Making room for all in the public square
'We are moral strangers within a liberal democracy,' conference told
Reproduced with permission from the BC
Citizens . . . should not
have to check their deepest beliefs at the vestibule
before entering the public square. At the same time,
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
MONTREAL -- Modernity was supposed to lead to a
secular state where religion would become so
personal and privatized as to be virtually
irrelevant to public life. It would have no real
influence in the public square.
Now just the opposite seems to be occurring.
Globally, religion is gaining clout, and the way we
order our lives together politically is once again
being forced to take into account the spiritual.
So argued many of the speakers at a "Pluralism,
Religion, and Public Policy" conference held Oct.
9-11 at McGill University. Citizens, they said,
should not have to check their deepest beliefs at
the vestibule before entering the public square. At
the same time, 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
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular scholars, and
was jointly sponsored by the Faculty of Religious
Studies at McGill and the
Cultural Renewal 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 said he supported "consensus
and pluralism" and believed that "Freedom without
responsibility ceases to be freedom." Instead of a
"clash of cultures and civilizations" (buzz words
since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) he cited the
600 years that Jews, Christians, and Muslims traded
peaceably from Morocco to Malabar.
"The noble art of conversation"
The Muslim prince expressed 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."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
Is faith a cause of exclusion for citizens of
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 in need of protection, or is it
growing and in need of more accommodation?
"Whether. . .theists or atheists . . . the table
belongs to all of us"
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."
Whether we are theists or atheists, we all belong
at the table," declared Father Richard John Neuhaus.
The editor-in-chief of
said in a public lecture, "The table belongs to all
of us, not just the faith-free. All should be warmly
welcomed. All presumptions have to be laid on the
table. People need to feel confident that they can
make their arguments from moral and religious
Father Neuhaus, who also authored 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, he said, 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, he said, "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," Father Neuhaus said, "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-chairman 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."The
very concept of the secular state is a Christian
"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 not 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 nos and two
The nos:-- A secular state should not be a
theocracy.-- There should be no establishment of a
particular religion or ensemble of religions.--
There should be no religious test for citizenship or
public office.-- There should be no officially
endorsed or administered prayer or religious
practice. (Voluntary prayer is acceptable in schools
but not state-enforced school prayer.)
His yeses:-- There should be equal treatment for
all faiths, but neither preferred nor invidious
treatment.-- A secular state should have an
expansive notion of accommodation, welcoming
religious and non-religious discourse.
Limits of democracy
Galston said democracy legitimates itself when it
observes its limits and invalidates itself when it
overrides them. For instance, if a democratic
government passed a law, even by a clear two-thirds
majority, that all inhabitants of the country should
convert to Judaism, it would be an abuse of
"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," he said. Religious
associations should enjoy considerable authority to
determine their own affairs. They have the right to
exclude as well as to include, and may enforce
certain gender roles in their priesthood or
However the state must rightly restrict the core
evils of the human condition: "a government needs to
protect the exit rights of members of voluntary
associations. Voluntary associations cannot be a
Setting an ethical tone for society
Margaret Somerville, founding director of the
McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, argued,
"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.
"The society has "adopted intense individualism,"
she said, leading to claims of rights to "absolute
In essence, claims about reproduction are no one
else's business, and "especially not the state's
business to interfere through law ... one should be
absolutely free to reproduce in whatever way and
reproduce whatever kind of child one wishes.
"That, she said, 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
Similarly, 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,
especially not the state, should interfere, she
"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
Similarly, in the reproductive field, "the
accumulation of individual decisions is 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 who have Down
Syndrome, dwarfism, profound deafness, and manic
depression 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
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. Somerville condemned the latter, in which a
person lacks dignity and can have his life ended if
his quality of life falls below a certain level. [Somerville's
"We are moral strangers within a liberal
H. Tristram Engelhardt, an American medical
doctor and philosopher, agreed with much of the
moral stance taken by Somerville,
but felt it should be argued and defended
unashamedly from a religious point of view in the
An Orthodox Christian and author of The
Foundation of Christian Bioethics, he spoke on a
panel with Somerville and also in a lecture, "Taking
Moral Difference Seriously: Bioethics After the
Death of God."
"Part of the depth that separates us in bioethics
debates is that these are religion-grounded moral
differences. Religious people have their convictions
anchored in transcendent concerns, while
non-believers 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."Calling them "irresolvable moral
controversies, Englehardt said, "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."
