Prayer, public office and the public good
Interview that led to public debate
The newly appointed Winnipeg Chief of Police Devon Clunis told ChristianWeekly.org (October 11, 2012): “What would happen if we all just truly – I’m talking about all religious stripes here – started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that? I believe something phenomenal is going to happen in our city.”
This was the interview that elicited headlines and commentaries from the attentive pen, keyboard and microphone of the nation’s media and varying reactions from their equally attentive readership and audience. It certainly moved two very learned and passionate columnists of the Winnipeg Free Press (October 24, 2012) to reflect their contrasting viewpoints: Gordon Sinclair, Jr in his article, No place for the pulpit in the police chief’s office and Lindor Reynolds in her What’s so bad about having faith in our city?
Let me present a summary of their arguments as you ponder the question: Should Police Chief Clunis be pilloried or praised for asking and answering the aforementioned rhetorical question in that media interview?
Sinclair’s observations and conclusion:
(1) Clunis “failed…to avoid political booby traps …and created…one for himself”; (2) “was not astute enough to keep his religious beliefs out of political pronouncements”; (3) “mandatory prayer in public schools was struck down in Manitoba as unconstitutional because it violated the section on freedom of thought”; (4) “should have been sensitive to that and the views of people who don’t believe in God”; (5) “could have taken the religion out of his plea by appealing to people to help each other”; and (6) “unnecessarily divides the public.” He concluded that the Chief’s “responsibility is to serve and protect, not to preach about the power of prayer… from his pulpit as police chief.”
Reynolds’ observations and conclusion:
(1) It is “nonsense…to prevent…the Chief as a public figure from talking about religion”; (2) “should not have to hide his faith”; (3) “We all have the right to religious freedom and expression”; (4) “didn’t say Christian prayer or Muslim prayer or Buddhist prayer”; (5) “didn’t say prayer alone is the answer to violent crime”; and (6) “called for reflection…for neighbours to look at each other and search out their commonalities, not their differences.” She concluded: “Pray or don’t pray, don’t dismiss a man who believes ‘something phenomenal is going to happen in our city’ and has the fortitude and faith to lead the charge.”
Trepidation but not sitting on the fence
I had initial hesitancy to write this piece and unwittingly engage in debate. On further reflection, I consider the cogent arguments made by both columnists more a dialogue, not debate, of insights from their frame of mind. It is in this context that I share and weigh in my perspectives and not sit on the fence. Yours truly – a retired physician who had the privilege of serving in four public offices (Winnipeg Police Commission, St. Vital School Board, House of Commons and the Government of Canada) – shares a deep belief in the constructive power of prayer in whatever human endeavour we undertake, individually or collectively, to serve the common public good such as public safety and health. And I also believe most Canadians, given the opportunity, would not be reluctant to say their viewpoints in public. A number, including Manitoba politicians at the federal and municipal levels, have already done so as media comments and letters to the editor.
Some personal recollections
Not too long ago I unabashedly took my Oaths of Office as a Member of the House of Commons and of Our Privy Council for Canada – two very public Canadian institutions – with the concluding prayer, “so help me God.” I remember with delight the multiculturally worded prayer at the start of the daily session of parliamentary proceedings in the House and the Annual Prayer Breakfast jointly held by the two chambers of Canada’s Parliament, to which members of the Diplomatic Corps of varied faiths had gladly obliged to attend.
I recall, too, that invocation has remained a significant part of graduation ceremonies in many schools, colleges and universities, although not necessarily strictly public institutions at all times – a truly rich Canadian tradition beautifully perpetuated at our learning institutions.
Last, I would like to recall with fellow citizens that our cherished Charter of Rights and Freedoms – a Canadian document on human decency and dignity – has it inscribed in its preamble: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
Best that mind and heart are not separated
Separation of the church and the state is one pillar of Canada’s democracy. Canada does not impose one official religion. This, however, should not mean our political leaders and public office holders may not entreat the citizenry of all religious faiths to pray and move for a public goal in so long as they do not preach their own religious belief. That a leader of a public institution may not publicly speak his faith for the collective good. That a citizen holding a position of public trust has to keep her or his religious utterances at home and within the confines of one’s temple of worship – churches, synagogues and mosques.
To demand so would restrict ourselves within the less rewarding, narrow limits of realpolitik only and risk not tasting the more fulfilling nobility of politics and public service. Best, I believe, that mind and heart are not separated in our public pursuit of human ideals: fairness, safety, security and peace.
Police Chief Devon Clunis believes “prayer will be a significant piece,” not the whole, of our solution to violent crime in the city. I agree. Indeed, let us pray together that we may share the courage of our conviction in the service of our broader human family and do so with respect and deference as neighbours and citizens of Canada and of the world. I salute Chief Devon Clunis’ leadership!
Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, former lung specialist and Professor of Pediatrics, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and senior federal minister, is widely published and lectured in Medicine and Politics and has been the recipient of several awards and honours, including the honorary degrees Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science, the Philippines’ Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award, and the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.