• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Sectarians/Imperialists–or Citizens? More on the Quebec "Ethics and Religious Culture&quo

Given that people I normally agree with–such as the good folks over at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities–seem to me to be arguing quite wrongly about the so-called “Drummondville” case recently decided by the Supreme Court, I thought I’d look over that curriculum again. Here it is, in case you’d like to do the same.

I simply can’t find anywhere in the documentation I have read that the state is out to convince its pupils that all religions are the same, that it doesn’t matter what religion you pick, that therefore the claims of Christianity to offer the one true gospel are wrong, and so on. Nor can I find anywhere in the documentation a “religion of the State” or an implicit secularism or anything of the sort being raised as spectres by the opponents of this curriculum.

What I find instead is a sensible, carefully worded attempt to acquaint students with the realities of Quebec’s cultural history as religion pertains to it (Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity are frequently highlighted as especially significant); to help them think better about religious and ethical questions; to increase their understanding of religion’s relationship to culture; and to emphasize commonalities among various religious outlooks (including secularist ones–the curriculum explicitly recognizes “non-religious” viewpoints that function as religions) so as to equip these young people to build a common life with their neighbours of various outlooks. This agenda seems to me to be exactly what one should want from the state on such matters.

Alas, what Catholic and Protestant critics seem to be saying is that they don’t like a curriculum that fails to endorse certain parents’ teaching that Christianity is the best (or only valid) religion. By failing to endorse that view, the curriculum, they aver, is undermining that view. Parents therefore, they claim, have the right to exempt their children from such teaching.

I am sympathetic with worries that Canadian culture nowadays poses a wide range of threats to Christian faith. I have identified and spoken out against some of them, and I expect I’ll speak out against more. I also have no stars in my eyes about public schools in Canada–from kindergartens to universities–as to how circumspectly everyone behaves in regard to ideology and toward Christianity in particular. We are in a huge and fast and complex transition from a century of Christian hegemony (1860s to 1960s) to something else, and lots of mistakes are being made along the way.

Still, I fear that our fears are driving some of us Christians to misunderstand as a threat what is actually an opportunity. We must guard especially against the reflexive judgment that every new thing a government does in regard to religion is bad! So I reply as follows:

1. The curriculum does not say anything one way or another about whether one religion is better than another, whether one particular religion is the best of the bunch, or whether only one religion is valid.

Nor does failing to endorse one religion over another imply anything about the relative merits of each religion–just as the refusal of the state to endorse one political party or one economic philosophy or one hockey team over another imply that all are equally good.

Instead, the state here takes the common-sense approach that there are in fact lots of religions in Quebec and that the state will not privilege one religion over another–not in terms of access to power, nor in terms of pedagogical endorsement. There are various religions in Quebec, and the state’s interest lies in acquainting its citizens with the facts of those religions and in helping its citizens cooperate with each other for the common good.

2. Parents do not have the right to withdraw their children from legitimate education. Mandatory education is something most of us agree is a good idea in the modern world, despite some parents who would like to keep their kids home working on the farm, or their (female) children isolated from society so as to marry them off young, etc. And parents cannot withdraw their children from science teaching that conflicts with their (religiously based) views of creation, or social studies classes that conflict with their (religiously based) views of race or gender, and so on.

You don’t like Canadian values on these matters? Feel free to acquaint your kids with your resistance to science or your embrace of racism or sexism, but your kids–our vulnerable fellow citizens–deserve what we have collectively agreed is a proper education so that they can eventually make up their own minds on such matters. They can listen to you, yes, but they ought to be given the opportunity to listen to what we collectively have agreed is right, also. Canada isn’t just about you: it’s about us and it’s about us caring about each other, including each other’s (and not just our own) kids.

3. What do the EFC, the CCCC, and the various other Christian critics of this curriculum believe are indeed the legitimate interests of the state? These are smart people who doubtless have thought about this question, but I find precious little from this perspective in their discussions of this matter. Their attention seems trained almost entirely on “parents’ rights” and “religious freedom”–as if they have no responsibility to think as partners with their neighbours, as citizens ipso facto responsible for the decisions of the state as to what ought to be the best way to educate Quebecers and the rest of us about religion.

This attitude seems strangely sectarian to me: the mentality of minorities who insist on being left alone to do things their own way–like Old Order Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Doukhobors, and other marginal groups in Canadian society. I’m quite disconcerted by what amounts to a tacit refusal to take on the basic responsibility to consider the best way to work with other citizens toward the common good in this matter of education about religion and religious diversity.

