By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, February 18, 2012
In the fast-moving heart of the religion wars, you can feel the ground shifting beneath your feet.
In truth, no one is calling for a religious state or attacking faith. Rather, we are witnessing a showdown, across the West, between two competing definitions of “freedom of religion.” In one definition, the public sphere is a wide-open space: Citizens are free to try to impose religion, to invoke their gods in legislation, to wear whatever symbols they like. It’s a marketplace of beliefs, and may the strongest prevail.
In the other definition, that sphere is a neutral space: Religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion. And freedom from religion is just as important for non-believers, who don’t want public life to be corrupted with spiritualism, as it is for devout believers, who don’t want their sacred beliefs to be sullied by the vicissitudes of politics.....We always knew it could happen: A devout Muslim heads a conservative political party that takes office in a multicultural Western country, then leads a campaign to enforce mandatory prayer and to lobby for religious-based values and laws. How will people react?
Well, it happened in Britain this week, and here’s how they reacted: Judges and leading thinkers fought back in the name of a secular state, but the Queen, the Pope and Britain’s right-wing newspapers all spoke up in support of the Muslim party leader’s campaign.
This was because the leader in question is Baroness Warsi, chairman of the Conservative Party and a senior minister in David Cameron’s government. She’s a popular figure among Tories and an entertaining personality who frequently appears on British TV. She’s also a devout Muslim, a faith-based cultural conservative and a staunch defender of religion’s role in public life.
Her campaign began Monday, after Britain’s High Court ruled that the practice of holding prayers during municipal council meetings is unconstitutional (as, by extension, may be those held during sittings of the House of Commons). Prayer, the judge ruled, is a private matter that has no place in the formal proceedings of a legal assembly.
The Baroness shot back, saying her country is falling prey to “militant secularization” and arguing that religious belief should be “a voice in the public sphere.” She went to Rome and met the Pope, who appeared to give her arguments his blessing. Religion, she said, should be a basis of public life: “To create a more just society, Britons must feel stronger in their religious identities.”
Let's be upfront here. This scribe is completely opposed to the Pope's statement, and to the support his statement might receive from The Queen, the right-wing press, and the Baroness. The state cannot give legitimacy to any one faith community, and certainly cannot be in the business of supporting one faith over others.
There is a candidate running for the presidential nomination of the Republican party in the United States, Rick Santorum, by name. Although his last name sounds like a part of a medievel chant, in some medieval church, probably in Latin, the language of the Mass he attends daily, this man, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, would abolish all federal funds for the provision of contraception, immediately revoke Roe v Wade, removing a woman's right to a therapeutic abortion, with or without public funds, and would eliminate the Department of Education, because he is unalterably opposed to the "rampant secularization" of the world, including what he sees as the collapse of the family since 1950. He and his wife have seven children, all of them home-schooled, because he also believes that his country is suffering from "militant secularization" and all of the heinous things that such a development brings with it.
There have been many debates, discussions, even killings in the fight to establish a separation of church and state, in many western countries. And, no matter what the Pope and the Queen utter today, we are not going back to a time when the church and its narrow teachings, many of them small-minded, even smaller-spirited and vengeful and punitive resulting in the perpetuation of slavery, for example, or of rampant sexism for another, because some writer, in the Christian Bible held homosexuality in contempt and thereby suggested his view was God's view. Nor are we going back to a time when women were subject to the will (and sexual appetite) of their husbands, reinforced by the church, for multiple births, to "grow the church" when the church held that only abstinence and withdrawal were permitted as methods of birth control. How many women died after giving birth to a dozen or more children? And why, in the name of any God worthy of the name, would anyone want to return to such oppression and abuse?
The radical streams of Judaism, Islam and Christianity hold women in contempt, elevating the male gender to superiority, simply in the guise of living out the tenets of a theology. If, for no other reason, we all must demand that the state refrain from any religious take-over, no matter how sanctimonious and self-righteous and lofty the voices of those crying for a return to religiously driven doctrines morphed into legislation.
Notice that the Pope and Queen subscribed to their citizens feeling a stronger "religious identity" in order to bring a higher level of morality to civic life. Religious identity, if it is worth its salt, is easily sustainable without the state's either open and direct support or its indirect more invisible support.
There is no need, for example, to abolish the Secretary of Education and the Department of Education, simply because Santorum wants the states to control education, believing, as I am sure he does, that it would be more likely to control state legislators by any faith community, than it would members of the Congress.
There is also no gain for anyone, except the most fanatic salespersons of the "winning faith" to create a marketplace of religions, and let the strongest argument "win" as many converts as possible.
That way lies religious tyranny, and the inevitably oppression of the minorities that would inevitably result.
We can see this kind of conflict playing itself out in several of the Middle East countries where Sunni and Shias fight with words, swords and even Mk-47's if they can get their hands on them, supported by arms sales from countries like Russia and Iran.
It is past time for Great Britain to remove the Queen as the Head of the Church of England, leaving her to her role as Head of Government, effectively to put an end to the unholy and unhealthy marriage of church and state in one person. There must be no visible argument in favour of the "religious position" that there must be time and space, for example, for Muslim students in universities, or students of any other faith, to pray, nor for time and space for prayers in the courts, or the council chambers of the towns and villages through the land(s).
We unequivocally subscribe to the second definition, as posited by Mr. Sauders,
"Religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion."
And the sooner the state regains its spine, and takes its place as the secular leader, the agency of all people, regardless of their faith, or lack of it, and refuses to be manipulated by the forces of religion, whether aligned or separate, and whether fanatic or less than, and whether voiced by "respectable and honourable" witnesses or otherwise, the sooner the west will pass through this narrow gate between the Scylla of religious demonization of the "other" and the Charybdis of the cacophony of competing religious prosletyzers, all seeking to "conquer" the heathens among them, and tilting the body politic, thereby, to their "persuasion".
This is no time for the faint of heart, in the public discourse. The forces that would literally capture the body politic, in their religious "image" are legion, well financed and well armed. Those of us who are opposed are far less organized, far less well supported and far less armed, with money, arguments or allies. Consequently, we will have to fight much harder to be heard and to have any influence, in this war for the hearts and minds (and the freedom of the souls) of all of our nations.