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Quebec's Rigidly Religious Secular CharterQuebec's Rigidly Religious Secular Charter

Quebec's Rigidly Religious Secular Charter

The infamous attempt to legislate so-called neutrality is really a religious initiative wrapped in an obscuring veil, argue Jason Zuidema and Harold Ristau

Jason Zuidema
11 minute read

The proposed Quebec Charter of Values was inspired by fear. Fear of religion. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the past. Fear of the future. And mostly fear of being held accountable at the ballot box for poor management of the challenges in infrastructure, economy, health care and education.

Though based on fear, it was still coldly calculated, and in these first months of 2014, it seemed to be paying off for the government among its traditional constituency. Indeed, it would not be the first time in Quebec — or in any other province of our country — that laws were proposed and passed with an eye towards the subsequent election.

However cynically we view this proposed Charter, we still need to seriously consider it as it might soon become the law of our pays in one form or another. Its proposal makes clear the point of departure: "Since 2006, a number of highprofile religious accommodation cases have given rise to a profound discomfort in Quebec." Since, according to this proposal, no laws are on the books to deal with religious accommodation, something has to be done to "prevent tensions from growing," which creates a false dilemma to justify the proposal.

A central assertion of the proposal states that "the best way to respect everyone's beliefs is for the State to remain neutral and have no religion. This principle promotes pluralism by ensuring fair and equal treatment." In this proposal, neutrality amounts to "no religion." It no longer belongs in the range of American-style separation of "Church" and "State" that incorporates a dialogue between the two; it is now a complete exclusion of "religion" from the public sphere altogether.

However, it does not result in a separation of "values" from the State. We are not told where these values come from other than that they are "fundamental" and "a form of social contract." Under the heading "Affirming Quebec Values," we can read a timeline of our common progress from the creation of a secular ministry of education in 1964 (representing, it would seem, the beginning of our "fundamental" history) to to the judgment of the Supreme Court to decriminalize abortion in 1988 to the change in the Civil Code to grant civil unions to homosexual couples in 2002. All of these great leaps forward in the history of isolating "religion" from the public sphere will now be crowned with a Charter for the ages — a Charter that ironically enshrines discrimination against a plurality of religious expression into a document that purports to celebrate pluralism. Modern Quebec's pre-history can be salvaged as "religious heritage," but only insofar as it can decorate the blue legislature walls or the green Mount Royal.

The tagline in the push for the Charter tries to sum up the argument: "A Firm Belief in Our Values." For the government's purposes, it is a wonderful statement: it usurps the power of religious groups by co-opting and redeploying the language of faith. Furthermore, the language of the inclusive "our" presupposes that there is some defined group of people that cohere together (i.e., all those on the other side of English money and the ethnic vote).

Yet, this artful ambiguity also sets up the document for what we argue is its fatal flaw. This document is ambiguous, exasperating, ignorant, uninformed and insulting. But that is only to be expected. The unexpected feature that is its undoing is that it is a profoundly religious document. That is, the whole document grounds itself not on some truly "fundamental" thing that we all observe to be true or intuitively believe but a patchwork of the kind of opinions, ideas, fears and dreams that are proper to religious belief.

The religious character of the project was strikingly evidenced by its key promoter, Bernard Drainville, the Quebec Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship. Arguing that this Charter wishes to finally make secularism "visible, apparent and concrete," Drainville stated, "It is necessary to incarnate secularism" ("Il faut incarner la laïcité"). But can "secularism" be "incarnate"? By taking on flesh and dwelling among us, could this supposed neutrality towards religion be anything other than the unholy creation of a political and metaphysical Frankenstein that smuggles in a new leftist agenda of thinly veiled hostility towards all religion? If "secularism" is incarnate, has it not overstepped political boundaries and entered into the space of religion? If so, does it not amount to the authorization of a political ideology of religious intolerance bent on the destruction of religion?