4. As with many sectarians in history, furthermore, this attitude of refusing to cooperate with the state or even to consider the state’s legitimate interests can reflect a not-so-covert desire to take over the whole show and run it right–the way we know Jesus wants it run. Sectarians often turn into imperialists when the opportunity arises. Is that what’s going on here?

If so, my Christian friends, then you need to come clean. In your heart of hearts, do you want the state to favour your religion? Then I wish you would say so.

To be sure, I think that’s a bad agenda to pursue in Canada these days and I’ve written a long book to indicate why (Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World). But at least we can have a good argument about that if that’s what you really want.

I’m not sure all of you do want that–although I’m pretty sure some of the people involved in this case actually do. But I’m afraid that a “Christian Canada” is the clear implication of your position. Why do I think so? Because I can’t see any way in which your arguments in this case can help form an alternative educational policy in Quebec other than the public schools of Quebec teaching the unique and alone salvific truth of the Christian religion–which is the one way of teaching religion that won’t upset the complaining Christian parents. If I’m wrong about that, of course, please show me how. But so far, that seems to me to be the (intended or not) logical entailment of your argument.

(Of course, such a situation is liable to a reductio rejoinder, as we would then have to see whose version of Christianity–Catholic? Protestant? Evangelical Protestant? Pentecostal evangelical Protestant?–would finally triumph as the One True Faith.)

If you do think this way, furthermore, then you’ll have to shelve all of your criticism of Islamic theocrats, secularist absolutists, and the other usual suspects you oppose as threatening the free and open participation of Christians in the pluralistic public sphere. They want exactly the same sort of thing you do: for their particular viewpoint alone to be validated by the government and the other legitimizing institutions of society.

Well, a pox, I say, on all your houses! Not a fatal one, to be sure (for I do love you, my neighbours), but one just debilitating enough to cause you to lie abed for a while and think things over some more.

I am a Christian. I love the Bible. And I trust and serve Jesus Christ as Lord. I long for his return to sort things out and set things right. One day, yes, I will want there to be only one religion recognized by the state, one truth taught by the schools, one centre for all of public and private life alike.

But until Jesus returns to effect all that, I’m going to make the best of the situation I have in this deeply pluralized, extraordinarily free, and badly fractured society. I am going to work for Canadian institutions that will let the Christian faith be honestly and accurately encountered and I have nothing to fear about every other viewpoint being encountered the same way. I believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel, in the holy catholic Church, and in the mission of God to draw the world to himself. So all I want from the state is to set fair, free, and open terms for a wide range of Canadians to negotiate a common life together with understanding of each other’s ways and respect for each other’s dignity. Christianity will do very well, thank-you, in such circumstances.

To be sure, this respect for each other will include, and must at times include, disagreement over important matters, such as whose god is the true God and whose text is the most truthful holy book. That’s one of the key ways we show respect for each other, in fact: We argue over better and worse understandings of significant issues. But we will do that better if we have some common background–such as a common curriculum in ethics and religious culture.

The Quebec Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum strikes me as a pretty good way for a contemporary Canadian province to accomplish the few good things it is designed to do. Let us therefore join our fellow Canadians to support it. Let us support it by insisting that training of teachers for this curriculum be rigorous, that evaluation of it be scrupulous, that concerns about it be heeded, and that problems (which are inevitable) be solved. Let’s not expect it to be perfect, but let’s also hold it to the high standards we would hold any other part of the curriculum.

To simply denounce it and insist on the right to take our children out of it, however, seems to me to be condemning and withdrawing from a commendable mode of citizenship in a pluralized Canada. It seems, indeed, to be a statement of both sectarianism and would-be imperialism.

I hope I’ve gotten the critics wrong because I like and respect many of them. But I confess I mostly hope I’ve gotten them right, because I would love to be able to celebrate a government initiative that actually responded well to a key need of our time: to help Canadians learn about themselves and others, to cultivate respect for our past and for each other, and to position us to carry out our common life more knowledgeably and cooperatively. And, so far as I can see, that’s actually what we have here. Vive le Québec!

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UPDATE: I spoke of “Cardus” in the original draft of this post when I should have referred instead to the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. I have changed the post accordingly. I understand, however, that the forthcoming issue of Cardus’s publication Convivium will contain articles along these lines, so I might have to put them back into the account after all before long!

UPDATE 2: Well, Cardus’s blog now features a rejoinder to these blog posts to which I am offering my customary mild-mannered yet unanswerable responses.