Heaven forbid we have religion in public realm

By  Michael Higgins
  • March 19, 2008

The role of religion in the public realm continues to command the attention and stir the fears of countless numbers. John Waters, the Irish biographer and music columnist, recently observed during an interview over his new book, the autobiographical Lapsed Agnostic, that there are only two subjects in contemporary Ireland that are politically incorrect: Eamon de Valera and God. Has it come to this?

Meanwhile in France President Nicolas Sarkozy is whipping up a fair bit of mischief and this time it is not about his love life, his penchant for the outrageous gesture, his stern approach to public disorder (he was once Interior Minister with a reputation for tough policing) or his shameless boasting over, well, anything really. No, it is about Christianity, something French presidents haven’t spoken about in public since 1905. As a lead editorial in The Tablet of London puts it: “President Nicolas Sarkozy has stirred up fears, particularly on the French Left, that he wishes to modernize the concept of laicite (the inviolable secular character of the French Republic) out of all recognition by granting the Catholic Church, and other religious groups in France, a significantly greater role in public affairs. . . . In several public speeches — and a book he published before becoming president last year — he has questioned the prevailing negative version of laicite and argued for a more positive alternative. And he has praised the contribution Christianity has made to France’s history, even putting it alongside the Enlightenment.”

Oh the horror of it all. Doug Saunders, the faith-phobic European correspondent for The Globe and Mail, was apoplectic. And he wasn’t the only one. If France falls, who or what is next?

The idea that there might be a place, a legitimate place, for religion in the public realm has become a dangerous idea, an idea that must be expunged quickly before it spreads. Look at Turkey; look at Germany; look at Russia. Each of these nations has a political leader unafraid of speaking about religion in the political arena, even though in the case of Turkey it must be done with extreme caution given the rabidly secular nature of the state. In the United States religion and politics are seemingly inseparable, in spite of the constitution, and as the Obama-Clinton contest plays itself out we shall see more religious fine-tuning, not less.

In Canada the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation in Quebec has yet to produce its final report and in Toronto the premier has mooted the possibility of eliminating the Lord’s Prayer and replacing it with something that “better reflects our diversity.”

This is largely meaningless pap dressed up as respectful tolerance. No less a religious figure than Rabbi Dow Marmur has unmasked the trite reasoning at the heart of McGuinty’s empty courtesy in his column in The Sunday Star when he remarked: “I’m a praying Jew, fully committed to my Jewish liturgy. I don’t ever recite the Lord’s Prayer. But I disagree with the spokesperson of the Ontario Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress who sees the abolition as ‘a very positive step.’ My views of multiculturalism are based on respect for all faiths, not on blurring differences in a melange of readings, or by moments of silence, both suggested as alternatives. . . . The main message of the Lord’s Prayer is the recognition that we humans, even when members of an august legislative body, aren’t sovereign but only have legitimacy when we see ourselves as God’s creatures doing God’s work.”

The very mention of God in the public square spooks too many people, and we should note the slow and incremental extirpation of all religious symbols, discourse and rituals as a serious impoverishment for us all — persons of faith, agnostic or atheist. A colourless, undifferentiated and neutered religious presence in the public square, if a presence at all, denies the place of the transcendent in human interaction and social intercourse.

Marmur and Sarkozy are both right, and the discomfort their sentiments have generated is both worrisome and welcome.

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