New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dual Citizens in a Secular Society

"Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord..."

St. Augustine
The City of God

Every Christian is a dual citizen:  he belongs to a "City of Man" and a "City of God."  In both Canada and Europe today there are arguments about the extent to which religious people of all faiths are permitted to openly signal their membership in God's city.

 The example before us today is the Parti Québécois’s Charter of Quebec Values.  This measure would forbid public servants (government workers) from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols while carrying out their functions.  The argument of the Charter's supporters is that this is necessary to reinforce the state's neutrality with regard to religion:
"cette charte de la laïcité visera notamment à interdire les signes religieux ostentatoires dans la fonction publique, c’est-à-dire que les institutions publiques et les agents travaillant dans ces institutions doivent refléter la neutralité de l’État."
This has provoked a bitter public debate.  My purpose here is not to add to the very good commentary about this charter one can find in any number of on and off-line articles.  (For a good round-up  of what has been said so far about the charter, see Andrew Griffith's fine blog Multicultural Meanderings.)  Instead I would like to broaden the discussion and talk about general efforts in some parts of the world to create (or reinforce) what is referred to as a "secular" society - an ideal world (some say) where religious beliefs no longer have a place in the public sphere and where, as Peter Berger puts it, "signals of transcendence" become rumors, "and not very reputable rumors at that."  

To many Europeans and Canadians (and even some Americans) this is a worthy goal and, in Europe at least, it has been moderately successful.  The recent battles over marriage in France notwithstanding, religious beliefs have much less voice in the public sphere than they had in times past.  It is worth pointing out, however, that when one looks around the world, there is a sort of European exceptionalism at work here.  In many parts of the world  (and especially in the Global South) religious beliefs are part and parcel of the public conversation on all issues and religious affiliation is growing, not shrinking.  Efforts by the Global North to convince such places that they must become less religious in order to become more modern are generally met with skepticism, if not outright contempt. 

Even more interesting is that there is another on-going debate within the world community of Christians (and this one began centuries ago) over the extent to which Christians should be involved in the earthly city and use their faith-based beliefs to weigh in on the pressing social issues of our time. A passion for politics is a passion for things of this world which Christians are asked to think of as transient and inferior to the city of God. Some argue for disengagement - leave Caesar to Caesar. As for signaling one's citizenship in the Heavenly City there is a line of thought that believes that this is a futile exercise. Religious beliefs are best spread by example (or as AA puts it) they prefer attraction to promotion.  A few even believe that complete separation is necessary in order for believers to avoid the taint of their secular neighbors and compatriots.  The last implies a certain common ground between the most rabid of the secularists and their fundamentalist Christian counterparts.

Most people of faith (whatever their affiliation) are not separatists.  Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and all other people of faith who end up in countries where the secular society is taking on the aura of a national project, have to struggle with this daily.  How open can one be about the sources of one's opinions if they are faith-based?  What kinds of religious signals are allowed - not only by law - but within a particular cultural context?    These questions are particularly challenging to those who belong to a minority religion practiced by immigrants or their children.  It is, however, not confined to them.  I am a Roman Catholic in a country that has traditionally been a "daughter of the Church" and even I thought twice before placing a small discreet statue of Mary in the niche on my front porch where it is visible from the street.

This is the "freedom of conscience" touted by democracies like France and Canada?   

This is not about separation of church and state - something that most established churches have discovered works quite well in their favor.  This is a purging of religious discourse and signs from the marketplace of ideas.  What is even more disturbing to me is that in the Global North we live in a context of religious pluralism.  The days when one church or one religion spoke with one institutional voice, controlled the message from the faithful, and were synonymous with the local culture and government are long behind us.  Instead what we see is that these "twin tolerations" (Alfred Stepan) have led to the empowerment of the faithful to speak as individuals and to participate as they see fit in the "City of Man" - the political community in which they reside or in the world.

I believe that the ideal secular society as proposed by some would be an impoverished one.  Even worse, I see a sort of separatism being forced on people of faith who for want of public spaces to express themselves, retreat to their communities, churches/mosques/temples, schools and homes, and let the earthly realm (one that does not seem to value their opinion and strongly condemns the source of them) sort itself out without them.

