Recently, Elizabeth Sperber, a political scientist starting her career at the University of Denver and a talented scholar of religion and politics, along with her colleague Matt Herman, published a piece on the Washington Post‘s “Monkey Cage” on the fraught elections taking place in Zambia and the challenge of finding impartial observers. The country turned to . . . its Christian churches. It’s a fascinating case where religion is making a positive difference in politics. Still, unresolved questions remain concerning the fairness of the elections.
Here in Toronto, a minor news storm has been made of a father lobbying the public school board to exempt his son from music lessons, on the grounds of religious freedom and the parental right to education. Doug Saunders, our Globe and Mail foreign affairs columnist, and a somewhat ardent secularist, had harsh words in the weekends edition. I responded on the Cardus blog, but I think it’s fair to say that while Saunders tone leaves a lot to be desired, his message is not falling on deaf ears.
Hardly the sun sets in the West these days without some new attempt at what Jean Jacques Rousseau might have mistily called “forcing folks to be free.”
Doug Saunders in the weekend’s Globe and Mail calls for public prejudice for the greater good, but the idea isn’t new with him, and we’ll see a lot more of it in the days ahead.
The reasons aren’t new. “Reasonable accommodation” has a long history even in a young Canada (see Fighting over God), but the fuel of public fury is building: Brexits, Trumpers, all in a pyre of anxiety over just how much diversity our Western societies can handle.
Saunders’ incredulity over Mohammad Nouman Dasu, lobbying to exempt his children from music classes, has the smell of that fire. When spirituality, he writes, “infringes on the working of the legal, educational or medical systems, we have a problem—even if we don’t notice at first.” It is yet another “incursion of religious practice”, and with justifiable “public prejudice” we must fight back. In case precious few of us can be roused to the defense of Bach’s Magnificat, he raises the issue to one of literal life and death: spiritualist anti-vaxxer types infecting our children; your children. Something must be done.
The argument borders on alarmism, its logic sometimes a little too slippery on why, for example, parents might choose (as is their right) an alternative education system. He lumps legal, pedagogical, and medicinal fields together as systems which must be protected from religious incursion—which is a bit rich, considering these professions in the West were established out of, hardly in spite of, religious communities. Saunders’own brand of religious freedom can often run a bit indulgent on curious, personal affectations (you don’t eat pork? whatever) but zero tolerance on public manifestation (marriage between husband and wife? Keep it to yourself). That’s a kind of religious freedom, certainly, but not quite approaching what even Taylor and Bouchard called reasonable accommodation.
What Saunders calls public prejudice—a phrase one presumes is just enough on the nose to drive some clicks—others have simply called strong public principles. Saunders is importantly right in this respect: the deep diversity of Canadian society is straining our cultural and legal systems, plus we’ve more or less lost the shared moral vocabulary to talk about it. Can we renew, in the words of Yuval Levin, our social contract in the age of individualism? We feel trapped in the crumbling house of liberalism, but Burke’s little platoons are in trouble, too. No help is coming.
I used to find Saunders’ brand of secularity distasteful. I’m certain I still disagree, but I am starting to gain appreciation for his dilemma. In a world where other-regarding institutions are increasingly religious (especially globally), yet where religion is always a public bad, there is a hard, dark reality that the coercive arm of the state may not be enough to save secular-liberalism. If I was that kind of secularist, I would find Mr. Dasu not just alarming, I would find him a threat to civilization. And if I thought there were a lot more Mr. Dasu’s out there, I’d start overclocking public power to enforce conformity. I would tell people that if they won’t choose to be free, we’ll need to force them. I’d celebrate public prejudice.
I can’t think of a better picture of our social, existential anxiety. It’s not going away. I’m not convinced stronger public prejudice is the answer (though it may be part of it), but from ‘muscular liberalism’ to a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ I would say Rousseau is yet to have his day.
Mother Teresa, canonized today, will always be remembered for her untiring service of the destitute, marginalized and abandoned. Becky Samuel Shah (in her article mentioned below) highlights Mother Teresa’s profound understanding of the spiritual and material aspects of human poverty and human need. In the words of Pope Francis, Mother Teresa “bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity”. In doing so, she taught us the essence of dignity, charity and justice and offered precious insights into the nature of integral human development.
The other aspect of Mother Teresa’s life that was celebrated today was her prophetic courage in speaking truth to power. As further noted today by Pope Francis, Mother Teresa “made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created.” Her fight against poverty was coupled to her fight for peace. In an account shared this week via the Under Caesar’s Sword facebook page, a priest friend of Mother Teresa recalls her concern over the long term suffering and destabilizing impact of war:
“Working at her side as the West prepared for war with Saddam Hussein, I saw her dread as she glimpsed the future of Middle Eastern Christianity… She understood the immediate urgency of the present situation, but she also had a dreadful fear, and a premonition about how the Middle East was to unravel over the next 25 years and fall into chaos.”
Mother Teresa’s concern led her to undertake concrete actions and advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable. Today is a good day to examine our consciences and ask ourselves what we have learned over the past quarter of a century. Have those who advocated for invading Iraq – ignoring the pleas of Mother Teresa on the eve of the Gulf War and those of John Paul II in 2003 – ever admitted and taken responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences of those decisions? What about their successors in positions of influence? Do we do enough to assist persecuted Christian and other minorities? In our own communities, have we considered seriously Mother Teresa’s message about the biggest threat to world peace? In the face of so much injustice, persecution and innocent suffering, what “small things with great love” would Mother Teresa be doing if she were still alive today?
My dear friend Becky Samuel Shah reflects on the mission of Mother Theresa, in which material and spiritual needs were inseparable. Christianity Today features it on its homepage today. Shah considers Mother Theresa, who is set to be canonized by the Catholic Church this coming Sunday, September 4, 2016, in light of Shah’s own research on the essential role of spiritual resources for escaping poverty. Here is a passage:
On the surface, it might seem that Mother Teresa was solely preoccupied with the physical and material needs of the marginalized. She spent most of her life caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and rescuing the homeless. Yet even as she set up institutions to resolve world hunger, she talked of people’s hunger for God and their inalienable value as creatures made in his image. Material needs, she insisted, can be easily satisfied, but caring for a person’s spiritual needs is more important. In fact, she regarded it as her primary calling.
Inspired by Mother Teresa’s example, I have worked in India for the last 10 years with Dalits, also known as “outcasts” or “untouchables.” As I’ve studied and served among them, I’ve come to realize the simple truth of her vision. The poor on the streets of “Kolkata” and places all over the world are deprived of basic human necessities like food, clothing, housing, and healthcare. (Most standard poverty measures assess wellbeing solely in terms of “neutral” social indicators, like calorific intake or years of schooling, and many development practitioners and scholars assume these are the only real aspects of poverty.) However, as Mother Teresa understood, poverty is not always reducible to material factors, and it often involves deprivation of dignity and self-worth.