My June broadcast essay for TVOntarion's The Agenda with Steve Paikin was on the democratic imperative of the separation of church and state, a phrase much honoured in word but requiring more than we might suspect in deed. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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In Canada and around the world, anxieties about religious fundamentalism are leading democratic governments to limit the right of their citizens to public expression of private faith. In France, recent laws ban public school students from wearing prominent religious attire, including Jewish skullcaps, Christian crucifixes, and Muslim headscarves. In Canada, Quebec’s Bill 94 would ban Canadian women wearing Muslim face veils from receiving services from public institutions.
Though promoted as the high-minded defence of modernism, these laws are grave errors in judgement.
If history has one lesson, it is that when religion and politics mix, both are degraded.
The democratic ideal of separation of church and state is as much in the interests of the church as it is in the interests of the state. It demands freedom of worship without political interference, as much as it demands a civil society free of religious compulsion.
A secular democracy ensures that governments can not intrude into the relationship between the individual and his God, and that no tyranny of the majority can curtail the most personal exercise of private conscience. Simultaneously, it guarantees that public institutions answer to the expressed will of the people, instead of to particular groups claiming a privileged insight into the interpreted will of God.
Crucially, a secular society is not one that is hostile to religion. It is one that is blind to the religious choices of its citizens.
Laws limiting personal religious expression play upon the cheap political capital to be gained from marginalising small, awkward, and unpopular groups, at times when insecurity ripples through society. But these laws also corrode and undermine the very principles of tolerance and inclusion they purport to defend.
When the state takes an interest in regulating religious expression, it invites religious institutions to reply by using their force of numbers to remake government policy. More seriously still, excluding people of faith from the mass of society is the surest way to isolate and drive them into the arms of radicalism.
No matter how jarring, alien, or even distasteful we may find particular practices, the suppression of voluntary religious expression by informed adults is a far greater evil. It is not secularism. It is atheism as a coercive state religion. It is no more acceptable in a free and democratic society than sectarian persecution or forced conversions.
I believe that we, as Canadians, understand this instinctively. Our country was first forged out of a colonial accommodation between Protestants and Catholics, later out of an amalgam of Abrahamic faiths, and today encompasses a society that is largely disengaged from formal worship. As much as any other people in the world, state secularism and religious tolerance are at the heart of the ideals that bind us together and define us as a nation.
There is no denying that we are living through an age when our ideals are being tested. To what extent do our values of tolerance require us to tolerate practices that may emanate from intolerant philosophies? If demographic changes in our liberal democracy cause our cultural centre of gravity to shift away from our established social values, which should prevail: our identity as democrats or our identity as small-l liberals?
These are not easy questions, but the answers certainly do not lie with those small minds who would trade upon our most unworthy fears.
State suppression of free religious expression by free citizens is unacceptable in any secular democracy, and it is an offence against the free society that is the birthright of every Canadian.