A document that both formally excludes religion and desperately clings to the paternalistic values of an overarching metaphysic remains a bit of a mystery unless one is familiar with the last half century of provincial politics in Quebec. Indeed, the kind of common values presumed by the current government seems much like the mythology of the "Grande Noirceur" in the primeval formlessness and void before the forces of secularist light created the Ministry of Education in 1964. As the darkness of religious accommodation, the Charter implies, now threatens us again with "profound discomfort" ("profond malaise"), we must fight lest the dawn of victory turn back to night. Never mind that recent studies of the upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s in Quebec have found much more flexibility in the Duplessis era and much more religious participation in the Quiet Revolution. After all, it serves the purpose of the new Charter to frame a "before and after" narrative wherein we are cleansed from our benighted state of religious infection.

The religious slant of the Charter comes out at key points. For example, the pamphlet promoting the proposed Charter states, "The State has an obligation to be neutral, which is an essential condition to ensure freedom of conscience and religion. The best way to respect everyone's beliefs is for the state to remain neutral and have no religion. This principle promotes pluralism by ensuring fair and equal treatment of all beliefs." Bill 60 itself states that "in the exercise of their functions, personnel members of

public bodies must exercise reserve with regard to expressing their religious beliefs." These statements are certainly problematic, for who exactly determines the definition of a particularly religious belief? What are the parameters for how it is expressed? What does this sort of proposed legislation tell us about the value this government places on the importance of personal identity, individual convictions, the freedom to be who you believe you are — all essential notions to a liberal democracy? It appears to be an unplanned ideological quest both to conceal with shame those things Canadians have always accepted as fundamental to their identity, and to reveal a new "cookie cutter" identity of the ideal citizen as "religiously secular." However, the vacuum must be filled with something new: a new identity and religion is revealed and sanctioned by the State that of necessity marginalizes other religious sensibilities.

Accordingly, should we show reserve in advocating for respect of others because our understanding of respect is primarily formed by a Biblical notion of a common Creator? Should we be cautiously patient, moderately kind or limitedly respectful of those in authority simply because the Apostle Paul told us to be patient, kind and respectful? Can one really make any judgments about what is religious or not, including what constitutes religious headgear, in a State that has "no religion"? Neutrality offers no place for these kinds of value judgments about what is religious. The State might make a judgment about what is "safe" but not about what is "religious."

Admittedly, it is a claim that seems counterintuitive: Does not the discussion revolve around concealing religion and not revealing it?

Although secularism is not a religion per se (denying the existence of God, or at least the importance of permitting any kind of recognition of that existence in any shape or form in the public sphere), secularism as expressed in Quebec has many of the same elements of a religion. The application of it as a movement, resembling tactics of a religious crusade driven by the authorities, who hold their own vision of the kind of religious society they would like to create, is hard to ignore. The kind of religious society that they seek is, of course, an anti-religious one. The atheistic undertones of laicité are clear. Those with the "no religion" values system will assuredly have the preferred life in the Quebec of tomorrow. But "why not?" one might ask — adherents of religion have too long been given preference.

An answer might come from the history of Christianity itself. As to why the application of secularism needs to be so intolerant, complete and thorough (i.e., why not an "advance of secularism" instead of the "incarnation of secularism"), the remnants of a Christian worldview may help to inform. Though presumably M. Drainville did not mean it as such, incarnation is a theological term — one with profound influence on the saeculum, the "age" in which we live. Christianity understood that Jesus Christ's "becoming flesh" had an effect on the earthly realm (John 1:14). God had, in a sense, brought all material things back into Himself, sanctifying them — what had been separated was now joined. According to this worldview, due to the incarnation, everything created was redeemed by and reconciled in Christ, and from that point on, carried a holy flavour. In short, the spheres of Heaven and Earth intersected in the incarnation.

In Christian history, Christ was said to have two "natures": one divine and one human (Council of Chalcedon, 451). These natures did not simply exist independently of each other but had a specific relationship in the person of Jesus Christ — by analogy, this relationship became a touchstone for understanding how all other Divine and earthly things should relate. Accordingly, particular understandings of how Christ remained "two in one" created an understanding of the way in which the spiritual and earthly realms hang together, impacting theological subjects such as salvation and the Church, but also political theory in regards to the relationship of Church and State.

In Christianity, there was no uniform understanding of how kings and popes, parliaments and presbyteries should function with one another. That being said, it is not without profit to bring the Charter into dialogue with the particular Christian tradition that formed it. The Christian heritage of Quebec is admitted by this document — but the wisdom of its tradition does not help frame its discussion.

