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

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!


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.

22 Responses to “Sectarians/Imperialists–or Citizens? More on the Quebec "Ethics and Religious Culture" Curriculum”

  1. Andy R


    Just to clarify, when you said:

    “2. Parents do not have the right to withdraw their children from legitimate education,”

    how and who do you believe gets to determine what constitutes “legitimate education?”

    At least in part, this seems to be the crux of the issue. Do parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children, or does the state have first claim ?

    I may be reading more into your remarks than you intend but you seem to be saying that the state bears the ultimate responsibility for the children’s education? Is that what you mean?

    And, as a follow-up question, if a certain group of parents decides that they are perfectly comfortable being a “marginal group” in Canadian society, expressed through the education of their children, are we [you] comfortable in granting that privilege or recognizing that right?

  2. John Stackhouse

    Brother Andy,

    Various institutions in society have various responsibilities: families, schools, hospitals, banks, businesses, governments, churches, and so on. Particular institutions have primary responsibilities in particular sectors.

    All of society is interconnected, however. And that means that what happens in this or that part of life might involve two or more sectors and therefore two or more institutions whose areas of responsibility overlap.

    I’m sure you would agree that parents have a responsibility to educate their children, but I trust you would agree also that teachers have a responsibility to educate those children and that the state, too, has a responsibility to educate the children within it. So there are overlapping responsibilities here that must then be properly analyzed and negotiated.

    The situation in Quebec therefore certainly must not be oversimplified into “parents’ rights versus the state’s rights” but must instead be discussed according to the question of how children can receive the best education possible from the various institutions involved.

    As for “marginal groups,” my point is that evangelicals such as those speaking now for the EFC or Cardus or those centrally involved in this lawsuit normally do not identify themselves as wanting to exist only on the margins of Canadian society–but they’re sounding like that sometimes in this debate.

    And none of the groups I list are entitled to educate their children any old way: that’s what mandatory education according to state guidelines means in every jurisdiction in Canada.

    If parents don’t want to support their children getting what we have decided together as a society they need as an education, the state and the public educational institutions properly step in to make sure those children are properly cared for–just as they step in when parents do not treat their children’s bodies properly according to standards we have agreed upon as a society.

    I trust that helps make the issues clearer. Thanks for asking.

    • Andy R


      Thank you for your response.

      In trying to think about this issue from a Christian perspective, I could think of many scriptural indicators entrusting parents with the responsibility for the upbringing and education of children. And while the scripture is not silent on the role of the state, I cannot bring to mind any scriptural precedent for a similar state role to educate children. To what scripture would you direct me to develop my understanding of the legitimacy of the state role in this area? Do you address this in your book?

      Perhaps I am being overly bold because I have not thought this through as thoroughly as you have, but it would seem to me that while the state could say something about encouraging the education of children, the responsibility must ultimately be with the parents. If there is a conflict about content or delivery, parents must hold the trump card.

      Further, while the Quebec situation is presented by some as a more-or-less objective survey of religions (if that is even possible) it is coming from a government that is increasingly narrow in its view of the world and what “values” should be for the society within its borders. Interestingly, those values are often not identical to “Canadian” values.

      Parallels can fairly be drawn with Germany or Sweden where, for example, home schooling is not permitted. In these cases, the issue is not quality of education but socialization in the sense of imparting the values of the state to the citizens, and not permitting the existence of “parallel societies” (as they say in Germany) or “marginal groups” (as you call them) with different values.

      Mandatory education, at least in Canada, actually does NOT mandate specific curriculum. For example, in Alberta, allowance is made for those outside the public system to develop their own curriculum and teach to that plan.

      Your working definition of mandatory education does not seem to leave much wiggle room for the dissenters. I am trying not to be hysterical here (slap me in the e-face if you think I am) but isn’t that almost the definition of freedom of religion?

      I grant your point that the specifics of the case in Quebec may not warrant worry about freedom of religion, but what I find interesting is the assumptions respective parties rest upon in approaching the issue, and the importance given to the respective roles of parents and state.

      Thank you for allowing me to sharpen my thinking by expressing it here. I think I disagree with you both foundationally and practically but appreciate your provocation.

      • John Stackhouse

        Brother Andy,

        Let’s make sure we’re clear that we agree that “we must obey God rather than humans”–whether the state or, for that matter, parents. No human authority can compel us to sin.

        What we all have to think through and work out–preferably together–is how the various God-given and humanly-improved/maintained/corrupted institutions of life are to be related best to each other on any given issue. To think well about such a complicated issue, moreover, requires us to draw on all of the God-given resources we have: the Bible, of course, but also what we learn from the experience and wisdom of the Church around the world and back in time; the knowledge and wisdom we gain from the disciplines of intellectual inquiry–in this case especially history and the social sciences; the relevant insights of a wide range of points of view (from feminist epistemology to the folk wisdom of other cultures); from artistic explorations of church-state and religion-culture interactions; and more.

