Magazines 2020 Nov - Dec Joining conscience with respect

Joining conscience with respect

16 November 2020 By Bruce Clemenger

Enabling public witness amid diversity

We live in a society of deep differences – morally, philosophically, ideologically and religiously.

A pluralistic approach to these differences does not require us to be relativistic in the sense of conceding that all options or beliefs are true or good. Rather a pluralist society can facilitate a public space to mutually live out our deeply held beliefs without fear of hindrance or reprisal.

Pluralism creates space for witness – dialogue between different beliefs. Think of Paul preaching publicly in Athens, a pluralistic metropolis of people hearing about different beliefs without violence (Acts 17).

I know some of my core beliefs are rejected by others. For example, the crucified and risen Christ is offensive to some and utter nonsense to others.

Yet these differences do not prevent us from being with people who believe differently in our neighbourhoods, schools or workplaces. We can find common ground on a range of issues and generally agree about the rules that regulate our lives together.

We voluntarily form communities around shared beliefs and practices, and we seek points of collaboration with other communities working toward the blessing of our neighbourhood, city or country (as God calls us to in Jeremiah 29).

For example, often The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada will join with other faith groups to speak to government. While we may disagree on a range of doctrinal issues, we can agree on certain needs such as the need for strong government action to ensure high-quality palliative care is available to all Canadians. This is only one of many ways freedom of conscience and respect interact within Canadian society.

These two elements are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy and critical to living in a society of deep moral and religious differences, a crucial line of thinking revisited by Canadian philosophers Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Importantly, Maclure and Taylor advocate a pluralism where no one set of beliefs is imposed by the state. They reject sectarianism, envisioning instead a pluralism where the state treats its citizens with fairness and respect. The courts refer to this as state neutrality.

The controversy of the Canada Summer Jobs attestation requiring an affirmation of a set of doctrines or values is an example of the government becoming sectarian, and denying grants to organizations with which they disagree and have bias against.

In my Sep/Oct 2020 column, I reflected on conscience. Freedom of conscience means people can disagree, not all choices will be celebrated, and we encourage all to responsibly nurture our consciences.

Combined with respect freedom of conscience opens the possibility of productive dialogue. When disagreements come, we should not be surprised some might be angry and some curious to ask questions, but we are always prepared to give reasons for the hope within us (a different worldview) with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Paradoxically for some, we understand the basis for respect is rooted in our affirmation of the freedom God gave each of us to pursue the truth – part of our human dignity. We may not agree with others’ conclusions, but we acknowledge the freedom to disagree without fear of punishment.

Respect is an expression of the fruit of the spirit which includes forbearance, kindness and self-control (Galatians 5:23). In the giving of respect, we do not diminish what we believe, nor do we compromise what we believe.

Respect is also nurtured when we see people using their freedom diligently. C. K. Chesterton once quipped, "In truth there are two kinds of people – those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it."

I find it is those who take their own faith seriously as seekers after truth who often afford the greatest respect to others who likewise are grounded in their faith, and understand themselves to be on a journey – taking a principled stand with humility and persuasion.

Increasingly, and on technological hyperspeed, a number of social and political issues are driving us to the heart of our moral, religious and philosophical differences.

Sadly debates about controversial issues leave many Canadian believers withdrawing from the public square (conscience lost) or becoming uncivil (respect lost).

Principled arguments are not met with genuine attempts to hear and understand, and counterarguments offered, but with dismissal, scolding and name calling. Respect is absent and freedom of conscience is nullified as opposing views denounce or silence each other.

We can’t withdraw from these debates, though that will be tempting for some. Our participation must be civil and respectful. Our manner of engagement is a powerful witness treating others as we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).

bruce j clemenger

Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at or toll-free 1-866-302-3362