In particular, the rich Christian history of distinguishing without separating ought to have been considered. It is possible to have a distinction without needing the kind of radical separation proposed by this Charter.

The first centuries of the Christian Church witnessed intense, often perplexing, discussions about the true nature of the Incarnation. The challenges of the Gnostics, the Arians and the Nestorians prompted high-level discussions that gathered and divided Church leaders like no other issue. Though some moderns might think these heated debates about the Incarnation no more than childish bickering, these discussions nevertheless had a profound effect on framing debates about the relationship between the power of Church leaders and all others. At the Council of Chalcedon, for instance, the Church determined that the Divine and human natures would not be confused, changed, divided or separated. It would be an error to pull them apart or mix them to form one new thing. Hence, they carefully developed the language of Christ's two natures in one person that in fact has served Christian theology in the West since that time.

Another example of the "distinction without separation" language comes from the leading theologian of the West, Augustine of Hippo. In a number of his writings, Augustine makes clear that Christian theologians need to understand the difference between signs and things. Though a sign (such as a word on a paper or an image on a canvas) can point us to a thing, we should not mistake it for the thing itself. If we see a picture of a chair, we can recognize and appreciate it as an attempt to picture a chair — but we know it is not actually a chair.

These two examples — Chalcedonian logic of Christ's two natures and Augustine's distinction between signs and things — can inform our reading of the proposed Charter of Values. A fundamental problem (and this is recognized by the Charter itself) is that there needs to be a complete separation of religion and the State. As mentioned, we are no longer simply discussing the separation of the responsibilities of the one or the powers of the other. A complete and uncompromising demarcation between the two is being delineated. In this case, religion now can have nothing to do with secular life. That is, a part of human identity defined as truly fundamental in Christianity can have no place in any part of public life in which the State participates. That separation is claimed to be total, especially in the ban of all conspicuous religious symbols.

By naming and limiting religion to the private sphere, the proposed Charter makes religion a right, one could say, instead of a freedom (though it says otherwise at a few points). But let us be clear: Our religious faith is not a right given to us by the government, it is a freedom that is fundamental to each citizen — that each citizen can express without governmental interference. Historically in North America, the government has never assumed the duty to oversee or enforce this freedom but has committed itself to an obligation not to unduly limit it. By claiming that it can name and frame religion, the proposed Charter has set itself up as conscience itself. In fact, freedoms as a concept are no longer needed — everything becomes a legal or social claim that we are entitled to in relation to the government.

Applied to the Charter, this collapsing of the freedom of religion into rights named and given by the government means the government believes itself to be self-sufficient. In short, it has become our national Church, albeit without any traditional concept of God. There are no distinctions necessary — all that we need for civil society is contained therein. The greatest offence, therefore, is that any sign would point away from it, that any sign would point to the fact that the State is not self-sufficient. No doubt this is why "conspicuous" religious objects that "overtly indicate a religious affiliation" are intolerable. They indeed point to the religious affiliation of the person, but also to much more: They point to the fact that the government has not yet achieved its goal of making freedoms into rights — that is, of telling us that we depend on it to live and move and have our being.

By focusing on the concealing of all signs of religion, the proposed Charter reveals its fundamental gambit: By making signs into things and things into signs, the power of the State (and the electability of a government) is consolidated. The "conspicuous" religious signs that point to freedoms are treated as if they are things that can be limited by rights. However, the talk of "fundamental values" — claimed to be a thing we collectively possess — turns out to be a sign for some other reality. These values are a sign for a State that can do away with religious freedoms — and give State-sanctioned values to take their place. Hence, the priests of this secular monophysitism — this single-natured being — officiate over the liturgy of the application of the principles of the Charter, assuring that the "incarnate secularism" cleanses and purifies the earthly realm and public sphere.

So, the sign has become the thing, secularism is incarnated, and a new religion (this "no religion" religion) aggressively opposed to any and all traditional religion is revealed and perpetuated. Every vacuum needs to be filled, and there is nothing left to do the job. If, indeed, the proposed Charter is approved, and the clothing of secularism is the only garment that obedient citizens are permitted to wear or "express" in the public sphere, then we have entered a terrifying age in which the State will do what is right in its own eyes. But if the State is all there is, who judges the judges? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? >

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