What's also needed is 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," he said. "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."He joked that in such a God-less
universe, not only is God dead, but "man ain't too
He continued, "The rhetoric of consensus tries
its best to discount religious moral difference. It
is a vain pursuit of consensus."
Engelhardt favoured a parallel health-care system
that would see a "Dr. Kervokian General" on one side
of Main Street and a "Mother Teresa Hospital" on the
other. Engelhardt would encourage picketing and all
peaceful processes to give witness to the other
side, but no use of force. Most useful in the
abortion debate would be welcoming 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.
Many speakers referred to "ultimate truth," but
Englehardt added, "Truth is going to be a `who,' not
Engelhardt explained that we may hold the same
four values of "liberty, polity, prosperity, and
security," but by the order in which we rank them,
we can arrive at radically different forms of
"By emphasizing, first, security, and then
prosperity, you get a dictatorial democracy like
Singapore. By emphasizing, first, liberty, you have
Texas," declared the tall Texan.
"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."
Faith perspectives irrelevant or contrary to the
Two committed Christians and former politicians
opened the conference with a panel on "Religion in
Canada": Protestant Preston Manning, the former
leader of the Reform Party, and Catholic Claude
Ryan, the former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party.
Manning noted, "Canadian media and politicians
generally reject faith perspectives as irrelevant or
contrary to the public good. Why else did Jean
Chretien insist the name of Jesus was not to be
mentioned at the memorial service for the Swiss Air
disaster, or that the memorial service for the
victims of Sept. 11 was not to include prayer or
Many people in politics and the media have lost
their own personal faith and are therefore
uncomfortable with expressions of faith by others
who have retained or discovered faith."
"We don't know how to handle expressions of faith
in the public policy arena, so the simplest thing is
to simply exclude them. We have largely abandoned
the idea that there is an `objective truth' in the
spiritual area and therefore have no way of picking
between the bewildering variety of religious
opinions clamouring for recognition. The simplest
way out for the public policy maker is to pay lip
service to all and to pay serious attention to
none."He also said that the fact that religious
groups disagree among themselves is no reason to
exclude them from committees advising on public
policy. Scientists and ethicists, after all, also
disagree but are still given standing.
Manning noted with approval that Canada has
unofficially adopted the American doctrine of the
separation of Church and state, but he said,
"keeping the institutions of the state separate from
the institutions of faith communities surely cannot
mean excluding spiritual considerations ... from the
He warned, however, "When advocates of
faith-based positions convey the impression that
they would force their positions on the rest of the
population, if only they had sufficient power and
influence to do so, is it any wonder that the rest
of the population is reluctant to grant them
standing and influence?" [Manning's
Ryan, former editor of La Presse, noted, "Human
life is essentially moral. Life with no reference to
moral values would not be human," and religion is
the safest guardian of moral values.
Even after a decision has been made, the moral
debate should still continue, he said, and it
extends to the Church itself. "The pronouncements
and social interventions from the Canadian
Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) are often
conceived without the large, open debate of the
faithful. Important Catholic lay voices are very
seldom heard, only a monolithic, top level voice
from the bishops."
Manning and Ryan agreed that a "vibrant interior
life" for the individual and the Church had to be
complemented by social action to be a true
expression of Christianity.
The law makes total claims upon the self.
The conference heard from Chief Justice 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.
"Religion, she said, "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
The modern religious citizen, she said, 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
alternative, and often competing, sets of ultimate
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 suffuse 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 Canada's cultural diversity has developed, "we
have come to recognize that a multiplicity of
worldviews grounded in alternative sources of
authority does not necessarily threaten the rule of
law, but rather strengthens and completes public
life and discourse," she said.
"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
Shall Caesar usurp God?
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 United States. 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
Elshtain had also delivered an address of her own
earlier in the conference in which she noted how
philosopher Hannah Arendt had observed that in World
War II, totalitarian regimes stripped their domestic
victims first of their civic standing, then of their
"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
found in papal encyclicals because it "is directed
to all persons of good will, believer and
She observed, "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."
Boundary disputes: "When Group Rights Conflict"
In the final panel discussion, "When Group Rights
Conflict," Iain Benson, the co-chairman of the
conference and the 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:
-- 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
-- State limitation. The state should, as the
Charter does, recognize pre-existing rights.
-- No one right has automatic trump status.
-- 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.
In the end, the McGill conference lent
confirmation to 19th-century French historian Alexis
de Tocqueville's view that, "Despotism can do
without faith, but freedom cannot."