What is the place of religious faith in the public square? Can people of faith participate in public discourse and activity on equal terms with others? Or, to adopt language made famous by Richard John Neuhaus back in the 1980s, should the public square be “naked” of religious conviction and practice? The questions are not new, of course, and many Canadians might well assume that the answers are obvious. After all, the word “pluralism” is often on Canadian lips, and we live in a country whose Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes “the supremacy of God” along with that of “the rule of law,” and guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion” as well as “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” and “freedom of association.” Surely, then, it is evident that religious faith cannot be excluded from public discourse, nor religious people from the public square?

Yet it seems that we Canadians are currently undergoing a significant shift in our thinking on this matter. I could illustrate this reality in any number of ways — for example, with reference to recent public discussion of the niqab (the full face covering worn by some Muslim women). The majority of Canadians, it seems, are opposed to the wearing of a niqab during a citizenship ceremony. Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice seems inclined to take his opposition further, informing a French-language television station that he was “totally uncomfortable” with the idea of a female federal employee wearing a niqab while serving other Canadians.

My chosen example for the purposes of this essay relates to a quite different faith tradition. As many readers will know, Trinity Western University (TWU) in British Columbia is currently seeking to start a law school. There is no problem with the law program itself — after extensive review, BC’s minister of advanced education consented to the degree program, and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada confirmed that its accreditation standards have been met. For some individual law societies, there is no problem with accreditation either; Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Yukon have accepted the federation’s decision, and BC initially agreed with them. However, Ontario and Nova Scotia have voted against accreditation, and after two votes by its members in June and October of 2014, BC changed its mind. That prompted the Minister of Advanced Education to revoke his consent to the degree program. The problem? Trinity Western University is a private, Christian university, and its Christian commitment involves not just beliefs but, as with all Christian commitment historically, ethical codes. TWU students are expected to find themselves in agreement with such ethical codes, and to sign a community covenant that says as much — including voluntarily abstaining from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” It is this small part of the community covenant that has placed TWU under fire from various parties, who regard it as discriminatory, not least in respect of same-sex relationships.

This case is going through the courts, and before too long we should have a clearer idea about what the courts in general think; the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has already come out strongly in favour of the university.  But I am not so much interested here in the particular case as I am in the broader issues that it raises. The Charter guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion”; but what value does this really have if persons or communities cannot act on the basis of conscience and religion without inviting punitive social and legal responses from the broader society? It guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”; but of what use are the first three if the fourth invites the same kind of responses? It guarantees “freedom of association”; but of what value is that guarantee if it is actually only certain kinds of people with certain kinds of views who may freely associate without penalty? The negative responses to TWU are especially troubling in this last respect. Holding the “wrong” beliefs about marriage and sexuality is apparently acceptable for those who have already been called to the bar, or for those who have attended any law school in Canada other than TWU’s. It is only when individuals who hold the same “wrong” beliefs associate with each other in a community to study law that they are apparently deemed unfit to practise law. It is important to follow the logic here (which is not immediately evident); this can only mean that traditional, orthodox Christian faith is considered acceptable in professionals entering into public discourse and activity only if it is a “private” matter rather than a “community” matter, and if religious faith has therefore not played much part (apparently) in shaping that person’s approach to his or her profession.

Are not all law schools themselves, and for that matter medical and other schools, communities? Are not all of them, indeed, communities of faith?

But is not every individual shaped by a community? Are not all law schools themselves, and for that matter medical and other schools, communities? Are not all of them, indeed, communities of faith? I do not mean by this that they ascribe explicitly to religious dogma. I mean that they are all inevitably founded on shared beliefs about a whole range of questions to do with (for example) the nature of the world, the nature of the human person and the nature of the good society — beliefs that are not up for debate but that represent the starting point for all endeavours. Western law and medicine themselves, as disciplines, derive ultimately if not proximately from such beliefs — the received truths upon which everything else is built. Everything we human beings think and do has a broader narrative context that makes sense of our thoughts and actions, and we are inducted into that narrative long before we are even aware of it. We may not reflect on it extensively, and we may not ever make it truly and consciously our own, but it exists nonetheless. To the extent that numerous people share a narrative without reflecting on it very much, it can appear to represent simply “the way things are.” Yet these meta-narratives, as they are sometimes called, are never in fact beyond dispute. They only appear to be self-evidently true because of a lack of knowledge both of the self and of others.

