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.