Room for all in the public square

It was thought modernity would lead to a secular state where religion would become so personal and privatized as to be virtually irrelevant to public life, and be without real influence in the public square. Now, just the opposite seems to be occurring. Globally, religion is gaining clout, and how we order our lives together politically, needs to again take into account the spiritual. So argued many of the speakers at the recent conference, “Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy,” held Oct. 9-11 at McGill University, Montreal.

We should not have to check our deepest beliefs at the vestibule before entering the public square. Yet, even if religion is given more voice in public discourse and public policy-making, we should not expect that we will necessarily reach a consensus, either among various religious groups or between religious and non-religious communities.

Many an academic conference takes place in an ivory tower, but the McGill conference had on its agenda such panel discussions as, “Politics and Religion after the World Trade Centre” and, “When group rights conflict.” The international gathering attracted 300 scholars – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular – and was jointly sponsored by the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill and the Centre for Cultural Renewal based in Ottawa.

The colloquium was addressed not only by eminent philosophers, theologians, scientists, ethicists and lawyers – most notably, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada – but also by royalty, Prince El Hassan bin Talal, the brother of Jordan’s late King Hussein.

The prince supported “consensus and pluralism” and said he believes that, “Freedom without responsibility ceases to be freedom.” Instead of a “clash of cultures and civilizations,” he cited the 600 years that Jews, Christians and Muslims traded peaceably from Morocco to Malabar.

The Muslim prince was concerned about the “absence of legitimate dialogue between organizations that claim to represent our faith” and said that whenever he engages in interfaith discussions, he is accused at home of “syncretism.” Yet, he maintained the need for “the noble art of conversation.”

And conversation there was at McGill. Speaker after speaker raised fundamental questions: can there be any consensus in a pluralist society regarding the common good, the dignity of the person, the equality of the person or human rights? What role should religion play in determining their content? Is faith a cause of exclusion for citizens of secular societies? What is the role of religion in today’s political and social life, as well as in the shaping of our laws, medicine and science? Liberal democracies, with the exception of Japan, were rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, but how much should religion play in their future? Is the space for religion shrinking in public life and thus needs to be better protected, or is it growing and needs to be better accommodated?

Canada is becoming an increasingly secular state, although not as secular a society as some might think. Yet globally, there is a resurgence of religion, and the world, except for Western Europe, is becoming desecularized.

“How we order our lives together, whether we are theists or atheists, we all belong at the table,” declared Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The editor-in-chief of First Things said in a public lecture, “The table belongs to all of us, not just the faith-free. All should be warmly welcomed. … People need to feel confident that they can make their arguments from moral and religious convictions.”

Bioethics in an age of pluralism

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, argued that, “In our secular, pluralistic society, we cannot use a shared religion to uphold respect for life in the public square. But respect for life remains essential to the protection of both the individual and society and must be implanted at both levels.

“We have adopted intense individualism … (which) leads to claims of rights to ‘absolute reproductive freedom;’ that is, claims about reproduction are no one else’s business – especially not the state’s business to interfere through law – and one should be absolutely free to reproduce in whatever way and reproduce whatever kind of child one wishes. That is an adult-centred, reproductive decision-making model. But should the decision-making be, rather, future child-centred, especially where there is a conflict between what is best for the future parents and for the future child?

“Likewise, at the other end of life, intense individualism supports the idea that how one dies is simply a private matter in which no one else, – again, especially not the state – should interfere, and, therefore, people must be free to choose euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Yet, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide necessarily involve society’s compliance and physicians’ participation. It cannot be just a private matter.

“In reprogenetics, the accumulation of individual decisions are resulting in an overall outcome that would never be acceptable as public policy. In short, the new genetics is functioning as eugenics.

“It is argued that eugenics is only practised when a choice is made in relation to a group or class or by someone who is not the future parent. But is that just sophistry?”

Somerville noted how children with Down Syndrome, dwarfs, the profoundly deaf and the manic depressive could all be eliminated from society by the accumulation of individual choices and that so doing would wipe out special cultures and some of our most creative people.

