Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy


Can there be any consensus in a pluralist society respecting the common good? Can notions such as 'the dignity of the human person' or 'equality of persons' or 'human rights' be articulated in such a way as to guide effectively our legislators, judges, and those charged with overseeing public welfare? What role should religion play in determining the content of these notions – or in shaping policies on economics, education, health care, scientific research, foreign affairs, or the global community? It is often said that ours is a 'secular' society, but what exactly does that imply? The Pluralism, Religion & Public Policy project is designed to bring together people from academia, law, politics and religious institutions to debate some of the fundamental issues that must be faced in addressing such questions.


A Europe in which one can believe? 

St George he was for England, 
And right gallantly set free 
The lady left for dragon's meat 
And tied up to a tree; 
But since he stood for England 
And knew what England means, 
Unless you give him bacon 
You mustn't give him beans.

– from “The Englishman,” by G. K. Chesterton

The Paris Statement: A Europe We Can Believe In was issued on 7 October 2017 by signatories from ten nations, including Rémi Brague, Roger Scruton, Robert Spaemann and... (Look for the rest of this analysis in a forthcoming issue of Communio.)

A country in which one can believe only what and where and when one is told to believe 

Attempts to suppress religion and pluralism of opinion are not unknown in Canada. Witness the current controversy over the student summer jobs program.  They are better known in China, however, where it is established public policy to efface and deface religious expression. Attempts to inform the Vatican of that have fallen on deaf ears.


Double Truth?

(Excerpt from Desiring a Better Country, 51f.)

'Justin Trudeau, for one, recently declared that the truth taught him by the Catholic Church via his father is one thing and the truth to which he and his caucus colleagues must adhere is another. Here is Trudeau fils, as reported in various interviews, brandishing the Liberal Party flag at the barricade between public and private truth in defence of abortion: “I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religious, very Catholic … He held his personal views very, very strongly. But he understood that as leaders, as political figures, as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.” “The policy going forward is that every single Liberal mp will be expected to stand up for women’s rights to choose.” “That doesn’t impact or prevent someone from holding personal views – religious views – but it does mean that with our votes the Liberal party protects women’s rights.”

And here is Trudeau père, commenting on the same issue some forty years earlier: “You know, at some point you are killing life in the foetus in self-defence – of what? Of the mother’s health or her happiness or of her social rights or her privilege as a human being? I think she should have to answer for it and explain. Now, whether it should be to three doctors or one doctor or to a priest or a bishop or to her mother-in-law is a question you might want to argue … You do have a right over your own body – it is your body. But the foetus is not your body; it’s someone else’s body. And if you kill it, you’ll have to explain.”

It will not do, of course, to mistake Pierre Trudeau’s view for that of the Church. One does not explain that which is intrinsically evil; rather, one repents of it. And where the evil in question is killing the innocent, civil law, like natural and divine law, must forbid it. But what are we to make of Justin’s notion that something can be fundamentally wrong according to sound religion and fundamentally right according to sound politics? We can draw but one of two conclusions. Either truth is indeed a house divided against itself, or else the realm of religion – of “deeply held personal views” – is not really the realm of truth or rationality at all.

The result again is repression. A more sensible man, Rex Murphy, put his finger on the problem that immediately arises for those who neither subscribe to a two-truths theory nor accept the bracketing of religion with the irrational: they are excluded from public life.

What kind of politics are they which require an MP to renounce his deepest moral commitments; indeed, to go beyond renunciation and declare himself positively in favour of ideas and actions that his faith condemns, his Church forbids, and his conscience cannot abide? Religion, under these conditions, cannot survive political engagement. An understanding of politics based on an exclusion of thoughtful and engaged religious people – on the rejection of ideas and understandings offered by the great religious teachers and the massive legacy of thought our churches have to offer – is radically incomplete. As things now are, a truly religious person must actually stay out of politics – must forgo an active role in democratic government – because in our brazen and new age, he or she will be faced with irreconcilable moral choices. If elected, he or she will be required to betray their faith and themselves, and on those very issues that matter most: issues of life, family, autonomy and the dignity of persons.

That is the effect of the doctrine of double truth as we encounter it today.' 

Double Talk

Is a good secular state one that enforces what Richard John Neuhaus famously called the naked public square? Is it a state, to change the metaphor, that imposes The Yoke of Neutrality?  Whence arises the so-called 'duty of neutrality' anyway? The American constitution, as Justice Scalia and others have observed, does not impose any such duty, but only a non-establishment/free-exercise clause.

In the opening paragraph of Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (2015 SCC 16), on the other hand, we read: 'The state is required to act in a manner that is respectful of every person’s freedom of conscience and religion. This is a fundamental right... Its corollary is that the state must remain neutral in matters involving this freedom.' But it is not at all evident that the latter claim is a corollary of the former; it appears rather to be appended to the former quite arbitrarily. The duty of neutrality thus posited is later secured, at par. 147, by another exercise in unexamined assertion: 'The reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.' Again, no supportive argument is offered.