We all inhabit narratives that come from somewhere — whether we are avowed secularists or committed religionists, and it is recognition of this fact that provides the foundation for the best version of pluralism in Canada. I do not refer here to the kind of pluralism that is apparently favoured at the present moment by increasing numbers of Canadians (or, at least, Canadian elites). When it comes to public discourse, that pluralism does advocate for the “naked public square” that I mentioned at the outset of this essay. All (at least theoretically) may enter this public forum, but each must check his or her religious identity at the gates and operate within the square only as a “neutral” citizen. Inevitably, of course, the exclusion of religion does not in fact result in either a naked or a neutral public square at all. There is still a considerable amount of clothing being worn, even if it is disguised under apparent nakedness. In the end, then, the argument in favour of nakedness is disingenuous — at best based on a delusion and at worst just another piece of rhetoric in the pursuit of power. Designed to neutralize the perceived danger of religion to public peace and order, it leads (ironically) to another dangerous place, in which the privilege of some stories over others can easily be maintained without allowing a proper and healthy criticism of them — in which “we” just “know” already what is true and good, and it is easy to ignore all competing claims.

The best version of pluralism in Canada, on the other hand, is based on what I have come to think of as the “clothed” public square. This is a space in which all competing meta-narratives are open for inspection and critique, in a respectful and constructive manner, so that the citizens of the polis can freely debate their merits and decide together on the best way forward in pursuit of what is good. For this to happen, however, a Christian must be able to stand in the public square as a Christian, a Muslim as a Muslim (and so on) — and a secularist as a secularist, and an atheist as an atheist. They do need to agree that reason and debate will form the means of engagement, and not violence and war. They do need to agree that there can be no prior censorship of views expressed in the square, and that no ideas (religious or otherwise) are to be protected from criticism. All must agree that the process of reasoning must be accessible to all those present, and not only to fellow believers. However, they absolutely do not need to agree — and they should not agree — to pretend to be people they are not, or to speak only in ways that give this impression. In particular, they should not be asked to believe what they believe any less firmly than they do, unless they are genuinely persuaded otherwise. That is, they should not be asked to be nonabsolutist in their belief. Absolutism is one of the great “monsters” that many defenders of the naked public square want to keep outside the gates, since they identify it with intolerance. Yet all (including each defender of the naked public square) are absolutist in their core convictions about what is true, and good, and beautiful. To ask for nonabsolutism is to ask only that someone else should be less serious about his or her core convictions than I am. And in the clothed public square, this is something that we should not ask.

We all inhabit narratives that come from somewhere…and it is recognition of this fact that provides the foundation for the best version of pluralism in Canada.

This form of pluralism is more demanding than the one that is apparently increasingly popular in Canada. It is always easier just to try to get access to the levers of political and legal power and to move them in your desired direction, reducing genuine pluralism while all the time, in Orwell-speak, lauding it. The more activist and utopian our politics, the more this will be our temptation. Genuine pluralism, by contrast (the kind the Charter appears to have in mind), requires among other things a deep respect for others even where we profoundly disagree with them, and much carefulness, when we have power, not to tramp all over the beliefs and consequent ethical positions of others in pursuit of a uniform societal ideal (i.e., our ideal). It requires, too, not only that we ourselves combine genuine, strong, personal and community commitments with a genuine, strong commitment to the common good, but that we consider it possible that others can do the same, even if they are (from our point of view) nasty “secularists” or wicked “fundamentalists.” This, it seems, is difficult to do. By way of example, consider October’s BC ballot concerning the accreditation of TWU’s law school. Judging by the voting figures, it seems that 6,000 BC lawyers believe that it is not possible for people of serious Christian faith to function properly as lawyers and represent clients, even when they personally disapprove of their actions or lifestyle. I imagine that these same lawyers would say that they could manage to do this — at least, I hope that this is so, because if it is not, it is the end of law as we know it in Canada. They just do not believe, it seems, that others can manage it. They are undoubtedly mistaken; but more alarming than the mistake, for a pluralist society, is the naked prejudice.

Photo: Shutterstock

Iain Provan
Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.  He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. His two most recent works examine religion and culture: Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was (2013) and Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (2014), both published by Baylor University Press.  He is a grant recipient with and an alumnus of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung in Germany, and also a Life Member of Clare Hall in Cambridge.

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