“We often test our principles, values, attitudes and beliefs at the margins, and here we are doing so at the two margins of life. We should remember that the ethical tone of a society is set by how it treats its most vulnerable members. What ethical tone will we pass on regarding respect for human life?”

Somerville distinguished between two notions of human dignity: intrinsic human dignity by which every human being has innate human dignity, and extrinsic human dignity, which refers to a quality of life. If a human’s quality of life falls below a certain level, she lacks dignity and her life can be ended. Somerville denounced the concept of extrinsic human dignity.

H. Tristram Engelhardt, an American medical doctor and philosopher, spoke on “Taking moral difference seriously: Bioethics after the death of God.” Engelhardt is an Orthodox Christian and the author of The Foundation of Christian Bioethics.

“Part of the depth that separates us in bioethics debates is that these are religiously grounded moral differences. Religious people have their convictions anchored in transcendent concerns, while nonbelievers see a horizon that stretches only to the finite. The agnostic acts and speaks as though God didn’t exist.

“So abortionists are seen as either murderers of babies or liberators of women. Physicians who assist in suicide are seen as either collaborators in self-murder or liberators from pain and suffering.

“These are irresolvable moral controversies. We need to honestly acknowledge the force of intractable divisions and learn to live with them. We need to look for strategies of peaceable, unforced collaboration in the face of real moral diversity. We need to live with the chaos of different views. Society today is not one moral community. The failure to take real moral diversity seriously results in the tyranny of majority moral consensus.

“We still need a robust guarantee of free speech in civil society, not a mere toleration of others’ views which quickly becomes the forced acceptance of the views of others. Frank discourse is too quickly branded as hate speech and shut down.

“We need to allow real moral and religious pluralism. In matters of birth, copulation and death we are morally and emotively divided. This is the stuff of our culture wars. The disagreements are interminable.

“Either all of existence is anchored ultimately in transcendence or human life has no ultimate significance. If God doesn’t exist, then the universe is morally senseless. This is a profound cultural rupture. Then ‘God is dead and man ain’t too well either.’ The rhetoric of consensus tries its best to discount religious moral difference. It is a vain pursuit of consensus.”

Engelhardt favours a parallel health care system that would see a Dr. Kervokian General on one side of Main Street and Mother Teresa Hospital on the other. Engelhardt would encourage picketing and all peaceful processes to witness to the other side but no use of force. Most useful in the abortion debate would be taking distressed pregnant women into private homes.

“We need an open discussion with honest words. The lack of honest discussion is a hallmark of a limited democracy. Atheists cannot understand ultimate purposes. (For Christians) the whole goal of human life is to cure our souls. The body is sacred because it was assumed by Christ in the Incarnation. Truth is going to be a ‘who,’ not a ‘what.’

“We are moral strangers within a liberal democracy. The rationalist is a person without a context, a person without a sense of ultimate meaning. For him, only the imminent is meaningful, while believers are transcendental to their core and so won’t be understood by secularists.”

The law: two sets of total claims

The conference heard from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, who said, “A fundamental tenet of the rule of law is that all people are subject to its authority. It makes total claims upon the self and leaves little of human experience untouched. Yet religion exerts a similarly comprehensive claim. In the minds of its adherents, its authority stands outside and above that of the law.

“So by examining freedom of religion, we are asking how one authoritative and ubiquitous system of cultural understanding, the rule of law, accommodates another, similarly comprehensive system of belief. The modern religious citizen is caught between two all-encompassing sets of commitments. The law faces the seemingly paradoxical task of asserting its own ultimate authority while carving out a space within itself in which individuals and communities can manifest alternate, and often competing, sets of ultimate commitments.”

McLachlin observed, “There is little doubt that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has ushered in a new era of protection for religious conscience in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not introduce the concept of religious freedom into the Canadian legal landscape. Far from it. Notions of religious freedom reach back to pre-Confederation times and suffuses legislation and case-law since that time.”

