The idea of the pluralist society goes back roughly to the eighteenth century, to the days when separation of Church and State was launched with the Constitution of the United States.
This American separation was unlike the separation of Church and State brought about a few years later, during the French Revolution (which began in 1789). The latter was essentially one of hostility of the State towards the Church, even to the point of creating a new religion, the worship of the “supreme Being.” The American separation of Church and State, on the other hand, was born out of the desire to treat all religious groups equally, without discrimination. Thus the State was to be neutral in a beneficient kind of way, allowing various religious groups to co-exist without favour to any in particular.
Canada accepted neither the French nor the American model of separation of Church and State. Instead, she pursued the example of Great Britain. In this form, the State recognizes some of the public functions and roles of the Christian religion, even under the aspect of denominationalism, as worthy of public support and incorporates this support in law and in policy.
That is why today, for example, Canada, unlike the United States, has a legally recognized Catholic school system. This system is supported in lesser or greater degrees by public provincial funding, while in some provinces such as Quebec, Newfoundland, Alberta and British Columbia, Protestant schools, too, are recognized and subsidized out of public funds. It is worthwhile to note, therefore, that there are different kinds of separation of Church and State; indeed as many, it seems, as there are countries.
The term, pluralism, does not have just one meaning; that is, it is sometimes used for different concepts. In politics there seem to be two popular and distinct uses of the term.
The older use (mentioned above), is related to a benevolent separation of Church and State. “Pluralism” in that sense means that it is not the government’s task to enforce the beliefs of any particular (Christian) denomination or group, yet these churches or groups should contribute to the society to enrich and enhance the quality of life. The general presumption of this kind of pluralism is that society must hold certain basic philosophic, religious and moral values in common.
A newer use of “pluralism”, on the other hand, implies that there is no consensus of values or truths. It claims that the modern separation of Church and State refers to the State being secular in the sense of rejecting support for any public religious influence or manifestations. These are looked upon as, at best, of no interest; at worst, dangerous to the Commonwealth. Evidently, then, this newer use clashes with the older. This conflict should not come as a complete surprise.
The idea that it is not the government’s task to enforce Christian beliefs brings us to the recent remark of a great legal scholar and practitioner of law in England, Lord Devlin. In his book The Enforcement of Morals, he noted, a state which refuses to enforce Christian beliefs has lost the right to enforce Christian morals. This sets the unpleasant truth before us in a rather bold manner.
The possibility that societies, conceived as democratic and pluralistic, would come to the point of driving Christian principles out of their legal system was always present, at least in theory. Until recently, however, this possibility has remained somewhat far-fetched. But in more recent days, the trend in some Western countries, if not in theory then in practice, has been to deny little-by-little any special place to Christianity. As an American commentator, Francis Canaran, SJ, noted in the magazine Communio (winter, 1982), today the dominant view in articulate public opinion in the United States is as follows.
We are now to be protected not from tyranny, but from the imposition of anyone’s or any group’s values on anyone else. No opinion and no policy can be regarded as legitimate which threatens to conflict with this supreme norm of ‘our pluralistic society.’ It is uncommitted, not only to any particular beliefs, but to any moral principles…The pluralistic society, therefore, stands upon no moral principles but is unified only by the procedural principle of an official neutrality that treats all beliefs equally.
To protect from tyranny was the original purpose of the American constitution.
The same author has also shown that in a society so conceived, the “pluralist game” becomes a confidence game by which certain groups press government into the service of their own goals under the pretense of establishing neutrality.
A recent Canadian illustration was the demand of a feminist group, the National Association of Women and the Law, in April, 1982, that sexual provisions of the Criminal Code be brought “into the twentieth century” by rejecting the “legislation of morality.” The very terminology employed indicates the belief that the law should be free from morality, in other words, neutral.
To be continued….