Furthermore, the attempt to generously allow some religious signs and activities to proceed under the umbrella of "tradition" is one that I am hardly thankful for (even where it graciously permits discreet expression of my religious tradition).  It is a hollowing out, a capture of religion and its symbols, in the name of a national culture, ideology or state.   A cathedral in Montreal is not just another pretty example of local architecture, and a baptism in France is not just a quaint little French custom and an excuse for a family party.  These things are part and parcel of a world religion (among others) which transcends borders and culture.  There is nothing particularly French or Quebecois about Catholicism just as there is nothing strictly American or British about Protestantism, or Indonesian or Saudi Arabian about Islam.

Sending people of faith into internal exile or placing them outside of the plausible public discourses is not a solution to what ails Europe or Canada.  On the contrary there is something very ugly and repressive (dare I say "predatory"?) in making  European or Canadian secular identities the only acceptable basis for conversation (speech and signs) in the public sphere in democratic societies.

Some of us feel called to be dual citizens of the "City of God" and the "City of Man."  Our membership in one should never make us inferior citizens in the other.


Anonymous said...

the PQ like old generals is ready to fight the last war, for Québec that is identity politics of language and culture. Montreal, Laval and the south shore region the economic heart of Québec, have made peace with linguistic and cultural diversity thriving in a French environment.
The decline of French mother tongue in the Montréal region is attributable to the fact that the vast majority of immigrant choose the area. The increase in the commercial use of English is attributable the fact that Montreal is recouping some of the lost standing as an international business centre. Selective use of language data by the PQ is always good for whipping support from its base.

P. Moore said...

There sure can be a world of discussion or debate on this general topic. Overall, I am opposed to any kind of state sponsored intolerance. Perhaps some limitations of some more extreme practices are in order, but generally things like turbans, head coverings, nuns habits, etc. don't harm anybody in my books. Maybe religious garb that makes the wearer unidentifiable in a public setting are inappropriate or the carrying of weapons should be restricted, but otherwise these types of restrictions are simply divisive.

In the case of the latest initiative by the PQ, I believe this is mainly a cynical political ploy to pick a fight with the Federalist forces in Quebec and Ottawa and to use the Quebec population as pawns in the game. I suppose there is no limit as to how low politicians will go to try to get their way.

Sauve said...

Over my 63 years I have met numerous people of every faith on this planet. When I use to ask about their religion's dogma everyone responded: "______ is built on love and tolerance." That's right. That is what the Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and believers in smaller religions have told me. The only exception is that sometimes the more orthodox Jews have told me the 'love of god who brings peace', I have yet to hear that from any other believer with claims to any other religion.

I don't have a problem with people treating others as they want to be treated. I have a problem with a bunch of people not following what they claim to follow via their religious belief. I have a problem with a group of people, regardless of size, who blindly choose to follow a person who has obviously lost the precepts of the religion's dogma they claim to represent. I have long ago learned that most people actually lack faith and belief regardless of how often they gather with other people of similar interests. Proof of that is only too obvious. It is easily seen in the current political systems that claim to be democracies who are busy destroying tolerance and compassion.

I am not atheist but neither do I belong to any type of religious organization. My belief system is in tact and I live it daily. I certainly don't care to hear about anyone else's system but I am watching to see if their actions come close to matching whatever symbols they choose to wear. So far, I am not impressed by their piety.

Society regulates what clothes we can and can not wear in public. America had a wave of laws passed in the 70s-80s not allowing children to wear T-Shirts to school that had rock & roll bands or 'other' distasteful images on them. Remember? In hospitals around the USA there is a dress code that is firmly in place. I worked at Methodist hospital in Texas in 1999 and part of their dress code was every female employee must wear panty hose. Had I ever gone to work in my bicycling outfit I would have been fired.

It is not about wearing jewelry. It is about announcing the wearer's belief system to the world and shutting off any chance of justice instilled by the law. It states quite clearly for one and all to see that the wearer will make all their judgements and efforts only as far as their religious belief system allows them and they will also deny, sequester, and punish based upon that religious belief system and not on the common consensus.

