You might get a little depressed leafing through this issue of Cardus Policy in Public. I did. Malaise seems to abound in Canadian public life, from quantitative easing, to retributive super-prisons, to the very ties that bind—the virtues and values that underwrite our common life. What if Alasdair MacIntyre got it right? The barbarians haven’t crossed the Rubicon: they’ve been governing us for some time.
You might also be forgiven for finding the arguments a bit dense. “Civil religion” is not elevator conversation, and it doesn’t lend itself to bullet points and snappy briefs. Collectively, our authors this issue boast an astonishing number of Ph.D.s, and the complexity of their arguments shows it.
But if you can, take your time and read through this issue carefully. It’s not about pessimistic academics spinning armchair lamentations. Each of our thinkers are deeply integrated into the work of Canadian public life, and each is—perhaps audaciously—optimistic.
Prison reform gets to the heart of any society’s malaise, but Eleanor Clitheroe-Bell, far from concluding in defeated pessimism, instead points out the “optimism and hope” that restorative justice brings. Her faith in major public programs of retribution and federal priorities of super-prisons may well be shaken. But her conviction that human beings have fundamental dignity that demands a “truer work of justice” is optimistic, audacious even.
Jonathan Wellum seems like a true apocryphal financial prophet. His optimism is more sneaky. It’s buried under some fairly bleak predictions about the state of the global economy, especially our ratios of debt to GDP. Global economic correction is coming, says Wellum. The question is whether or not we are ready for it, if our assets and our values are sufficiently thick to survive the storm. But he says that though truth has “stumbled in the streets,” recovery is “not insurmountable.” His convictions are quieter, but his optimism bleeds through his assessment. There is hope of which financial markets know not.
But what lies beneath this audacious public optimism? Here is this issue’s beating heart. John von Heyking, a professor and long-time public pundit, says that to galvanize our public life in the new century, we need a new kind of “open” civil religion. Contra the secularist malaise of a closed civil religion, we need a contested public square in which convictions of all ranges can be enlisted, debated, and adjudicated on the principle of self-government. Iain Benson extends this argument further, saying we ought to do away with the term “religion” entirely in this case. Benson wants civic virtue. How and why people come to civic virtue isn’t politics’ business. What is its business is the nature and extent of those virtues in the public square.
The problem with religion, as William Cavanaugh writes in The Myth of Religious Violence, is that no one really has any idea what we’re talking about. We use the category but in wildly diverse ways, with an allergic reaction to its definition. Paul Rowe picks up on the same point in his review of God and Global Order when he says religion is “an elastic category” which lends the book to theoretical drift. Canadian public life is hardly any exception to this prescient insight. Open or closed civil religion equally perplex pundits, and while Benson’s call to civic virtue is certainly more palatable to the average observer, its obscure sources plunge us right back into the crisis of Canadian pluralism. We can only know what we are to do if we can answer the question about what story or stories we are apart.
Hubert Krygsman, President of Redeemer University College, finally says that self-government and human dignity might not be a thick enough concept on which to run a society. I infer from his argument that we might not need just a “big society,” but also a thick one. It’s not enough simply to have plural institutions doing plural things—we pressingly need an answer to the basic question: Why? We need vibrant communities of storytelling, like families, hockey clubs, places of worship, and activist charities. Perhaps that narration is not the task of public politics, as von Heyking seems to suggest, but it is at least a major task in tackling the malaise of Canadian public life more broadly.
A thick society is predicated on a big one, where there is political elbow room for institutions and associations to express basic beliefs and stories about the why of Canadian public life. Of course, politics isn’t about finding ultimate agreement. If we did find it, there would be no pluralism to adjudicate, and that may well be a modern dystopia. No, Canadian politics is about the expression of those narratives, the story of their unlikely and at times surprising combinations toward a thicker picture of the public good. Cardus had opportunity this year for just this kind of collaboration with the new Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, which sponsored the Hill Lecture this issue celebrates. Strategic public partnerships are not lamentable pragmatic concessions; they’re the actual work of politics. As John von Heyking says, friendship is the central category of politics. And friendship leaves everyone changed.