08 November 2017

The Queen would not be amused: Julie Payette’s ill-considered remarks

Governor General Julie Payette
As one of the Queen's Canadian subjects, I personally doubt she would approve of the remarks her freshly-minted representative made last week. Some months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had advised Her Majesty to appoint Julie Payette, a former astronaut, to the post of Governor General, an office which she assumed at the beginning of October. In a Westminster parliamentary system, the Queen and her representatives must remain impeccably nonpartisan and avoid even a hint of partiality. The monarch is the guarantor of the constitution and a symbol of unity for the entire nation. In her sixty-five years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has discharged her weighty responsibilities admirably, more than living up to the vow she took in South Africa on her twenty-first birthday.

Sadly, not all of her representatives have managed to follow her example. Last week, Payette addressed the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, and in the course of her speech appeared to belittle her fellow citizens who have the temerity to believe in a transcendent God:

Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the earth warming up or whether even the earth is warming up, period? And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

The tone of incredulity can only be taken as a put-down of people of faith. Or, perhaps more accurately, of people whose faith differs from her own.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparently a practising Catholic, weighed in on the controversy with these words, inadvertently affirming that Payette herself is a woman of faith:

I am extraordinarily proud of the strength and the story of our Governor General, Julie Payette, who has never hidden away her passion for science and her deep faith that knowledge, research and the truth is [sic] a foundation for any free, stable, successful society. And I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth [emphasis mine].

No one can quibble with the Governor General and the Prime Minister in their recognition that the standards associated with the scientific method have led to greater knowledge of the universe and produced huge benefits for humanity. But there is a tendency among some, when this appreciation is not tempered by the recognition that our world belongs to God, to invest science with redemptive expectations. Those with a more modest appreciation for science might challenge Payette’s rather naive belief that natural processes somehow rule out the existence of a creating and sustaining God.

Nearly a year ago, the Queen spoke these words in her annual Christmas speech:

Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.

What she thinks of Payette’s speech we likely will never know. If I were in Her Majesty's position, I would send the governor general a sharply worded reprimand, perhaps accompanied by a revised job description. It would serve as a warning that the authority of the governor general’s office does not extend beyond the limits of the monarch’s own authority relative to Canada. Payette is not entitled to establish scientism as the state religion. Let us hope she comes to see this better, as she becomes more accustomed to her official duties.

David Koyzis is Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com