essentially England. There is a fair argument to be made that if England was founded on Christian principles, then Canada was as well. However, this argument falls apart in two important places. First, England’s system of rights was drastically influenced by the US constitution, and as such it bears little resemblance to the monarchist state it once was. Second, the argument can equally be made that the Constitution Act of 1982 was a codification of the founding principles of “the nation of Canada” – a recognition of those principles already held dear to Canadians; a retroactive “foundation”. Thus, whatever is in the Constitution, despite the fact that it came later than the British North America Act of 1867, can be reasonably called the founding principles of the country of Canada.

In order to evaluate whether or not Canada was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethical system (which is more accurately described simply as ‘Jewish’, since uniquely Christian teachings are theological rather than moral), it is necessary to establish a codification of these principles. It simply will not do to merely assert ‘these are the principles’ – they must be written down somewhere that we can all agree on. Luckily, Canada has the aforementioned Constitution (I will also, for illustrative purposes, refer to the US Constitution on occasion) as its codified principles. The Torah is the source of Jewish moral tradition, and there are hundreds of regulations and legal exhortations in that document. I think it is fair to use the oft-invoked passages from Exodus, colloquially known as the Ten Commandments, as a codification of Jewish principles. Sure there are other rules and regulations (almost the entire books of Leviticus and Laws, for example), but the Ten Commandments are the founding ethical document of the tradition, so presumably all others are reflections or developments of that document. Uniquely Christian ethics, which I have argued are adaptations of Jewish principles, are generally taken from Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount, which I will use as the “founding document” of Christianity.

The Constitution of Canada or, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The part of the Constitution we really care about for the purpose of this discussion is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sadly, the document starts with the following phrase:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…

Religious Christian groups lobbied to get it in there, and Muslim groups were happy about it too since it doesn’t specify which God it’s referring to. I will assume they mean the Flying Spaghetti Monster and let it go. Clearly I’m about as wild about the inclusion of this passage as dogs are about the vacuum cleaner, but it doesn’t really matter. The listed rights are the important “meat” of the constitution, not the language of the preamble.

There are many legal issues in the Constitution (the role of parliament, the rights of the PMO, judicial stuff, mobility rights, language rights, etc.) that speak more to making the country run under the rule of law rather than a reflection of moral principles. While these have literally nothing to do with the Bible (and thus I could score cheap points by saying “look! No Jewish anything here!”), that’s an apples and oranges comparison. What we’re after is the ethics and morals bits of the constitution, not the legal errata.

The Constitution lists these as fundamental freedoms:

  • freedom of conscience,
  • freedom of religion,
  • freedom of thought,
  • freedom of belief,
  • freedom of expression (my personal favourite),
  • freedom of the press and of other media of communication,
  • freedom of peaceful assembly, and
  • freedom of association.
  • As you can see, there is a great deal of overlap between this document and the US Bill of Rights. Many of the other ones that I haven’t listed here (unreasonable search and seizure, habeas corpus, etc.) are clearly direct rip-offs. Canada’s legal code, which would take about 50 posts of this length to explore sufficiently, is subject to the Constitution such that any law that violates this document are untenable. For interest, the main difference between the Canadian Constitution and the US Constitution is what is known as the “general limitation clause”, which abridges all of the rights if such violations are demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. This is why we can prosecute hate speech here – a position that I do not agree with.

    The Ten Commandments

    So what do the Ten Commandments say about the Charter? Are the Commandment principles reflected in the founding document of Canada? Let’s first look at the (paraphrased) list:

    1. I (Yahweh) am the Lord thy God (violation of freedom of religion, belief)
    2. You shall have no other gods before me; you will not make and/or worship religious idols (violation of freedom of religion, belief)
    3. You will not blaspheme against the name of God (violation of freedom of expression)
    4. Keep the Sabbath holy (no violation, no endorsement)
    5. Honour your parents (no violation, no endorsement)
    6. Do not murder (or kill, depending on who you ask) (in accordance with the legal code, albeit with caveats)
    7. Do not have sex with someone you are not married to (no violation, no endorsement)
    8. Do not steal (in accordance with the legal code)
    9. Do not bear false witness against someone else (in accordance with the legal code)
    10. Do not desire or wish for anything that belongs to someone else in such a way that disregards the rights of others (violation of freedom of conscience)

    By my count, the Charter violates four of the Ten Commandments, is in accordance with three, and is completely indifferent to the remaining three.

    Let’s look at where the two documents agree (murder, theft, perjury/slander). These are regulations that are present and discussed at length in Plato’s Repulic, which is completely separate from the Jewish tradition. Without knowing in depth the moral codes of all of the world’s cultures, it is at least sufficient to say that rules against murder, theft and lying are not exclusively Jewish and do not require appeals to divine command to make them work.

