Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Eulogy for the Quebec Charter of Values

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

May 2, 2014 

Now begins the long funeral dirge for the Quebec Charter of Values, and we’re better for it. Of the eulogies orated for this unloved legislation, let one of them be for the profound limits of political power for making, and unmaking, the fundamental consensus at the basis of our social contract. When governments stray too far into telling us not just what to believe, but how and why to believe it, they’ve crossed a moral line. 

We are in a delicate moment of Canadian pluralism; it is a moment of transition where the old “thick” Catholic-Protestant merger has almost dissolved, and the new “multicultural” consensus seems too weak and too thin to protect us against the pressures and the powers of resurging politics of identity, culture, and religion. It is an anxious age. The Quebec Charter of Values, which included a proposed ban on public employees displaying conspicuous religious symbols, was one of many new political projects designed to make us feel less anxious, less isolated and fragmented, less alone.

But the limits of politics are very real, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of religious freedom. Governments can certainly repress, and in as much as 75% of the world – according to the Pew Forum– they do. Governments can insist on what rationale is proper and public. In civil religious states, governments can prescribe what “secular” means, or in outright religious states, what constitutes good theology. And on the back of these things they can, and do, perform incredible acts of injustice.

Yet the really fragile thing about the consensus at the basis of free societies is that it cannot be legislated by political power. The law has a moral role in helping to teach us what is right and wrong. But in a free and democratic society, it cannot tell us why; in a free and democratic society it must not tell us why. As the great philosopher of human rights and one of the architects of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Jacques Maritain put it, “We all agree on these rights, provided nobody asks us why.”

It is the why that is essentially important, and we have forgotten how to talk about it. The old, thick consensus worked well enough for long enough that it seemed better to banish talk about why from the public arena entirely. We need badly now to recover that talk, what some have called political theology, in our public life. We need this not so we can all agree, but so we can begin again to constructively disagree, and in our disagreements, renew the laws and politics of common cause and faith in our common life.

This is the essential work of religious freedom at home and abroad: the making and remaking, the constructive disagreement, over the deep reasons for the values we call ours together.

In a symbolic and unprecedented move last week, Iranian Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani gifted to the Baha’is of the world an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha'u'llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha'i faith. This came on the heels of several Muslim religious scholars arguing for alternative interpretations of the holy Qur’an teaching tolerance of all world religions. All the powers of presidents, prime ministers, and ambassadors (even of religious freedom) are no match for a revival of pluralist-Islamic political theology in Iran. The best hope for Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and others in Iran is the making and remaking, the constructive disagreement, of the deep Islamic reasons for dignity and protection of all persons of faith.

No different here: the Charter is dead, and long may it stay buried. The answer to a multicultural age of anxiety is not a legislated despotic secularism, but a pluralist public square with startling conversations about faith of all kinds and the reasons for the rights and values we hold dear. We won’t agree on why--nobody expects that-- but it might get us a better consensus than Quebec’s ill-fated Charter.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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