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A new poll has some Canadians looking askance at their own constitution.

Canada has a long, conflicted relationship between God and country. Like our neighbor to the south, our government is ostensibly secular, our history is rooted in religion, and our people are at the moment rapidly turning away from the church. Recent polling shows that a growing number of Canadians have a negative opinion of religion, and the more devout the religion, the more negative the opinion. In particular, respondents from all other religious groups (and none) said evangelical Christianity is more damaging than beneficial. One in five Canadians are nonbelievers, while another 46% say they are “spiritually uncertain.”

Which is not to say God is down for the count quite yet.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, created in 1982, actually contains a preamble that reads: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…”

How did Canada, a supposedly modern, secular country, wind up with such a clause in one of its most important documents?

The creation of the Charter was part of the larger plan to “patriate” the Canadian constitution. At the time, Canada’s constitution was based on the British North America Act from 1867, through which Britain had created the new independent country of Canada. Canada gained full control of its legislative affairs in 1931, yet the ability to amend the constitution still rested with the British parliament. There thus remained the need for a new constitution, as well as a document clearly spelling out Canadians’ rights.

The architect of this plan was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin Trudeau and a member of the center-left Liberal Party. Trudeau the elder was also a Catholic, but he believed strongly in secularism and that religion was a private matter.

In 1967, before he became Prime Minister, Trudeau was the country’s Minister of Justice, and in this role he helped to introduce legislation that would massively shift the Criminal Code away from the influence of religion. The changes decriminalized abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, which Trudeau famously defended by stating that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

How could someone so committed to secularism allow the Charter to contain a reference to God?

The British North America Act of 1867 contained no such language, but the 1960 Bill of Rights—an early but ineffective attempt at articulating Canadians’ rights—contained a preamble “affirming that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God.”

This Bill of Rights was ultimately a failure; hence the need for a new charter. When it came time to write one in the course of patriating the constitution, however, similar language was added to an early draft saying that Canadians “shall always be, with the help of God, a free and self-governing people.” However, the premiers—that is, the leaders of the provinces—struck this language, and the rest of the preamble, in an early round of revisions in 1980.

Yet a growing evangelical movement in Canada—not unlike the one that helped sweep Ronald Reagan to power in the US, although not to the same strength—exerted its influence to bring the issue of God back to the table. It was a Conservative MP (Member of Parliament) from Manitoba, Jake Epp, who in 1981 introduced the amendment in Parliament that would add the same wording from the 1960 Bill of Rights to the new charter.

Svend Robinson, an MP from the New Democratic Party (the left-wing party in Canada), who would later become the first openly gay MP, argued in 1981 that such wording violated Canadians’ freedom of conscience and the spirit of pluralism in Canadian society. Instead, he argued, “we do not entrench one particular religion; indeed we do not entrench any religion at all.” This was not official NDP policy, however, and a fellow NDP MP, the Catholic priest Bob Ogle, expressed support for the inclusion of the God language, while also saying this would (somehow) not imply disrespect for nonbelievers.

Nonetheless, the governing Liberals did not appreciate the Conservatives butting their noses in. The amendment to re-insert God language was rejected.

This snub did not go over well with the evangelical faction, who kicked their fight into high gear. A newspaper ad campaign was led by the Baptist leader Ken Campbell, and the evangelical TV show 100 Huntley Street encouraged its followers to write to their MPs, demanding the inclusion of God in the Charter. Jean Chrétien, another future Prime Minister but at the time Minister of Justice for the Trudeau government, noted that the government received more mail on this issue than any other.

Meanwhile, evangelical sympathizers within the Liberal Party appealed directly to Trudeau, with the MP David Smith arguing in a brief to the Prime Minister that the strength of evangelicals was growing and failure to grant them this concession would lead to electoral disappointment for the party in the future.

Such reasoning was ultimately convincing for Trudeau and the reference was re-inserted, even though privately he disagreed, grumbling to his Liberal MPs that “I don’t think God gives a damn whether he’s in the constitution or not.”

Thus, it was a bit of political calculating that led to the inclusion of the God reference. Admittedly, there were perhaps bigger fish to fry in the rocky constitutional debates of the early 80s than the ultimately symbolic language of the preamble.

Since its passage, Svend Robinson, the MP who originally opposed the God language, presented a petition to parliament in 1999 to strike the language from the preamble, but to no avail. Such things, once ensconced, are very rarely pried loose. Fortunately though, attempts by individuals to use the reference as a means of advancing specific religious interests have been firmly rejected by courts.

What is more, the Charter recognizes freedom of religion for all, and Canada remains one of the most secular countries in the world, despite some strange relics like, in my own province of Ontario, the provincial funding of Catholic schools, but not other kinds of religious schools.

We know that our rights don’t come from God but from our fellow humans. And a growing number of us don’t recognize the supremacy of God at all. As our society grows more religiously diverse, and especially, more nonreligious, one of Canada’s most important documents should reflect this fact.

  On the circumstances leading to the inclusion of “God” in the Charter, I am especially indebted to George Egerton, “Trudeau, God, and the Canadian Constitution: Religion, Human Rights, and Government Authority in the Making of the 1982 Constitution,” in Rethinking Church, State, and Modernity: Canada between Europe and America, ed. Daniel Lyon and Marguerite Van Die (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 90–112.

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Canadian writer and historian Nathan Alexander is co-host of the Beyond Atheism Podcast and author of Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (NYU Press and Manchester University...