Who's Afraid of Secularism?

What will civil religion look like in a post-Christian America?
August 21st, 2014

"Don't Panic" is what Douglas Adams inscribed, in large, friendly letters, on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His reason, as he explains it, was that the book "looked insanely complicated" to operate, had many omissions, and contained much that was apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. This is not a bad tree of adjectives for secularism. And neither is Adam's accompanying admonishment: "Don't Panic."

We up north, at least, can take a few deep breaths. Societies like Canada, namely ones with weak(ening) civil religious cultures, shouldn't panic. I think we're headed for a post-secular age. But some societies, like the United States of America, with strong civil religious histories, may be in for a troubling post-Christian phase. This is because strong civil religion tends to replace strong civil religion. The American gospel isn't going away, but the characters and plot are changing.

This can get complicated. To get a sense of this, consider that in 2009, Daniel Philpott was trying to make things less confusing when he distinguished no less than nine different "concepts of the secular": four positive or neutral definitions and five negative. In her more recent book, Fighting over God, Janet Epp Buckingham simplifies further, describing two legal-cultural traditions in Canada's approach to religion/secularity: the English/Protestant and the French/Catholic. I've argued this intersects usefully with two dominant approaches to the secular in Canada: (1) Judeo-Christian secularism, a secularism founded on and made possible by the Judeo-Christian tradition in public life; and (2) laïcité, a secularism founded on and made possible by the removal of religion from the public sphere.

This breakdown gets us a little closer to the kind of secularism that religious people are afraid of. Ominous phrases like those once uttered by David Cameron advocating for a "muscular liberalism" make pluralists nervous about whether a thickening of "public values" won't leave once loyal, now suspicious, subjects on the wrong side of state drawn values boundaries. But there are solid historical reasons to be optimistic north of the 49th parallel. There are, somewhat sadly, inverse but equally solid reasons to be pessimistic south of it.

It is my opinion that Canada is moving into an increasingly post-secular future. There is good evidence to debate this, ranging from the Charter of Quebec Values to Trinity Western University's most recent troubles launching its law school. But this evidence only seems extreme if it's taken out of historical context. Consider that in 2001, when Trinity Western tried to launch its teacher's college, it never even got beyond the province's College of Teachers before landing in court. When it recently tried to launch its law school, a large number of provinces' law societies approved it, as did the province itself. In fact, the individual societies of Ontario and Nova Scotia had to break rank with the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to dissent, suggesting that TWU has more support than it did in 2001when the Supreme Court was already handing down an eight-to-one ruling on behalf of their teacher's college.

What about the Charter of Quebec Values? First of all, that Charter needs to be understood within a European context, which is extremely anxious about its wide and expanding diversity. The anxiety, at least, is not imaginary because, like Canada, European societies are far more diverse as a result of birth rates and immigration than they used to be. Foreign Affairs calls urbanization, youthful religious resurgence, and aging boomer sentiments among the "megatrends" changing the world. In other words, the Charter is hardly the victory cry of a now-dominant secularism, it is a last gasp of a cultural consensus under demographic siege. Politics is often downstream of culture, and there is no surer mark of fragility and crisis in a culture than the need to legislate its existence and protections. Finally, even when the proposed charter came in front of the people of Quebec in the form of a provincial election, it was demolished at the polls. Not only did the desperate political ploy to legislate thicker values expose the fragility of those very things, but the ploy itself was totally defeated by popular consent.

The trend seems to be toward a more open society, buttressed partly by the global resurgence of religion come home, held in tension by traditional, but potentially transitory exclusive secularity in elite spheres like the academy, law, politics, and media. Even there the evidence is unevenly distributed where, unlike decades ago, we can now name multiple, major advocates for a more open, secular society. The question is how embedded this exclusivity is in these spheres, and whether over the long-run, it has the moral funding, intellectual vitality, and demographic trajectory to thrive. I don't believe it does.

Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience argue that strong civil religious cultures tend to be replaced by strong civil religious cultures. This is the case, they say, in Quebec where, after the Quiet Revolution, a strong civil religious Catholic political culture was supplanted for an aggressively secular civil religious culture. They find similar trends in Turkey and France, where formerly strong "religious" civil religions were replaced very rapidly by equally strong secular-liberal civil religions. They write, "[t]hat type of political system replaces established religion with secular moral philosophy." Maclure and Taylor say this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau meant by "civil religion," and when strong civil religions are toppled in political cultures, the probability is that they will be replaced by a rival, equally strong, civil religious tradition. Thick moral content is needed to combat and supplant thick moral content.

The Charter of Quebec Values is a good news story because it shows that the secular-liberal civil religion of the Quiet Revolution is petering out; its civil religion is weakening, rather than being overrun by another strong civil religion. This is good news for a more open society.

