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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Pandit Dabral, Michael Higgins, moderator Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The spectre of religious government has played a large role the past few weeks in the Arab/Muslim world, with autocratic leaders struggling to hold on as pro-Western secular alternatives to popular Islamic movements.

Iran's Islamic revolution has been invoked as a cautionary tale by observers, but a government doesn't need to be theocratic to mix church and state. Canadians might consider their own country's historical choice of official public holidays, state symbolism and the funding of separate school boards as realms where religion has touched the public sphere. Our panelists have joined us to discuss that role.

Here are today's participants:

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Lorna Dueck is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. ET.

Pandit Dabral was born and raised in India in a family of traditional Sanskrit scholars and holds a PhD in yoga philosophy. Dr. Dabral, who resides in Canada, is a Hindu priest who teaches yoga philosophy and meditation.

Michael Higgins is the author and co-author of more than a dozen books, a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Howard Voss-Altman has been serving as rabbi at Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He's a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Sheema Khan, who writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail, has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

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Guy Nicholson: Thank you, panelists, for being with us - especially Dr. Dabral, who's joining for the first time.

That was a longer than usual introduction, but this is a giant and contentious topic that's not going away any time soon. So let's begin. As a non-believer, I've long felt that religion is a personal matter, best kept out of government as much as possible. Where do you stand?

Michael Higgins: Indeed, a close alliance of church and state can be hugely problematic, even if the perception is perceptual alone.

Howard Voss-Altman: As a member of the Jewish community, our lengthy history of persecution suggests that our people rarely succeed in nations where the state and religion are enmeshed. Sadly, religious authority is often absolutist in nature, and tends not to mix well with the give and take necessary for good government. State religions often lead to persecution of minorities who are not part of the established religious community.

Sheema Khan: I agree with you, Guy, in that religion is a deeply personal matter. Our cherished beliefs often shape our conduct in public and private.

Perhaps the overarching term is "personal morality," which we carry with us wherever we go. At an individual level, this is the essence of "freedom of religion" - provided this does not trample on the rights of others. The issue of state policy, however, is a different matter. State policy (or "government") reflects the ethos of the people. And so, official public holidays based on Christian beliefs merely reflect the historical reality of Canada. Similarly with public funding of Ontario's Catholic schools - it reflects a reality rooted in our history.

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The challenge is what happens when the public ethos changes. How do the institutions evolve to keep pace with, or reflect, the population that they serve? We have had changes within the past few decades that reflect the evolution of religion in Canada: Sunday shopping, abolishment of confessional school boards in Quebec and Newfoundland etc. The key to these changes, however, is to make sure they are accomplished with input from the public. And to make sure no one feels coerced to abandon their beliefs in the process.

I guess the answer is that the government should be representative of the people it serves. If people are largely secular (i.e., no favouritism for any particular belief or non-belief), the government should reflect this.

Pandit Dabral: All religions of the world are derived from a deep spiritual experience. They are meant to create a foundation for humans so one can live life guided, protected with principles that a religion offers. In Hinduism, religion means dharma - that means a duty toward oneself, duty toward family, duty toward your neighbour, duty toward the world. The path of righteousness should be in each and every function of society. If religion is part of government and government follows the code of conduct that religion lays out for the individual, then we all will perform our duties for the sake of others, not for the sake of selfish purpose.

Lorna Dueck: Because government affects the implementation of all social elements, Christians cannot ignore political engagement. We get involved because it's about care for our neighbour, creation and justice.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, I don't believe people of faith should be ignoring their civic responsibilities, but the question is, should such civic engagement include weighing in on matters of religious faith? And Pandit, all very true, but only in theory. I'm afraid our governments have not exactly lived up to those lofty religious expectations.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, Howard, there are times you have to weigh in on matters because your religious faith compels you to. But that action is not done by imposing our scriptures or religious preferences on government. It's much broader - our religious faith compels us to love our neighbour, so anything that sweeps the good of humanity aside is enough to compel a Christian into political engagement.

Howard Voss-Altman: The trouble is, who can determine what "the good of humanity" truly is? I'm quite certain that a religious politician, such as Sarah Palin, believes she can define what's good for humanity, but I'm just as certain I won't share her beliefs.

Sheema Khan: I think the issue also deals with mechanisms within government to allow for a robust series of checks and balances, so that when there are government encroachments, ordinary citizens have recourse to correct the government. The question is, can this happen when there's a "state" religion? Those living in liberal democracies would resoundingly say No - based primarily on the separation of church and state arising from European historical experiences. Yet, can one view all government setups through a European lens? Is it fair to impose this view on cultures and peoples who have not had the same historical experience?

Lorna Dueck: I think Egypt is an example of that. They are a deeply religious culture, asking for a better form of the non-religious government they are trying to overthrow.

Pandit Dabral: I think the debate can go over and over on any issue, any matter. Speaking from my religion, no peace can be established unless each individual in society seeks that peace first. If there is a peace, harmony in an individual's mind, then automatically a society, a government will work for every citizen's welfare. We speak of two main principles: the principle of non-violence and the principle of truthfulness. If every individual remains non-violent and truthful to himself and herself, then naturally, or obviously, you demonstrate the same outside in society and governments.