The chief justice argued that the Charter has made a “linguistic” contribution. “The Charter was important because of its role in articulating the core values in our society … The Charter awakened a discussion about the purposes and objectives of protecting religious freedom and, in so doing, called upon us all to better articulate our normative commitments.”

“As the cultural diversity of our nation has developed, we have come to recognize that a multiplicity of worldviews grounded in alternate sources of authority does not necessarily threaten the rule of law, but rather, strengthens and completes public life and discourse.

“We have come to a fuller appreciation of the intrinsic connection between respecting religious conscience and attending to the inherent dignity of all persons. Freedom of conscience and religion have become a component of the Canadian experience of the rule of law. The law has matured along with society.”

Unfortunately, unlike all the other presentations, no time was allowed for questions after the chief justice’s address. However, a formal response was delivered by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher from the University of Chicago, who noted that even historically, “The King’s writ doesn’t extend to everything.” She asked, “Where does Caesar illegitimately usurp what is rightfully God’s?”

Elshtain also observed that there has recently been a turning away from the “strong separationism” of church and state in the U.S. Citizens should not have to “bracket their beliefs in the public square. Religious faith is not a private matter. The courts need to recognize there are multiple institutions with multiple points of authority.”

Earlier in the conference, Elshtain delivered an address of her own. In it, she noted how Hannah Arendt had observed that in World War II, totalitarian regimes stripped their domestic victims first of their civic standing, then of their moral standing. “Human dignity is God-given and cannot be revoked by governments. The wider human rights culture is not strong enough to discourage genocide.”

Elshtain recommended the Catholic social teaching in the papal encyclicals because it “is directed to all persons of good will, believer and non-believer alike.” She observed that, “Responsible freedom is not motivated by coercion but by duty.”

She urged opposition to the concept of “self-sovereignty,” in which we are “whole and complete unto ourselves, in isolation from community, the self being the sum total. Rather, a person is an individual in a community with a historical and social context, not an indiscriminate blob. We need to support individuality not individualism, human solidarity not human isolation.”

In the final panel discussion, “When Group rights conflict,” Ian Benson, the co-chair of the conference and executive director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, expressed some concerns about the protection of rights in the courts:

  • Does the mechanism for resolving rights (the courts) actually threaten those very rights?
  • Are there fundamentally different conceptions of rights in a post-Christian, pluralistic society that makes them difficult to resolve?
  • How do the courts handle communitarian claims with religious roots?
  • Equality or individual rights can end up trumping collective or group rights.

He then offered four considerations to help the state referee boundary disputes between various communities in society:

  1. Commonality. Every citizen is a believer of one sort or another, so the state should not drive us to monism (one ultimate principle or point of view).
  2. State limitation. The state should, as the Charter does, recognize pre-existing rights.
  3. No one right has automatic trump status.
  4. Race, gender and sexual orientation should not be treated as priority rights. When they are seen as dominant rights, any dissent regarding them is treated as intolerance and hate.

Benson argued that the Scott Brockie case was rightly decided. As a Christian printer, Brockie argued he could not in good conscience print material for a homosexual organization. Brockie’s religious freedom was respected by the court, said Benson. The government should not tell individuals which groups they should support.

The McGill conference confirmed Alexis de Tocqueville’s view that, “Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”

The secular state and a desecularized society

Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, gave one of the most persuasive lectures of the conference.

“The extraordinary thing happening on planet Earth today is the de-secularization of world history. Until recently, sociologists were puzzled by what they called ‘American exceptionalism.’ The United States is the most modern nation in the world, yet it is also strongly religious. It violates the rule that modernity – and modernity’s political expression in liberal democracy – goes hand in hand with secularization. Some of those same sociologists have now decided that the rule was wrong. Peter Berger of Boston University now speaks of the ‘exceptionalism’ of Western Europe, for Western Europe (and North American intellectuals who take their cues from Europe) sticks out as the secular exception in a world that is becoming ever more religious.

