Secularism or Pluralism? On the Quebec “Charter of Values”

September 21, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Like me, you may be following the recent news from Quebec about the “Charter of Values” that’s being proposed, and, like me, you may be feeling appalled at the very idea. Essentially, it forbids people working in government from wearing overtly religious symbols, including large crucifixes, Muslim headscarves (both the niqab (head and face covering) and hijab (head covering)), Sikh turbans, and Jewish kippas or skull caps, presumably for the purposes of keeping the government truly secular or religiously “neutral.” (See this article for more information.)

Even though I belong to the Mennonite tradition, which has historically placed great value in the firm separation of church (or religion) and state, this charter really doesn’t sit right with me, so I thought I’d try to articulate what bothers me about it:

1. It’s based on a misinterpretation of why religion and the state are supposed to be separate. Originally, during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, wasn’t the whole idea of the separation of church and state to stop the state from dictating what people can and cannot believe? Well, here the government is dictating which physical expressions of faith are and aren’t acceptable. Under the guise of keeping faith and government separate, here the government is actually interfering in matters of faith.

2. The charter is based on a misunderstanding of the actual significance of religion. Its banning of public symbols of faith that people wear reveals an assumption that faith is purely private and internal, that any public aspects of faith are transgressions of the proper sphere of religion. In reality, however, most religions agree that faith profoundly influences peoples’ very identities, and therefore they affect not only what a person wears, but also how a person thinks and acts, no matter what context one finds oneself in. It’s not something a person can just turn on and off, or just leave at home! In addition, the charter seems to be based on the assumption that wearing public symbols of faith is tantamount to imposing one’s faith onto other people. As I see it, these symbols represent religious self-expression, not any kind of evangelism.

3. It’s inconsistent and unfairly targets newcomers to Canada. As the article states, there are certain religious symbols that won’t be forbidden; the charter “would exempt a host of Catholic symbols, from streets named after saints to the crucifix hanging in Quebec National Assembly and the large cross on Mount Royal in the centre of Montreal.” It also remains acceptable for public service workers to wear “discreet cross pendants or Star of David rings.” These exceptions are evidence of the history of Christian/Catholic and Jewish influence in the earlier history of Canada. The charter has to stop short of removing all of these symbols because the overhaul would be too vast. But these exceptions also render the charter inconsistent, because while Christianity and Judaism are only somewhat censured, Islam and Sikhism – the religions of more recent immigrants to the country – are fully excluded. This suggests a feeling that newcomers are somehow threatening to Quebec/Canada, which just doesn’t make sense in a nation of immigrants.

4. It’s based on secularism instead of pluralism. The more I think about the relationship between religion and wider society/politics, the more I’m skeptical of secularism. You see, secularism, while feigning neutrality, tries to erase and exclude religion from the public sphere, whereas pluralism allows all religions a voice, without any of them dominating the conversation. McGill Professor Ian Henderson expressed a similar vision in a recent interview on the CBC radio show Q. He said, “I think the most exciting and the richest secularity is a secularity which has a deep plurality, in which each of us is expected to contribute from the traditions and from the values that each of us has. That means I expect my neighbour. . . to contribute from who he is, and the condition for that being possible is that I’m expected to contribute from who I am.” As someone who belongs to a small religious minority, that’s the kind of vision in which I feel welcome, and at home.

So what I’m saying is, I think there should actually be more religion in the public sector, not less. No, I don’t mean that people should start imposing their beliefs onto one another, nor that we should mix all religions together in some nebulous combination, but rather that we should be honest about the influence – yes, even positive influence! – that religion has on politics. Think of our healthcare system in Canada: it was started by Tommy Douglas, a Canadian politician and Baptist minister, and is a fairly clear reflection of his Christian faith. Do we wish Douglas had left his religious convictions at home, and not allowed them to influence his politics? Hardly. I forget where on CBC radio I heard it, but I remember someone speaking about changing our religious symbols to reflect pluralism. Instead of only having a cross hanging in the halls where government assembles, or worse, taking down the cross, this person promoted adding other religious symbols to reflect all the religions represented in this country. Now that seems to me like a step in the right direction.

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