    As far as the indifferent commandments go, Canadian law (with the Constitution as its ostensible source) does not expressly forbid adultery, nor does it require citizens to honour the Sabbath or honour their parents (to the contrary, the Canadian legal system allows for the courts to supersede the wishes of the parents for the best interest of the child). These are not equivocal “if you feel like it” rules in Biblical law, they must be followed and carry as much authority as rules about murder and theft. Canada chooses to completely ignore them.

    “Christian” Ethics

    The foundation of Christian ethics is the Sermon on the Mount, and includes the Beatitudes and other uniquely Christan moral exhortations (turning the other cheek, not resisting evil, etc.). The Beatitudes promise recompense to those that mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted, the pure of heart, and those who hunger for righteousness. It is more difficult to equate these vague prophecies with “rules” as such, but they can be seen as moral guidelines. There are other tenets of Christianity such as charity, care for the sick, and self-denial that are held up as moral guidelines. Like murder and theft, these are principles that are seen in other cultural and religious traditions that pre-date Christianity. It is entirely false to call them “Christian principles”; they are better identified as “merciful principles” that do not require a deity to be practical.

    Even allowing for those moral guidelines that are uniquely Christian, the Charter and the legal code of Canada is largely indifferent. There are no laws either rewarding adherence to or punishing divergence from ‘turning the other cheek’. Assault is punished, but the law allows for punishment to be mitigated by considering who initiates the offense. That’s not turning the other cheek; in fact it directly contradicts the idea of turning the other cheek. However, it is not a violation of common ethical principles nor is it a violation of the Constitution.

    Concluding Thoughts

    These “think pieces” are getting longer and longer each week, and perhaps I should be apologetic for that. It is my hope to generate thought and consideration with these essays, rather than accepting bold statements like “We are founded on a Christian ethic” as fact – it could not be further from the truth. Most of our laws either defy or are completely indifferent to any kind of Biblical prescripts. But none of that is important, the most important part of these Biblical exhortations is the question of why they are right or wrong. Religious regulations are built upon the foundation that they are the will of God. Even those rules and laws that agree with the Jewish and Christian moral exhortations do so coincidentally, not because the country recognizes a deity – in fact these coincidental agreements are seen in other societies and cultures that have no Jewish or Christian heritage. We don’t have rights and freedoms because God says so, we have it to preserve a lawful, just and democratic society. The good of the society (and, by extension, of the people) is the source of right and wrong, not YahwAlladdha.

    Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the fact that many things in the Bible are contradictions of its own rules: murder is wrong but there is capital punishment (stoning) for blasphemy or adultery; we must turn the other cheek but Jesus destroyed the money-changers’ tables at the temple. The fact is that any number of Biblical passages can be used to justify any number of acts. Taken in its full context the Bible reads like a book of fables coupled with the oral history of a nomadic tribe. Considering the number of minor things that are capital offenses, I’m really glad we aren’t founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

    Even the most pious amongst us don’t bother to follow all religious rules. It’s wildly impractical to do so, and anachronistic in many cases (if you’ve ever had a cheeseburger or a taco you’ve broken Biblical law, and how many of you still plant or plow fields?). We all make judgments of right and wrong that are entirely external to scripture on a daily basis. To assert that religious text or tradition are the source of these judgments is simply not supported by any evidence. Our standards of right and wrong are references to secular and not religious values. Our codified laws recognize this fact and not only don’t force us to obey Biblical laws, but allow us to directly violate them with no repercussions. Canada was founded on rational thought and consequentialist ethical deliberation, not the ancient words of an invisible being in the sky.


    1. Tim says

      Well, to be fair, Canada was founded on the most modern beliefs of how a moral and educated society should run; at that time, it was Christianity that extolled those principles (and yes, it built on previous societies). Now it is just, “Don’t be a dick to people.” Most religions say that, in general. At the time, it was Christianity.

      A lot of the original settlers though were very much Catholic and the Vatican sent hundreds of priests over during those times. You are free to make your conclusions, but that was the reality.

      I guess you are more against the phrase, ‘Judeo-Christian Values’ and the fact that you feel it is empty?

    2. says

      The original settlers of Canada were indeed Christian, but that doesn’t say anything about the foundation of the values system. The education system, sure, but not the core values. In fact, Christianity as a religious teaching is opposed to many of the principles that make a moral and educated society work. The important bit is that Christian teachings come from a position that its principles are good because God says so, not because they are practical. It’s not a meaningless distinction – when a principle stops being practical it can be abandoned; you can’t abandon the revealed will of God.

      I am against the implication that the principles that make Canada a great country come from a religious tradition that is directly opposed to them. Canada is free despite its Christian heritage, not because of it.

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