This is a bad news story for the United States of America, unfortunately. America is considered, most often by those outside of it, a highly civil religious country. And if strong civil religion usually begets strong civil religion, then the expectation for outside observers would be to see America move very quickly from a kind of Protestant Americanism to a kind of post-Christian secularity. We would expect this secularity, further, to be far more intransigent and far more aggressive precisely because it must do the heavy lifting of exorcising an existent "Protestant" civil religion. Of course, this is a bit of an armchair prediction, and neglects certain basic problems of social science, like whether the United States can even any longer be spoken of meaningfully as "one society" with a "civil religion" in the same way as, say, Quebec or Turkey or France were. So while you can take that prediction with a grain of salt, Taylor's suggestion that strong civil religion begets strong civil religion nonetheless gives us a spectrum of ominous options in post-Christian America.

Read this through the latest civil religious arm wrestle about President Obama's recent executive order on discrimination in hiring. Probably the first thing you'll notice is that everyone has really freaked out. This is partly because the disagreement, namely the freedom to sustain religious codes of practice for religious hiring, is about which civil religious tradition is publicly preeminent. The incumbent Judeo-Christian secularity is holding the line that not only is the freedom to hire within the bounds of religious conviction, but it's a necessity that such institutions be afforded that freedom for a plural society. The challenger, a kind of civil religious secularity, has its own moral and ethical code (now) with the force of American-law, which precludes public religious practice that violates its core conviction of non-discrimination. Why is everyone so panicked? Because what's at stake isn't about a couple hiring cases here and there, but which civil religion is going to carry the day. There is no deux-solitudes (two-solitudes, or two different but coexisting poles) in American civil religion: there is a winner, and there are losers. 

Compare this to Protestant/English Canada, which had a civil religious tradition, certainly, but one which was more understated. It was also largely (but not entirely) toppled, but continues to enjoy something like public existence and engagement, even if not exclusively any longer on its own terms. It has morphed from what I have called a kind of exclusivism to a kind of open pluralism. The tradition still largely defaults preferentially to Christian sources as the enabling framework for civic and political virtue (in other words, it thinks its own tradition is true), but happily acknowledges that rival rationales also join productively in the common work of politics and public life. You don't need to believe in the Christian God, or hold Christian beliefs, or partake in Christian practices to make substantial contributions to Canada's common life.

This gets close to what Taylor, in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, calls a "radical redefinition" of the secular. What deserves to be called secular, he argues, is not some transient arrangement of institutions, or the relationship of the state to religion, but rather the correct response of the democratic state to diversity.  The "post-secular" secularity we need now is one which sustains the principles of democratic liberal politics, but is agnostic on the rationale (religious or otherwise) by which people arrive at those principles. The state, in other words, does not monopolize the rationale or the practices that make the constitutive values of liberal democracy possible. It is a gamble, definitely, and a risky one in a time of anxiety when trust is low. It's what Paul Brink describes as politics without scripts, where both Christianity and secular liberalism have been disestablished.

Can Canadian political culture capitalize on this kind of radically redefined secularity? I'm optimistic it can, partly because of its long history adjudicating rival civil religions within the same political system, and partly because of the growing demographic diversity of religious people, especially newcomers, to the country. There is no strong civil religious kid on Canada's block to muscle the country into a kind of secular exclusivism, and Canada's historic institutions are deliberately designed to prevent precisely this because of historic Protestant-Catholic tensions. Canada disestablished "Christianity" so long ago, we're onto disestablishing secular-liberalism.

But where I'm optimistic about post-secular Canada, I'm pessimistic about post-Christian America. The logic of strong civil religion begetting strong civil religion is not a social scientific law, but it does seem probable and convincing. Maybe, like Quebec, American political culture can survive the slow weakening of its civil religion, rather than a rapid hostile takeover.

Who's afraid of secularism? I guess it depends where you live.

 

Robert Joustra (Ph.D., University of Bath) teaches politics & international studies at Redeemer University College, where he is Director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship. Most recently, he is co-author, with Alissa Wilkinson, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, 2016). His writing appears in The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, Books & Culture and elsewhere. He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a Fellow with The Institute for Global Engagement.

Bio

Ready to Subscribe to Comment?

Maecenas et rhoncus ante. Phasellus tempus ullamcorper aliquam. Nulla facilisi. Maecenas sapien est, tempus ut mollis suscipit, sodales non nisl. Curabitur vel sagittis lectus.

Subscribe Today Only $30 per year, including tax & shipping (US & Canada)
Close

RSS Feeds

Please choose from one of the following:

Please be patient while we complete the request. This request typically takes a few seconds.

Close

Welcome to the new Comment site!

We’re building the ship as we’re sailing it. We welcome any and all feedback — please contact managing editor Dan Postma at dpostma@cardus.ca.