The Quebec government's infamous new "charter of values" has placed religion at the centre of our national political discourse. Even the proposed charter is dangerous and annoying, it shows clearly that religious questions are still very much a part of our public discourse.
Yet we should be wary of the notion that legislation on scarves, stars, or crosses is the only place where questions of religion matter. There are many more aspects of political discourse and policy making that relate to people's deepest convictions.
Cardus Senior Fellow Jonathan Chaplin, in a recent speech to the New Zealand think tank Maxim Institute, noted that there is a significant difference between "practical" politics and "pragmatic" politics. The former, involving the day to day compromises and adjustments needed to peacefully conciliate diverse interests and maintain public justice, is a necessary part of political life. The latter takes on the pretense that all such "practical" matters are in fact decided—and should only be decided—in a morally neutral way. Such an approach is, as Jonathan notes, "an illusion."
Jonathan Chaplin: "The Illusion of Neutrality" from Maxim Institute.
When you drop below the chop and waves political life, you are in fact plumbing the depths of meaning. It is a contested space, but even on so called "bread-and-butter" issues, that depth is present and informs how one goes about making practical decisions.
Even when a government says—as minister Jason Kenney said in his (excellent) response to the proposed charter—it is focused on "jobs and the economy," it is still informed by deep convictions. To sequester "convictions" to isolated bills and policies is to fall into the type of privatization of religion that the Parti Québécois ultimately wishes to see in its beautiful province.
For another example: even the ways government decides how to procure construction services for its public infrastructure has moral implications. Don't believe me? In a recent meeting plotting spending on roads, water treatment plants, and other such "neutral" pieces of infrastructure, a member of parliament asked, "Do you not believe that there's a moral obligation . . . to give every worker the right to work in Canada, regardless of their union or non-union status, as long as they're qualified?"
Yes, there is.
Not every decision is a confessional issue. Water treatment plants might not be about heaven and hell, but all political discourse—on hijabs or highways—plumbs the depths of human life.
Hear political theologian Oliver O'Donovan:
It is the deep groundswell of social cohesion, the corporately held commitments and unarticulated common impulses that determine the character of communities. These make the rational plans and conscientious judgments of their leaders look like waves on the surface of the ocean. Augustine's last and greatest word is a warning not to ignore the currents of the depths. Needless to say, sociology for him could only be theology. If we once dare to ask what lies behind politics and its justice, we must find ourselves face-to-face with heaven and hell.