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Political Secularism in the United States: Reflections in Light of the Quebec Charter of Values


Arts Building Room W-215, 853 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal, QC, H3A 0G5, CA

A lecture by Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown University)

“Political secularism” is the term we will use to describe a complex and diverse set of policies that governments use to monitor and regulate the activities of religious groups and individuals. It is, we shall demonstrate, a far less coherent, fixed, and battle-tested doctrine in liberal democracies, and elsewhere, than is commonly thought. By looking at the fluid, structurally unstable (and currently) besieged American model of political secularism, we will try to crack open possibilities and problems to be considered in a secular Canada, and particularly the province of Quebec currently mired in controversies about the PQ’s Charter of Values.

Among the questions facing American theorists that may be germane to our neighbors in the north, we note the following: to what degree is secularism a coherent doctrine, with mutually agreed upon policies and goals? Is “separation of church and state” the essence of American secularism? Can a state (or provincial) secularism legitimately claim to be religiously “neutral”? Or, are these secularisms so pervaded by the assumptions of majoritarian faiths that they represent a quasi-establishment in their own right? Is secularism anti-religious and can pro-religious secularisms be envisioned? Does secularism have a coherent view on the question of expressive liberties, ranging from the right of artists and intellectuals to criticize or mock religion, to the right of public employees to choose their own workplace attire?

These are all exceedingly complicated questions, and as we shall see secularism does not necessarily have well-thought out answers, let alone consensus among theorists who study it. Ideally, the drawing of comparisons between secular thought in the United States and Canada will be of use in the continuing development of a vital political philosophy, albeit one still undergoing a period of turbulent maturation.