        (You ask about Scripture references regarding the state in parallel with the responsibilities of parents, and I was tempted to tease you by saying, “Hey, remember that long passage in Third Corinthians about what Christians should do once democracy is instituted in society plus that whole thing Paul writes about how the various sectors of modern post-industrial society are to be rightly related to each other in the Christian mind–I think it’s in Second Theologians chapter 6?” I’m sure you see the point: the Bible is written within the cultural horizon of its authors and original readers, so we must read it well and then co-ordinate its teaching with other things God has taught us by other means through the centuries since then–trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us here and now in the challenges we particularly face.)

        For now, though, unless the state is telling the parents to do things that are CONTRARY to Christian commitments–and I am quite confident the Quebec curriculum is NOT doing that–then Christian parents shouldn’t be trying to opt out, but instead actually SUPPORTING this curriculum that is aimed at doing a good thing for all Quebec citizens.

        And, yes, I do talk about this sort of thing at length in “Making the Best of It,” and you sound like someone who would enjoy reading it, so I hope you do.

  3. Spencer Capier

    Here’s my two cents as an educator that teaches religion in his Phi 12 course:

    Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from taxation, regulation or education. It is in a public school (and any publicly funded private school) where certain root public values are inculcated. For example:

    Evolution will be taught in Science class because Canada values the scientific method over magical thinking. Tolerance towards other religions will be taught because we as a nation abhor sectarianism, and welcome discourse.

    Parental rights do overlap with teachers’ obligations but, to the extent parents do not wish their children to learn and absorb central Canadian values, Parental rights should be overridden.

    It is not a freedom of religion issue to wish remove your children from the public sphere. Of course your child will encounter ideas and behaviours at school and elsewhere that are not in accord with your beliefs. Talk about it over dinner, don’t remove your child from society.

  4. Rochelle

    Well said, Prof Stackhouse. I’m thankful for your view and for challenging some of the bandwagon.

  5. Luke Meyer

    How much documentation do you have?

    You seem ill informed.

    Do you read French?

    Read page 90 of Proulx report which clearly states that the goal of such an education is to show that the diversity of religion is due to human imagination and that showing this is a good way to inculcate “tolerance”. This is unacceptable to any believer in a revealed religion.

    Tolerance towards what precisely?

    Please read prof. Douglas Farrow of McGill on the subject.

    There a lot of class exercices which confirm this also: Invent your own religion is a common activity.

    See prof Allen from Concordia University:

  6. Luke Meyer

    This rule flies against the Toledo Protocol which the States itself was proposing as a reference.

    (p. 71)
    “some parents may have religious or non-religious beliefs that lead them to object to exposing their children to alternative interpretations of reality. For example, teaching about religions and beliefs may be perceived as indoctrination in relativism or
    secularism by some religious believers, or as indoctrination in religion by some humanists. Both groups may strongly object to certain types of teaching about religion. This may appear unfortunate or misguided to the contemporary educator, but international standards clearly exclude “any discretion on the part of the state [including education offi cials] to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.”
    Accordingly, conscientious objection to particular instances of
    teaching about religions and beliefs is precisely what the right to freedom of religion or belief (and the parallel right of parents to raise their children in accordance with those beliefs) is intended to protect.”

    Mrs “Justice” Deschamps ruling is simply scandalous. It addresses none of the basic questions, I suspect that she thinks her own opinion regarding the courses is of any value. It is NOT.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Aside from your bits of ungrounded accusation, Brother Luke, what exactly is your point?

    Yes, I’ve read relevant documents; yes, I read French; yes, I know Doug Farrow and the way he thinks about these things, although I haven’t read him on this case–but you don’t provide a link; yes, I know Paul Allen also and I share some of his (and your worries) but I also think in the interview you link to he oversimplifies the situation in just the way I describe on this blog (e.g., not discussing the state’s responsibilities and legitimate authority in education); and yes, the Toledo document is important, but it’s not germane here, since no one’s religious views are in fact being contradicted by this curriculum.

    And OF COURSE religions are products of human imagination. Do we want to attribute everything in every religion to some other source: God, the devil, aliens? The error is to claim that EVERY element in EVERY religion is simply a product of human imagination, which would be not only wrong but clearly stupid. Even hardened atheists concede that much that is present in the world’s religions makes sense as a response to the various evils, challenges and joys of human experience–that is, people aren’t just dreaming stuff up, but interpreting the world as they know it.

