Niccolò Machiavelli, the teacher of modern politicians, including Canada’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau, writes that while Romulus founded Rome, the second king, Numa Pompilius, made an even more important contribution by instituting its civil religion. Numa’s contribution unified the Romans. Machiavelli also claims that by making them fearful of the gods, it made the Romans a ferocious military power, which allowed them to create their glorious empire.
We “sophisticated” moderns generally consider ourselves too enlightened to fall for the nonsense of civil religion. But, in fact, Canadians increasingly look to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a sacred text of civil religion.
A key moment came after Parliament voted to institute same-sex “marriage.” Then-Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler proclaimed that “human rights has emerged as the new secular religion of our time.” He proclaimed this on several other occasions as well.
Many have noted the religious character of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court. Until recently, however, their comments were largely ironic or polemical. Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson once compared the Charter to a canon and the Supreme Court to cardinals, while law professor Robert Ivan Martin refers to the Supreme Court, with its liberal progressivist leanings, as a theocracy of relativism “in the grip of a secular state religion.” In a less polemical manner, a scholarly volume bearing the title The Myth of the Sacred: The Charter, the Courts and the Politics of the Constitution in Canada was published in 2002.
These religious evocations share the view that Canadians have become more worshipful toward the Charter, due in large part to the authority with which the Supreme Court speaks as an oracle concerning the scope and nature of our rights, as if Parliament could not possibly speak intelligently about such things. It is a civil religion of secularism.
The watershed event in the development of our civil religion came at a conference in 2004 at McGill University. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin delivered a speech in which she claimed that religion and politics make “total claims” on us. Since one cannot have two “total” claims, it’s up to the Supreme Court to arbitrate. Given the court is a political organ, she implied that the claim of politics is necessarily more “total” than that of religion. In response, American political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain observed that our chief justice begins with a wrong assumption. Citing Jesus’s response to Pilate, that we owe to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, she argued that politics and religion both make partial claims, which gives individuals greater individual freedom to determine their moral lives. She warned of the danger of considering politics as “total.” McLachlin’s speech and Elshtain’s response are reprinted in Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society (McGill-Queens University Press) and they are worth pondering, in order to assess the religiosity with which our elites view the Charter (and themselves), as well as insightful criticisms of this religiosity.
As the Charter turns 25, we wonder if we have a new generation of Numas.
John von Heyking is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge.