Sacred vs. Naked

As choices go, the sacred versus the naked is one of the more arresting. But – says David Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – that’s just the false choice facing many political cultures around the globe today.

On the one extreme, he says, governments grant and enforce exclusive status to one religion. That’s the sacred choice. On the other hand, governments try to stamp out religion and its expression from public life. They go, it’s said, naked.

Both of these are flawed in a way that Charles Taylor explains in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. They both rely on strong civil religion, a comingling of political-theological enforcement that often produces, according to God’s Century, pathological and destructive politics. This see-saw default, argues Taylor, is endemic to many political cultures partly because the alternative can be seen as a dangerous gamble, especially in times of fear and anxiety.

Religious freedom, says David Anderson, can’t be a balancing of some kinds of belief with others, but the right of persons to choose to believe, or not to believe (and change those beliefs) as they see fit. The objective is not sameness, he says, but freedom.

That’s a gamble. And it’s probably the critical gamble of our time that enables democracy. Chris Seiple, from the Institute for Global Engagement, says the big question of our moment in history is: “how to live together well, in the midst of our deepest diversity?” The anxious, religious and non-religious alike, will be alarmed by that diversity – and sometimes they’ll have good cause to be. The temptation, says Taylor, is always very strong to reintroduce a stronger civil religion, to foreclose on the possibility of deviant diversity, to control and manage pluralism. That, he’s said in a recent interview with James K.A. Smith, is the story of the Charter of Quebec Values.

Limits to pluralism exist. But in the false choice between going sacred or going naked, the gamble of secular societies truly deserving of that name will be on their own citizens funding the virtues and values that laws cannot make, and markets cannot sell. Therein the clothes of democracy.

About the author

Robert Joustra

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.