Ok, I'm tolerant. But I don't want to be subjected to the arbitraty decisions of some worker who is going about the state's business as filtered through their religious 'beliefs' when I go for my interview and tests seeking citizenship or carte de sejour. I will be joining the country, not that person's declared dogma.

Anonymous said...


The issue is more Quebec-specific than Canada. The proposed Charter has been denounced by every federal political leader, every provincial premier, most mayors of major and minor cities, most newspapers, columnists and opinion leaders. The list goes on.

Within Quebec, there is healthy discussion debate, in contrast to 5 years ago, and the political leadership in Montreal has been extremely strongly opposed, and it has exposed major tension within the sovereignist movement.

On substance, a secular society does not mean no space for religion but rather finding the balance between religious freedom (where the Quebec charter fails) and other rights and freedoms (e.g., gender), as well as responsibilities (e.g., identification requirements).

I still think that the Bouchard-Taylor report on laicisme ouverte largely got the balance right for the Quebec context.

Blaze said...

I agree with P Moore. This is not about a Charter of Values It's about a fight with federalist forces and outside of Quebec.

I think this was well thought out and planned, knowing that it would put Quebec in direct opposition to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and with the ROC (Rest of Canada as many in Quebec like to think of us.

As this article says, Madame Marois is wrong about the people of Quebec.

This isn't about religious symbols in a secular government. The Quebec government's legislature, letterhead, flag, police cars, etc. all display a crucifix. When asked about that, the Premier said they will remain because that is "history" and "heritage."

Quebec has a long history of inclusion and acceptance, despite language differences.

The bizarre thing is why the Parti Quebecois is not doing more to reach out and build on its diversity. They also have a long history of vilifying and alienating the "ethnic" population in Quebec.

The most significant example was Jacques Parizeu's speech when the referendum on separation (aka sovereignty) was defeated in 1995.

First, he said, "We won't wait 15 years next time. Oh no...We want that country of our own and we will get it."

He went on to declare "We were defeated by money and the ethnic vote."

Parizeau resigned the next day. It's been 18 years and there has been no further referendum.

I will never understand why the PQ doesn't reach out to that "ethnic vote"instead of vilifying them.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

And such thoughtful comments. Thank you. A few of my own as I drink my morning coffee...

@anonymous, Decline? I hadn't heard that and certainly didn't get the impression that French was on its way out in the cities. Could you say more?

@P. Moore, I like your take on it. If I had tried to put up a 10 meter tall statue of Mary in my front yard, well, I would have to agree that really wouldn't do. It would be tacky, I say, and an affront to good taste. :-)

Politicians *are* low creatures at time because they are all too human. As Mencken said if we would just stop thinking they are archangels we would all feel a lot better.

@Sauve, I see your point but whether or not the public servant wears a cross, a veil, a turban chances are pretty good that his worldview (and how he feels he should behave toward you) is informed by his faith. Doesn't mean, however, that he gets to defy the law as he carries out his functions as a public servant. That's the "city of man" and I was taught by my church that these are to be obeyed or changed, if necessary, through peaceful political action.

@Andrew, Ah thank you for pointing that out. So it's really about one province and not the entire country.

A "secular society' is an idea and so there are many interpretations of what that means. Good people can disagree. What I do find a bit funny is that the move in some countries toward separation of church and state (which took time to make stick) didn't mean the death of religion. On the contrary, it paved the way for established churches to become stronger in some ways. The Catholic church in France, for example, is quite happy that the government du jour can't meddle in their affairs OR pull a property grab. Less pleasant for the established churches is religious plurality. In both Quebec and France Catholicism was the default. I still meet older people in France who when they say "religion" really mean "the Catholic Church." Not at all true any more - even here in Versailles there are mosques and temples and a fair number of atheists and agnostics.

One of those atheists (albeit a visiting one) is my father who after picking out a book from my bookshelf told me I was surely going to hell because of my habit of dog-earing the pages.

@blaze, Similar to the question I've asked about unions. Instead of fighting immigrants, why don't they join with them?