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Two concepts of secularism and Canada's two solitudes: A limited defence of Pauline Marois

There is a lot that divides anglo and franco in Canada: Leafs vs Habs, Corner Gas vs Tout le Monde en Parle; Air Farce vs Juste Pour Rire. But nothing says “two solitudes” more than the distinct approaches to secularism you’ll find in Quebec and in the ROC.

The depth of the mutual incomprehension was revealed recently during the Quebec election campaign, when Parti Québécois  leader Pauline Marois released a platform item called the Charter of Secularism, which would forbid public employees from wearing any religious symbols while at work. So, no turbans or hijabs or kirpans or that sort of thing. On the other hand, a crucifix necklace would be ok, as is the crucifix that hangs in the legislature in Quebec City.

According to Marois, the new charter (and its notable exceptions) would serve a dual purpose. First, it would assert the principle of the neutrality of the state. And second, it would affirm the particular place of Catholicism in Quebec’s history.

"Wanting to take a step toward ensuring the neutrality of the state doesn't mean we deny who we are," she said while campaigning. "It simply means we are at a different moment in our history.

For this she was given the standard moralizing treatment the Anglophone media traditionally reserves for Quebecers at home and Republicans abroad: From the Globe and Mail: “On tolerance of minorities, Pauline Marois is showing the opposite of leadership.” From the Toronto Star:  “PQ’s ‘secularism’ masks European-style intolerance”. (According to the Citizen’s Robert Sibley, Marois’ problem is not that she is intolerant, but that she isn’t intolerant enough. But that’s another argument).  The upshot is that when it comes to asserting both state neutrality and Quebec’s Catholic origins, Marois was seen in the ROC as a hypocrite at best, but more likely a rank xenophobe.

Here’s a more charitable interpretation of the Charter of Secularism: It expresses a philosophically legitimate approach to the question of the proper relationship between church and state, albeit an approach that may no longer be appropriate to the challenges that Quebec faces in dealing with minorities.

There are two broad theoretical versions of the secular state (taken from Charles Taylor’s essay, “How to Define Secularism”). Each affirms the idea of a neutral state, but the form that neutrality takes is shaped by the problem it is designed to solve.

On the first view, the goal of secularism is to control religion, to “define the place of religion in public life, and to keep it firmly in this location.” As Taylor points out, this doesn’t need to involve any overt repression, “provided various religious actors understand and respect these limits."

On the second view of secularism, the point is not to control religion narrowly understood, but to manage the entire spectrum of comprehensive worldviews. These include organized religious outlooks, but also encompass vague types of spiritualism, scientism, atheism, and competing philosophical doctrines such as utilitarianism and deontology. All of these have differing (and possibly incompatible) notions of the good, and will hence come into conflict in the public sphere. The point of the neutral state is to find a way of accommodating and mediating between all of these worldviews.

 Let’s call the first secularism “French,” and the second, “English”. They correspond, more or less, to the forms the emerged out of post-Enlightenment France and England, and they are responses to the distinct challenges religion posed to each society. For France, secularism was a response to monolithic and heavy-handed Catholic authoritarianism. In England, secularism was part of the liberal tradition that sought to mediate between multiple competing worldviews.  

You can see the downstream effects of both these challenges in the way France and the UK approach secularism today. France continues to treat it as a way of controlling religion by purging it from the public sphere – hence the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools (sound familiar) and Sarkozy’s 2011 ban of the burqa and other face coverings.

For its part, the UK has fully embraced the interpretation of secularism – usually called “multiculturalism” – as a device for allowing the maximum amount of freedom that is compatible with the same degree of freedom for others.

It doesn’t take a great imagination to see how these two conceptions of secularism have been transposed into the Canadian context. The ROC is a fairly typical multicultural state, again with a few tweaks and variations from the sort found in the USA, the UK, and Australia. For its part, Quebec has pretty much copied the French approach, with a slight difference: Quebec still sees value, and little harm, in permitting Catholic symbols in official and public spaces.

But (goes the objection), isn’t this “slight difference” a major problem? Isn’t Marois’ proposal to allow the crucifix to remain in the legislature a sign of her profound bad faith?

I’m not so sure. Montreal is one of the most secular and irreligious cities on Earth, but its residents go about their business in the shadow of a giant cross that glowers down at them like a stern bishop. But no one takes it seriously, any more than anyone takes seriously the crucifix in the national assembly. The reason rests in the big difference between the French Revolution and Quebec’s: The complete absence of violence here in the New World. Quebec’s was a Quiet Revolution; there were no beheadings, and there was no need to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest. All Quebecers had to do to shuck off the church was take control of their education and health care systems.

This is an important point: Quebecers don’t see any need to ban Catholic symbols from public space, not because they are hypocrites, but because those symbols are no longer a threat. That battle has been fought and won. But the symbols of other, foreign religions are seen as a threat to the secular order, hence the perceived need to control their use.

If this sounds like special pleading, consider a comparable case: the ongoing public funding of a separate school system for Catholics in Ontario. By any reasonable standard, the separate school system is an affront to liberalism, multiculturalism, anglo-secularism, whatever you want to call it. There is simply no rational justification for it, apart from the fact that it’s in the constitution. But when Conservative leader John Tory ran an election campaign a few years ago promising to even things up by allowing funding for all religious schools, he was mocked into political oblivion. Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s ongoing defence of the status quo is far more hypocritical than Pauline Marois’ charter when it comes to consistent secularism.

This is not to say that when it comes to French versus English secularism there is nothing to choose, that each is a matter of local taste mixed with historical happenstance. Each form of secularism was an institutional response to a specific threat, and each served their respective societies quite well. But looking to the future, we can’t say that each is equally suited to the challenges that they face. In particular, the French/Quebecois model is overly focused on the threat of religion narrowly understood.

Neither France nor Quebec are in any danger of being taken over by a single religion – they are not about to revert to theocracies. The real problem is the same one confronting every other major industrialized democracy, viz., the challenge of managing deep  and irreconcilable diversity. Spending time and energy and capital trying to keep each new religious group in its place is political and cultural wack-a-mole. Instead, they should concentrate on putting in place programs and policies and institutions that will allow the fantastic diversity that their societies have to offer to co-exist.

If the rest of Canada has better policies, and better practices, it is largely thanks to historical factors that are none of our doing. If we insist on taking credit for them while making invidious comparisons with Quebec, the least we could do is make sure that we’ve purged our institutions of all inherited biases.