“Since Sept. 11, we are newly aware of the more than one billion Muslims in the world who, sometimes with suicidal zeal, reject what they view as the secularism of the West. The same phenomenon is evident in India, with newly politicized forms of Hinduism. But the most overlooked part of this global picture is the explosion of Christianity, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Christianity has 2.5 billion adherents mainly in the southern hemisphere. Suddenly, western Europe looks like an island of secularism in a sea of global religion.

“The great question is whether modernity and liberal democracy can be secured in ways compatible with vibrant religious faith. Can Islam produce a comparable religious argument to Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (One Hundred Years) in support of modernity and democracy? We do not know. We must hope and pray that it can. But this we do know: If it is true that liberal democracy is inseparable from secularism, liberal democracy has a very dim future in a world of resurgent religion.”

Douglas Farrow, associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill and co-chair of the conference, questioned the concept of “liberal neutrality,” that the state serves as a kind of referee regulating the competition among numerous religious groups and between the religious and the non-religious. “It was the Christian religion that carved out a safe space for the secular. The very concept of the secular state is a Christian one. The state is secular because it is strictly provisional, owing to the fact that it belongs to an age (saeculum) that is passing away, an age that will be, and in some sense already has been, superseded by the kingdom of God. The secular state is a liberal state, but it is neither opposed to religion nor does it fancy itself the referee of religion. It is liberal because it knows that it is temporary, not because it imagines itself to be neutral.”

American political theorist William Galston defined an ideal secular state as “four no’s and two yes’s”: 1. A secular state should not be a theocracy. 2. There should be no establishment of a particular religion or ensemble of religions. 3. There should be no religious test for citizenship or public office. 4. There should be no officially endorsed or administered prayer or religious practice. (Voluntary prayer was acceptable in schools, but not state-enforced school prayer.) There should be equal treatment of all faiths, but neither preferred nor invidious treatment. A secular state should have an expansive notion of accommodation. Religious and non-religious discourse should both be welcome.

Galston, an advisor to former president Bill Clinton, said democracy legitimates itself when it observes its limits and invalidates itself when it overrides them. Galston illustrated with an example of a mythical king who was persuaded to convert to Judaism. He then ruled that all the citizens of his kingdom should also convert. Such coercion would be an obvious abuse of monarchical power. But then Galston, a Jew himself, asked: what if a democratic government passed the same decision? Even if the vote was a clear two-thirds majority that all inhabitants of the country should convert to Judaism, it would still be an abuse of democracy. “Even a liberal democracy can abuse its power while following perfectly democratic procedures.”

The political sphere should not be a sovereign sphere of “civic totalism.” Religious associations should enjoy considerable authority to determine their own affairs. For instance, they may enforce certain gender roles in their priesthood or rabbinate. Religious groups have the right to exclude as well as to include. “Yet the core evils of the human condition, the state must rightly restrict. A government needs to protect the exit rights of members of voluntary associations. Voluntary associations cannot be a prison.”

Galston also spoke of “institutional pluralism” and “associational diversity,” drawing on the thinking of the Dutch Calvinists’ “sphere sovereignty” or what in Roman Catholic social thought is referred to as “subsidiarity.” The government should not unduly intrude into the affairs of the other spheres (such as commerce and family), but should adjudicate disputes that arouse between the spheres where they overlapped.

Philosopher Charles Taylor, professor emeritus at McGill, held that with really deep dilemmas there may not be a unique solution, only a partial solution and with it a sense of “deep moral regret.” “You aim to arrive at a partial solution you can live with.” Some solutions will be totally unacceptable.

It’s crucial that the different parties articulate what’s really important to them and that we listen. “We’re not listening to each other, to the plurality of voices and viewpoints. We must avoid monological thinking and deligitimating the other voices by not listening. During the Meech Lake Accord, the rest of Canada could not hear what Quebec was talking about.

“When we translate religious convictions into secular terms we lose something. Religious people have made an effort to understand the nonreligious. Now secular people have to make more of an effort to understand religious people who speak a language that transcends.”