Howard Voss-Altman: While we all support the Egyptian people as they seek good government and autonomy, we can only hope that the alternative will not resemble the theocracy we see in Iran. In that event, the Egyptian people will have traded a secular dictator for a religious dictator. This may happen anyway, just because the political culture of Egypt has been stifled for so many decades, but the ultimate question is, will the Egyptian people be better off?

Pandit Dabral: We all know the situation in Egypt. I repeat myself, if we do not have guidelines for a code of conduct for one's own self, how could we think for the welfare of others? All misunderstandings, all wars, happen for the lack of guidelines, self-awareness. I firmly believe that religion can play a healthy role in government, if individuals understand his own duty/ dharma to others.

One of the main principles Hinduism speaks of is never apply something that you do not wish to apply onto yourself. Hinduism is purely based on the principle of ahimsa, non-violence, which means not hurting, harming or killing first one's own self. All principles in Hinduism are first applied to one's self and then to others.

Lorna Dueck: Pandit, so how do we explain Hindu nationalism that attacks Sikhs and Christians? This is a hijacking of your religious ideals, because it is mixed with political power. Regardless of our religion, it does not belong in political power.

Pandit Dabral: That's the problem that each individual is thinking for himself or herself, not seeing the unity, the relationship, what binds us as human. The identical nature of divinity is in us all. These attacks first take place in our scalp, where we have so many continents fighting with each other. The attack or war that we see is merely the expression or manifestation of what is taking place in our mind. That is where, I think, religion plays a role and helps one to move to the path of spirituality.

Guy Nicholson: But Pandit, what about a society where not everyone follows the same religion? Can all citizens, particularly minority groups, truly find representation under a government that follows another faith's code of conduct?

Pandit Dabral: Yes, that is true. What I am speaking of is that the spiritual aspect of religion is needed in this scientific age and time. Spirituality that relates to the human being, not to a particular religion.

Michael Higgins: Given that religion has a public face, is governed by public if not political priorities, advocates publicly for its goals and beliefs - is it not then entitled to a public space and transparent political objectives?

Lorna Dueck: Government needs to be completely secular, but allow all its citizens, including religious ones who may or may not hold office, to be part of the voice that informs its policies. We don't want "Christian" governments, or any religious government. … The track record on the disaster of that is clear. Christians need to stick to their purpose; to be agents of eternal salvation and people who spread the love of Christ.

Pandit Dabral: I think if each and every individual understands the purpose of life and understands the meaning of relationship, then only one can conduct his or her actions, duties at home or at work with that principle in mind. Hinduism says to be open to all ideas, principles, decorums and do what is the best for the majority keeping the principle of non-violence, the principle of truthfulness in mind.

Howard Voss-Altman: Sheema, back to your last comment - what happens when, as in the United States, a majority of people are primarily religious, but seek to impose their beliefs on others who don't share them? We could debate until next year whether the United States is truly a religious society, but there are certainly enough loud voices who wish it to be so. And if the government reflects that religiosity, what happens to religious minorities who do not share those beliefs? I believe protection of minorities outweighs a popular will toward religion.

Sheema Khan: Howard, you raise a valid point. I believe America's Founding Fathers understood this keenly. And that is why in the United States, the government cannot favour or disfavour any particular faith. It must be neutral. That does not mean that government officials are not allowed to express their faith in public. It's just that the state levers must remain neutral.

But then, Howard, there are many cases where it's not religion but rather political beliefs that are used as a pretext to exclude or oppress. Is it not an absolutist mindset that is the problem, rather than religion per se?

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, as a religious leader who is virulently opposed to religious absolutism, I do believe it is the mindset and not the religion. But the history of religion - especially when it's enmeshed with the state - demonstrates that religious leaders drawn to politics have an absolutist, not nuanced, approach to both religion and the state.

Michael Higgins: Was that true of Pierre Trudeau, Howard?

Guy Nicholson: Or Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who was voted "Greatest Canadian" in 2004 for essentially secular accomplishments?

Lorna Dueck: It's hard not to be drawn to political power when, for example, as in Egypt, all mosques must be licensed by the Ministry of Islamic Endowments and the government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams, who lead prayers in mosques, and monitors their sermons. Religion should not receive government payout; a tax break for charitable activity generated is one thing, but paying the bill for their existence undermines democracy. ...

There are many points pre- and post-Great Depression where Canada's political history was shaped by Christian preachers who engaged politically. It's hard to find examples where their policies were not nuanced to the needs of the non-religious citizen. They left the work of proclaiming salvation to the clergy, and attempted to focus on the care of the public good.

Michael Higgins: I think there are many ways of proclaiming salvation - ways that are drawn from the heart of the scriptures and are a practical application of biblical justice. Think of the Social Gospel movement in the Prairies, the Antigonish Movement in Atlantic Canada, Trudeau's Just Society, originating in his Jesuit formation, David Cameron's Big Society etc.