    “Making up your own religion,” then, might in fact be a very good exercise for students, if conducted properly. They will soon find that they CAN’T believe in just any old thing, nor can they persuade other people to believe in it, either, but their religion HAS to do what religions do: map the world in a reliable way and provide beneficial ways to negotiate it. So let’s not just throw up our hands in horror and take the worst possible interpretation of what’s happening. (You, too, Paul!)

    Individual teachers, exercises, statements, textbook passages–any and all are subject to review and critique. Do I think everything that’s being done in this course is correct? How could I? But I don’t think everything is done correctly, let alone well, in any other course that is taught anywhere, either, including at the university level. So what? That’s the real world.

    But what, I say again (with a sigh), is the alternative? What are the state’s legitimate responsibilities toward both society as a whole (producing educated citizens) and toward each child (giving them a decent education, whatever their parents might prefer)? Yanking kids out of every course or part of a course because a parent objects, however ignorantly or selfishly, is to victimize children. And I’m much more concerned about children’s rights and the responsibilities we have to our own and each other’s children in Canada (via the educational institutions we commonly support) than about parents’ rights, as if those are absolute, which they’re not.

    (I am anti-abortion by the same logic: I don’t think parents’ rights are absolute, especially to the cost of their children.)

    As for the Supreme Court decision itself, it is, indeed, narrowly technical. The debate on how to educate our children regarding religion will continue. But the Court at least did not make the wrong decision, which would be to find in favour of the Drummondville parents. THAT would have been just wildly wrong, both on the law and on the principles of the situation.

  8. David Koyzis

    Unfortunately, John, these are the sorts of quandaries we get ourselves into if we fail to recognize the normative primacy of parental authority in the education of children. If we assume the primacy of government in this area, then we will tend condescendingly to view those who do not accept this as dissidents from a supposed national consensus — a consensus that appears to have no limits beyond what the people’s representatives decide.

    The defence of parental authority here does not entail a withdrawal from the larger society or a turning inward. If anything, such a defence grows out of an awareness of our partnership with our neighbours in recognizing the legitimate pluriformity of authorities in a complex society, including a limited role for even a democratically-elected government.

    I strongly object to this:

    “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?”

    John, I don’t know who you have in mind here. Perhaps you are privy to knowledge unavailable to the rest of us. In the absence of further information, however, this sounds to me like a scare tactic. Disagree with your opponents if you will, but please don’t stoop to name-calling, which hardly strengthens your case.

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother David,

      I’m not assuming the primacy of the state in this matter, much less defending the unlimited authority of Leviathan! Good grief, sir! Did I ever say anything even approaching that?

      I’m not even questioning the primacy of parental responsibilities here. I’m questioning the Drummondville complaint that parental rights (notice, not “responsibilities” but rights) trump everyone else’s. The parents don’t like what’s happening in the school and they want the (religiously justified) power to remove their children from school. I’m saying that that is a grossly simplistic way to see things, since in fact a number of overlapping interests, responsibilities, and rights are at stake. Please don’t oversimplify what I’m saying, especially since I have taken pains to say it about five different ways now.

      As for your “strong objection” about how sectarian attitudes and imperialist attitudes can be two sides of the same coin, what’s your problem with my saying that? Historically it’s true that this can happen: consider the 16C Muenster Anabaptists (who did take over a town) or even the early Swiss Brethren (who tried to take over the Zurich Reformation and, when they failed, discovered the virtues of sectarianism instead–an episode in Anabaptist history first pointed out to me by John Yoder). Consider late 20C American fundamentalism before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement. Consider the history of Puritanism in both the Old World and the New in between these examples. Consider evangelicalism in Guatemala, to pick yet another continent, in the 20C. And so on, and so on. (H. R. Niebuhr noted this linkage in “Christ and Culture” half a century ago.) My making this point cannot be called a “scare tactic” by those who know the history. So, fair enough, you apparently don’t. Now you do.

      But it’s not a scare tactic even if you don’t know the history–which is why I didn’t supply some in the first place. And I’m not calling anyone names–where do I do that? What I do is assert that the clear implication of the logic of the Drummondville position is this: “We’ll be satisfied either with opting out or with the state teaching our ideology”–and that’s exactly what I’m saying here in the passage you find offensive. It’s either everything or nothing, imperialism or sectarianism.

      Of course Christian parents must protect their children against what they find to be inimical to their faith. But there are a variety of ways to protect children short of yanking them out of school. Do you want to advocate that every parent ought to remove every child from every discussion of every subject that conflicts with what the parents believe? Of course you don’t.

      Well, in this case, the parents want to yank children out of a carefully considered public curriculum that makes pretty good sense to me without showing any actual harm or even any serious likelihood of harm as they confuse the neutral position the state and public schools ought to take in respect to religious pluralism with relativism and the undermining of Christian truth claims. Their worry is just a gross confusion of categories.

