Must Religion bring Armageddon: Re-appropriating the Separation of Church and State.

Some time ago I wrote a blog which outlined why I believe the metaphors used to describe the relationship between citizens and their government have serious implications for how people believe the state should function.  There I contrasted two common metaphors:  mechanistic and organic.  ‘Mechanistic’ metaphors suggest that the state should be viewed as a social-contract.  The view believes that the state is to function as the public sphere and is to legislate a lowest common denominator of morality.   Conversely organic metaphors suggest that members of society are bound  ‘naturally’.  Organic metaphors tend to suggest that the legislation of the state should resemble the ‘ideal’ status of morality as much as possible.  Furthermore ‘organic’ views of the state suggest that the good of the state takes precedence over the good of individuals.

Judging by several recent newspaper columns it seems as though the significance of this dynamic has come home to roost in Canada.  For instance, Jane Taber wrote a thought provoking article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail.  The article draws attention to the latest spat between the Conservative government and the CBC.  According to the Conservatives, the CBC is attempting to divide Canadians by emphasizing the (‘evangelical’ Christian) religious affiliations of several prominent members of the Conservative government and thereby effectively creating a “faith war”.  Meanwhile the National Post’s website has run a column by Don Martin which summarizes the ideas behind Marci McDonald’s recently released book:  The Armageddon Factor.  The book highlights various maneuvers of the Conservative government which suggests that Harper’s Conservatives are trying to get into bed (without anyone else knowing it!) with the religious right.  Some notable maneuvers include raising the age of sexual consent to 16, having a Chief of Staff who is pro-life, cutbacks to feminist groups and gay pride parades even while providing additional funds for faith-based colleges (on this last point I cannot resist pointing out that Regent College–a world class faith-based graduate school will cost a student about 2.5 times more per year than someone working on a research-based graduate degree across the street at UBC).

What I find fascinating about these stories is not so much that Harper is trying to please the religious-right of Canada (really?  just figuring this one out now?) but rather the tendency of Canadians to think that it is inherently negative for religious convictions to be brought into the public sphere (see the “reader comments” on the Globe link for examples).  The irony of course is that opponents of the political agenda of the religious right often hold to a twisted vision of secular liberalism which attempts to prescribe its own set of values on the masses.  For example, in a previous blog I cited the tendency of certain secular liberal groups to prioritize diversity over individual rights.  What I would like to suggest is that the problem in Canadian politics is not bringing religion (Christian or otherwise) or some other worldview to the public sphere but rather a group’s attempt to legislate their prescribed version of morality for all Canadians.  To explain why this is the problem requires a closer look at the meaning and significance of social-contract.

Social-contract theory suggests that the state exists to promote the well-being of its members.  The idea is that a group of otherwise independent groups and/or individuals come together to find common or public space based on the belief that this space will allow them to flourish better off than they could individually (health-care, infrastructure, protection of private property through police force are all appropriate examples).  In this model the public space exists for the benefit of the individual people/sub-groups—in contrast to say the former Soviet Union where the individual was to serve the state.  In social-contract societies individuals/groups must bring their particular identifying markers such as religion, ethnicity, orientation, or sex to the public sphere.  This is for at least two reasons:

  1. The state will not be able to allow particular groups to flourish if it is not aware/does not understand their particular needs/desires.
  2. If groups/individuals are prevented from bringing their particular identifying markers to the shared space then the contract metaphor has been forsaken and is replaced by a particularly bland, ignore-the-differences  ‘organic’  understanding of the state a la France? Quebec?).

That being said, separation of church and state (and indeed separation of any particular group and state) still needs to occur in the sense that particular groups need to recognize the existence and legitimacy of others who have ‘signed on’ to the contract who do not share their particularities.  Special interest groups which neglect to do so are deserving of harsh criticism since their actions attempt to undermine the very purpose of social-contract.

To be clear I am not at all suggesting that debate over what is the highest good should be abandoned.  In fact, as the very existence of this blog suggests, I am an advocate for the public discussion of virtue, religion, etc.  However as a Mennonite I am also painfully aware that the attempt to legislate the highest good of a particular group often has morally reprehensible results—the drowning of Anabaptists in 16th century Switzerland, the forced exile of Menno Simmons from Holland, or the mass-killings of 20th century Russian-Mennonites by the Bolsheviks are more than enough examples for me to remember what happens when we confuse categories.  This is especially true in the ‘global village’ where there is nowhere left for refugees to run to look for a tolerant nation.  In this context the prophetic words from the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort” come to mind:

There is no more new frontier,

We’ve got to make it here.