A model for success

  • September 19, 2013

Only in an age permeated with paradox could the victories of the gay rights movement present a model for religious believers in the public square. Yet whether one agrees or disagrees with what gay activists have achieved over the past 40 years, there is no doubt the strategic course they have followed has been wildly successful and worth emulating as a result.

More than any other single group agitating for public acceptance and political clout, gay crusaders made powerful use of the primary operating principle of contemporary Western life: you cannot tell people to “keep it private” solely because you dislike their identity or the lawful acts in which they are engaged.

Asserting, affirming and achieving cultural acquiescence to that principle brought homosexuals out of the proverbial closet, then vaulted them forward as one of the most irresistible forces for foundational social change in history. Violating it is now the signal sign of intolerable intolerance. Don’t take my word for it.

Ask Russian president Vladimir Putin how it feels to suffer far more international scorn for passing so-called anti-gay propaganda laws than for supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who gassed his own people.

To borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, it is the “thingness of the thing” that should concern us.

The “thingness” of the Quebec government’s assault on religious freedom through its proposed Charter of Values is exactly the kind of thing we should consider. The Charter is, of course, everything its opponents have said it is. It is an answer in search of a problem. It is narrow, oppressive, hypocritical, unjust and unacceptable in a modern liberal democracy. But it is something more. It is supported by people who might genuinely believe they have not a bigoted bone in their bodies while simultaneously demanding that people of religious faith be legally prohibited from publicly wearing signifiers of religious faith.

Such supporters of Quebec’s Charter of Values would, out of dislike for religious faith or the lawful activities arising from it, take it upon themselves to tell religious believers to “keep it private” — as gays were told to stay in the closet four decades ago.

Here is the paradox. The best argument for protecting religious freedom from the Quebec government, and from Canada-wide foes of public religious faith, might not be a religious freedom argument at all. It might be the secular argument for personal autonomy, or security of the person as Canada’s Charter styles it. It might be the equivalent of the argument gays have articulated since the 1970s that their public expressions of sexuality must be protected from state animus on the basis of fundamental freedom.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the marriage commissioners in Saskatchewan who, as employees of the state, were ordered to officiate at homosexual weddings whether they liked it or not.

If, out of due respect for personal autonomy, the state must show utter neutrality about sexuality, on what grounds may it turn around and interfere with haberdashery? The individual is no less an individual — and so no less entitled to individual freedom — for wearing a hat, shoe, coat or pair of pants with some “religious” significance.

In our age when personal autonomy is paramount, how is it more acceptable to outlaw a scarf because it is religious than to banish a sock because it is purple? Why should creed be anathema, and colour left alone?

The insinuation that wearing of “religious” garb in state-sanctioned space could lead to public proselytizing has the same awful whiff of intolerance as the old canard that homosexuals must be barred from teaching school lest they try to “recruit” their pupils. As the Quebec philosopher Charles Taylor has said, such anti-gay bigotry might still have purchase in “Putinesque” Russia, but was long ago banished from free, liberal and democratic Canada.

The debate over extension of gay rights into all social spheres was the thing that propelled Canadians to reject any remnants of the “keep it private” mentality. The thingness of that thing is, paradoxically, something people of religious faith would do well to communicate incessantly in the public square. The victories gays have won could yet be ours.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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