The city of Winnipeg’s acting Police Chief, Devon Clunis, has been taking some heat recently over comments he made in a media interview referencing prayer as one way people can help reduce crime in their city.
The chief was not suggesting that all people must pray, or that only prayer was needed, but rather that those citizens who are people of faith—any faith—might want to include prayer as a possible way to help build a safer community. He immediately followed this by indicating that such prayer should also lead to action: to involvement in the community, volunteering, helping out.
The police chief’s faith comes as no surprise to Winnipeggers. He has served as a police chaplain for over a decade. But critics have said that as a public official, Clunis should keep his personal beliefs private.
Let’s be clear—all of us, including public officials, have a set of beliefs that guide us in our daily living, whether we are explicitly religious, or agnostic or atheist. In fact, it could be argued that being open about the beliefs that guide you is a good thing; in a world where we value transparency, it could be considered misleading for a person to keep silent about his or her faith. Faith is never just a private, personal matter; what we believe inevitably influences what we do and how we act. It always has social, public implications.
Canada is a secular society, but that does not mean that people of faith must hide their religious beliefs when they participate in public discourse and life. In our pluralistic world, the conversation that shapes the common good includes many voices: those from business, labour, media, civil society organizations, and faith communities among them. And this is good.
Separation of church and state ensures that no one faith or set of beliefs is favoured over any other; freedom of religion is essential. But separation of church and state was never meant to deny religion a voice in the public forum. When public officials speak of their faith, they are not proselytizing or using their position as a “bully pulpit.” Clunis was not trying to impose his personal religious beliefs on anyone when he spoke of prayer. He was simply expressing his beliefs and inviting anyone of any faith to pray for the community if it felt meaningful or appropriate for them to do so—an invitation that could be turned down by anyone or everyone.
The most we can expect of public officials is that they bring the best of themselves to their positions and respect everyone’s beliefs, whether they are religious or not.
And so I will pray for acting Police Chief Devon Clunis. I have never met the man and know very little about his beliefs. But I applaud his courage to speak openly and frankly about his faith, and I encourage others to do the same.