      So why in the world would someone like you not be chastising them and the Christian intervenors for fighting the wrong battle on the wrong grounds when indeed there are state encroachments upon religious freedom indeed to be worried about and to resist?

      And why misinterpret my arguments and then argue with me when you should be cheering me on? 😉

  9. David Koyzis

    John, I think you and I would differ on the basic question of whether a government has the normative competence to establish a substantive curricular agenda as opposed to merely setting standards which schools must meet. If it were up to me, I would prefer to see a system in which parentally-controlled schools are the primary educators, with public educational funds supporting parental choice. I believe the state has ample reason to mandate a civic education related directly to good citizenship, but setting up a monopolistic all-embracing educational system goes well beyond the state’s normative task to do public justice and, furthermore, encroaches upon legitimate parental authority.

    “As for your “strong objection” about how sectarian attitudes and imperialist attitudes can be two sides of the same coin, what’s your problem with my saying that?”

    My problem with this is that you are being tremendously unfair to our fellow believers. You cite apparent historical evidence for connecting sectarianism with imperialism, all the while playing down the dangers of government overreach. (Who’s being imperialistic here?) I could just as easily cite negative examples of government efforts to gain complete control of children’s education in, e.g., the Soviet Union and China, and identify a connection between your position and the totalitarianism to which it might lead. But of course that would not be fair, would it? Neither should you be making unwarranted assumptions about the intentions of those with whom you disagree. If they want the space to educate their own children in accordance with their own beliefs against the overweening pretensions of government bureaucrats, it is hardly charitable to assume that they want to take over Canada!

    • John Stackhouse

      Oh, dear. Once again, you are misinterpreting what I’m saying and then (rather gleefully) knocking down your little straw man. I like doing that to certain people, too, I confess, but we really shouldn’t do it to each other! So I shall try once more to suggest that the situation is COMPLEX and not reducible EITHER to “parents’ rights” OR “the state’s rights.”

      Brother David, I am pretty sure I am not being “tremendously unfair” to fellow believers and it is painful to have you say so, since you are a person of manifest good judgment and piety.

      First, I am showing the logic of their position–not speculating on their motives. (When I use the language of “what they want,” this is the language game I am playing: exegeting their express public position, not reading their minds.)

      Second, the logic of MY position is not totalitarianism, but continued negotiation among various legitimate parties. It is an intermediate, tense position rather than the extreme one the Drummondville position manifests. YOU asked me to demonstrate the connection I averred between sectarianism and imperialism, and I did so: historically and logically. So unless you’re ready to do the same to link my position to totalitarianism (and good luck with that), then don’t confuse the matter by oversimplifying my view and then adding reductio to the mess.

      You now indicate that you don’t like the very idea of public schools. That fundamental difference clearly shapes our response to this particular situation. I don’t think I am “playing down the dangers of government overreach,” but to someone who doesn’t believe the government should even run public schools, then sure, I’m not nearly as suspicious and resistant as you are regarding such matters. Maybe I’m dangerously naive about public education. All I can say is that I don’t know how much personal experience you have had with public schools, from K to university, but I have a fair bit and I don’t think they’re simply a bad idea, as you seem to do.

      But your disagreement with the whole idea of public schools really isn’t the point, is it? The Drummondville people are not asking for the option to put their kids in a Christian school. That option is, of course, available to them.

      They are asking that the public school system teach a subject in a way that conforms with their Christian beliefs, and particularly that a curriculum that is properly neutral toward the truth-claims of various religions–as the Canadian and Quebecois states and their institutions ought to be–is somehow inimical to their faith and so inimical that they ought to be able to withdraw their children from the school. They are just obviously mistaken about this matter on every point: the curriculum is NOT inimical to Christian faith, it is NOT relativistic, withdrawing their children is NOT the best response in this case and they should NOT have the right to withdraw their children from just anything they might find religiously objectionable.

      I have said all this now at length, and I weary of finding newer and even more simple ways of discussing what is in fact a situation necessarily complex with overlapping rights and responsibilities and with inescapable demands for negotiation among the parties involved for a modus vivendi. I am disappointed when well-educated and apparently well-meaning colleagues oversimplify the matter rather than either refine/refute my arguments or take my side and help our fellow Christians see that they are under-interpreting and over-reacting to this situation. Dare I hope that the situation will be improved?

  10. John Stackhouse

    Ross Douthat is right. So am I. The fact that you think he is somehow rebutting my arguments instead of talking about a quite different situation and thus emphasizing complementary points I myself would make in that situation makes me shake my head. We’d better give up here, and talk some other time and place.

  11. Mark

    This thread was a good read! Kudos to Prof. Stackhouse for responding – in my experience, other bloggers/commentators/organizations tend to not take the time to respond to those who challenge them, let alone so thoughtfully, and with good humour to boot!


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