Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Making room for all in the public square

'We are moral strangers within a liberal democracy,' conference told

Reproduced with permission from the BC Catholic

Sue Careless*

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 Centre for 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 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 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 First Things 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 convictions."

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.

Fortress Europe

"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 one."

"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 yeses."

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 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," 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 rabbinate.

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 prison."

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 reproductive freedom."

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 child?"

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 said.

"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."

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 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. 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 text]

"We are moral strangers within a liberal democracy."

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 public square.

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 well either."

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 a `what.'"

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 government.

"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 public good.

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 Scripture readings?"

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 public square."

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 text]

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 of belief."

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 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 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 society."

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 authority."

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 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 found in papal encyclicals because it "is directed to all persons of good will, believer and non-believer alike."

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 view).

-- 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."