Pandit Dabral: In Hinduism, it is a responsibility of every citizen to establish law and order within, then demonstrate that outside. When dharma , the code of conduct, is removed from government, then problems arise. Code of conduct means for the welfare of society.

Howard Voss-Altman: My apologies, Michael - I'm just not familiar enough with Trudeau's political record or religious beliefs to provide an adequate answer. … I think my beliefs were shaped more by Baptist ministers like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, men who were unfortunately intertwined in the American political system. Tommy Douglas is certainly a hero of mine.

Guy Nicholson: In a way, this speaks to our first discussion, on the future of faith in Canada. So much has changed in this country's demographic and political landscape that the example of a Tommy Douglas seems almost quaint.

Michael Higgins: And that is tragic. The shapers of our national conscience deserve better than obscurity. Will Gandhi and Mandela be footnotes in their own lands as well as their demographics change?

Pandit Dabral: In the history of mankind, all great preachers and teachers and their teachings have been forgotten. And that is the source of violence in one's own mind. We first need to bring that peace in our own minds first, before we bring that peace to the society.

Guy Nicholson: What I mean there is that the example of a religious leader who brings his philosophy, but not his faith, to politics seems quaint. I guess this perception is partly shaped by the U.S. examples Michael and Howard have pointed to.

Michael Higgins: And perhaps that is splendidly realized by Trudeau, whose philosophical roots and theological interests made for great parlays and some good politics.

Howard Voss-Altman: But I think our current circumstances are due - in part - to the decline of the liberal voice in religion. It was just a generation ago that the United Church of Canada was practically synonymous with Canada. Today, that church and its leaders have a vastly reduced role in our public discourse. If we desire a more liberal vision of religious life in the public square, then such views have to be advanced far more effectively than they are today.

Michael Higgins: The decline of the liberal voice - its suppression, if not muting, in some circles - presages a new fanaticism.

Pandit Dabral: The only way for a government to function for the welfare of society, to create peace, harmony and joy for society, religion could play a big role. I think we need to have a religious representative in every sector of government. Hinduism speaks that a ruler or in charge or designated governing official should always consult a religious person on matters.

Guy Nicholson: That's an extremely brave statement to make in today's world, Pandit. I applaud you for your honesty - even though I think most Canadians would disagree.

Lorna Dueck: And further to that dilemma, why are some governments party to persecuting religions that are held by the minority of their people?

Pandit Dabral: I fully understand what you are saying, Guy. However, I am speaking of the principles, decorums and values that Hinduism offers to humanity. Hinduism simply says that to live with a healthy family, community, government, nation and world, these guidelines will help, will guide one to create such atmosphere in the world. Hinduism doesn't believe in imposing, but simply offers the advice.

Michael Higgins: Are we not confounding theocratic government with democratic government? By having the proper place for religion to be exercised in the public space - a place where conscience, conviction and compassion can work in union - I think it very important that we not allow the egregious abuses of sacral power intertwined with the state to blind us to the legitimate place of faith in public life.

Howard Voss-Altman: But Michael, who defines what that legitimate place is? As an American, I have watched with dismay as abortion rights continue to be eroded, as the teaching of evolution continues to be under attack, as stem-cell research is not funded adequately, primarily because of religious advocacy in the public sphere. People's constitutional rights - not to mention the right to a scientific education - are being trampled on, all in the name of religious beliefs.

Michael Higgins: I agree, Howard, in great measure. I work in the U.S. currently and the highly polarized discussions around politics is made much worse by the perverse oracular declamations of the self-anointed spokespersons for their faith. The religion and political concordat is deadly, poison and a caricature of faith. Hence, the need for these matters to be the fodder of public intellectuals and not official religious leaders alone. There is too much at stake.

Guy Nicholson: What about countries like Saudi Arabia, which is almost entirely Muslim? Is it more defensible for religion to play a role in matters of state?

Lorna Dueck: The problem will be who defines what is healthy religion for that state. There is a religious dimension to Saudi extremists that is not about Arab/non-Arab, but about Muslim/infidel. We are beholden to correct religion when it instigates wrong thinking.

Pandit Dabral: I think if an individual feels responsible for the peace for their nation, if they become a part of their nation and work for the welfare of the nation, then everyone is responsible to create a healthy environment for the world.

Sheema Khan: It is not so much that Saudi Arabia is almost entirely Muslim - so is Turkey. It is the Saudi approach to governance that differs. Why is that? Historical experience. The evolution of each society has been distinct, and that is reflected in the governance of each. One is an absolute monarchy; the other is a democracy.

Egypt will be interesting. A December, 2010, Pew study shows that a large majority of Egyptians believe religion to be a good thing when it comes to politics. A large majority also believe in criminal punishments such as stoning (for adultery) and amputation (for theft). More worrying: A large majority believe in the death penalty for those who leave Islam. Should the will of the majority be reflected in the nation's laws? Where will freedom of conscience or religion have a place in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

Howard Voss-Altman: Well said, Sheema. You have made some important points here.

Guy Nicholson: We're out of time today. Thank you all so much for stopping in to chat - I'm looking forward to talking again next month.

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