Inside the strict faith of unfaith


Stephen Harper ended his address to the Canadian troops with what has become a signature salutation: “God bless Canada.”

Rex Murphy

We must presume that when he says “God bless Canada,” that that is precisely what Mr. Harper hopes for. It is not rote.

Mr. Harper is a Christian. He believes in God. And from everything I've read about the Prime Minister, his is a serious belief, not some decorative shawl worn to court others of similar persuasion, or an item affixed to the campaign bio to signal “community” with the great number and variety of Christians in this country.

For those who have junked religion, passed it by or simply never had time for it, the practice of invoking the Creator can seem quaint, tedious, and utterly passé. For more militant secularists, who are in their fervour and stridency more often than they would wish a mirror of the fundamentalists they frequently deride, the invocation can be positively “offensive.”

I'm not very sympathetic to this latter posture, as I have not often observed the secularists willfully or voluntarily moderating the intensity or expression of their convictions out of deference to the very many others who are not of like mind. Just as one example, people curse and swear (even these words seem dated in these triumphalist secular days) with an ease and abandon, in public and private, at home and at work, without the least thought that there may be others present to whom foul or blasphemous language carries much more than an edge of rudeness and discomfort.

“Too bad” is often the unspoken rider to a good blue streak mingling “Christ” and the “F-word” in all its variations within the hearing of those who have not yet discovered the utility and glee of absolutely uninhibited speech. Those who are still believers, those to whom the name of their Saviour is still sacred, and for whom verbal obscenity is still instinctively repulsive, are more or less told, in another of the elegancies of our age, to “get used to it.”

I can but speculate that Mr. Harper may — in his own way, either mischievously or otherwise — be returning the favour. It may be the Christian imperative to turn the other cheek, but scripture, I think, is silent on the question of whether, when the one side gives you the verbal finger, you may not cock a lexical digit in return.

“God bless Canada” may be something more than a mere annoyance to them: It may be the first shadow of a doubt — and nothing is more cruel to a fundamentalist than the approach of doubt — that the ascendancy they assume is complete is a fiction.

Ardent non-believers are every bit as squeamish as their opposites.

Perhaps, given the ascendancy and complacency of non-belief in Western culture, and the ever more numerous and thick barricades against any manifestation of belief in the public domain, non-believers think the field is entirely theirs. And so, Mr. Harper's “God bless Canada” may be something more than a mere annoyance to them: It may be the first shadow of a doubt — and nothing is more cruel to a fundamentalist than the approach of doubt — that the ascendancy they assume is complete is a fiction.

That would be intolerable. The faith of unfaith cannot abide a discrepancy between its reality and reality. The thought that religion might have a meaning and significance for a great many of their fellow citizens, beyond its anthropological and historical significance, that it might mean something here and now, and that it should be expressed, is a horror of an insight. In our secular dispensation, God is at best an empty word, a hollow signifier, and the idea of reverence for his Name is at best the reflex of yokels. Time magazine asked the question 40 years ago, Is God Dead? and did not “stay for an answer.”

I am aware that there is another objection to Mr. Harper's habit of asking God to bless our nation, and I'm not sure if this objection has a sectarian basis or not. It is that President George Bush also frequently “signs off” his speeches with the parallel formula of “God bless America.”

In this case, the objection is not so much that Mr. Harper is wearing his faith on his sleeve, as that he is shining a light on his pro-Americanism and, furthermore, that he is miming the zealotry of the “fundamentalist” Mr. Bush. In some quarters, that is a far deeper (it is mortal with a vengeance) sin than the mere public display of an active faith.

Over whole regions of the Western world, otherwise so cleansed of even the vocabulary of religious observance, being pro-Bush may be the last heresy. That position, among those who style themselves progressives, speaks not so much of a failure of intellect; it is a flaw of the spirit, an irrationality so profound that it must have a supernatural (and likely demonic) source.

Still, both Mr. Harper and his critics, at least here, meet on common ground. They are both invoking a higher power to aid them in confronting the world. For the anti-Bushites, any belief in the goodness of Mr. Bush is a tear in the fabric of reality.
Personally, I see nothing wrong with a politician invoking a higher power. I find some comfort in the idea of a leader acknowledging one.


Rex Murphy, "Inside the strict faith of unfaith." Globe & Mail (March 18, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.


Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2006 Rex Murphy

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