The following paragraph of Saguenay quotes Lorne Sossin (“The ‘Supremacy of God’, Human Dignity and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” [2003], 52 U.N.B.L.J. 227, p. 229): 'The reference to the supremacy of God in the Charter should not be construed so as to suggest one religion is favoured over another in Canada, nor that monotheism is more desirable than polytheism, nor that the God‑fearing are entitled to greater rights and privileges than atheists or agnostics'  (emphasis added by the court). But Sossin's counterintuitive reading is not cited in conjunction with contrary views; nor is it defended. It is simply adopted by the court as congenial, and made the law of the land.

How neutral, we may ask, is 'neutral'? Take, for example, the Government action plan against homophobia 2011-2016, which included 'the creation of a university Research Chair on Homophobia,' which was filled in the Department of Sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). What are the implications of a 'research' chair designed for combat rather than consultation? Designed, that is, to support a state-approved ideology and ferret out resistance to it? What will be the impact of the action plan as a whole? Drafted in response to the first appearance of the Politique québécoise de lutte contre l'homophobie, The Government Declares War examines the policy and identifies the threat it poses to academic, civil, and religious freedom. A more irenic article considers some of the misunderstandings prevalent among both supporters and resisters of the 'anti-homophobia' movement. Neither irenicism nor logical clarity are presently prevailing, however. There is more madness in Manhattan, where it is now a punishable offence to distinguish between "actual or perceived gender."  There is tyranny in Toronto, where mothers and fathers are being written out of the law qua mothers and fathers. And of course there is the queered sex education that is being imposed in Quebec City and across the country.  (See further the Gender Mainstreaming page.)

Or take another and more notorious example: the state's involvement in abortion – not only in providing abortions (over the last century, world-wide, a staggering one billion of them, by some estimates) but in attacking those who defend the lives that are being ended by abortion.  This National Post piece is still worth reading: Hard truths about abortion. Another 'hard truth' deserves notice, however, namely that in Canada two religious ladies who have peacefully championed natural justice for the unborn, Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner, have paid for it repeatedly with jail sentences. Meanwhile, in the UK it has emerged that some hospitals have been burning fetal remains, along with other organic "waste," to help heat their buildings. In America other ways have been found, notably by the grotesquely misnamed Planned Parenthood, to profit by murder. On Canada's lack of an abortion law see the commentary by (ret.) Justice Mitchell, and this piece from Kevin Arsenault in PEI.

How neutral, for that matter, is a state that proposes to ban, inter alia, criticism of a particular religion, viz., Islam? Quebec is backing away from this now, but its basic instincts don't seem to have changed much. Criticism of the other is not "fear of the other." Fear is refusing to criticize, where criticism is due. Christianity is often criticized, rightly or wrongly. Islam (and not just Islamism) certainly deserves criticism also: 

It is true that from its inception Islam has been locked in combat with Christianity over the question of the unity of God, the reign of Christ, the form of justice, and the fundamentals of human nature.  It is true that Islam rests on an appropriation of Abrahamic monotheism and covenantalism, and that this appropriation is without benefit of the restraint either of Jewish ethnocentrism or of Christian trinitarianism (which latter, in connection with the cross of Christ that Islam denies, qualifies both the justice and the power of God by the still more fundamental notion that God is love).  It is true that its own curious mixture of particularism and universalism has helped to make Islam a fierce global competitor to Christianity, and an ever-present threat to Jews, a fact that accounts for many wars and rumours of war.  It is true that Islam – which purports to show all mankind how to submit to the law of God – has lent itself, in its suppression of the gospel, to cultures of secret or open lawlessness.  It is true that Islam, the glories of its golden age notwithstanding, has not proved itself a friend of freedom, and that Muslims (though many other Muslims abhor this) have martyred numberless Christians and other infidels.  And it is further true that Islam has perverted the very concept of martyrdom, by placing a bloody sword in the hands of its own martyrs.  Islam, in other words, is no accident of history about which one may be merely curious, or perhaps afraid.  Islam depends upon Christian precedent, yet it confesses a counter-revelation to that on which the church relies.  For that reason it is theologically important to Christians in a way that other world religions are not; and, on the ground, as it is actually practiced in some cultures, it is a daily threat to the peace and safety of those who will not submit. – Ascension Theology 99f.  

One can address such criticisms, or balance them with constructive retrievals and reforms (cf., e.g., chapter one of Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society), but a responsible discourse, one that is neutral in the sense of being properly objective, is one that is unafraid of honest critiques and counter-critiques. 

Again, how neutral is a state that tries to establish a right to die without suffering, which can only be established on the premise that we are the outright owners of our lives; otherwise put, on the premise that there is no Creator or Redeemer, no God to whom we are accountable for our lives?  This premise contradicts all three Abrahamic faiths. It's time, surely, for religion to makes its voice heard again in the public sphere. (See further the Euthanasia page.)