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Social Liberalism is a Major Shift

Daniel Cere

(A revised and edited version of this article was published in the Montreal Gazette, March 23, 2005. A29)

At the opening of the recent Liberal convention the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Tim Murphy, proclaimed the dawn of “our new liberalism.” According to Paul Martin, this new liberalism will “set the tone” for the future.

In the post-war era, Canadian political culture was shaped by a broad and easy-going liberalism. The conservatism of our cultural and religious communities could relax and feel at home in this big-tent tradition. John Rawls, the philosopher of modern liberalism, refers to this tradition as “political liberalism.” In this view, liberal values of justice and equality rule the political domain of society. However, this liberalism kept the State at a measured distance from the “social” domains of life: the family, religion, and the economy. It rejected the imposition of any comprehensive ideology, including a liberal ideology, on civil society. Its constitution and courts serve as a “shield” protecting the soft-shelled institutions of social life against state intrusion.

But now, Murphy says, Liberals need to throw off the “albatross of accepted wisdom” and convert to a more hawkish form of liberalism. This new liberalism has few reservations about transgressing the boundaries between the political and social. “Social liberalism” wants to penetrate deep into the social domains of life in order to coerce family, marriage and culture to conform to liberal values.

Social liberals openly argue for a “counter-majoritarian” vision of liberal democracy that transfers deliberative power from parliament into the hands of the courts. However, there is a price to pay. The courts and the Charter must be fattened up with social liberalism. As these historic instruments of political liberalism bloat and swell into quite different, then democratic debate can be trumped with the dismissive retort, “It's the Charter, Stupid!” The courts are lured away from their crucial role as a “shield” protecting civil society from State intrusion in order to become “swords” of the State enforcing the new liberalism.

The rhetoric of social liberalism can be menacing and moralizing. Social conservatives should not be treated as meaningful participants the democratic conversation, but shunned as political untouchables. Social liberals cast a jaundiced eye at traditional cultural and religious communities. Their academics worry about “sites of intolerance.” The more zealous argue that the state should be busy “purging Canada of toxic religion.”

John Rawls warned that the slide towards an ideological form of liberalism damages the life of political liberalism and opens the door to a coercive and illiberal state. The new liberalism has enforced its hegemony in the Netherlands and Dutch society has become more divisive and traditional cultural communities are becoming more marginalized. Canada 's legal and political elites seem bent on joining ranks with the Dutch. From pot to prostitution, the new liberalism wants to impose its set of "values" upon Canadian society.

The reconstitution of society's most basic social institution marks a watershed moment in the political ascendancy of social liberalism. Bill C-38 presses for the liberalization of marriage. The new marriage doctrine asserts that the “objective core” of marriage is a close commitment between consenting adults. This stripped-down doctrine of marriage is the flag-ship of social liberalism and its proponents are determined to enshrine it as the authoritative law of the land.

Bill C-38 also transforms parenthood. It eliminates the concept of “natural parent” from public law and substitutes the concept of “legal parent.” Why? To give any legal weight to natural parenthood would compromise the parental claims of same-sex couples. Therefore, the soft but real birth-right of children to be connected to their mothers and fathers must be eliminated from law in order to tailor parenthood to the interests of adults.

C-38 snarls angrily at the historic understanding of marriage that is so fundamental to the life of so many of our faith, cultural, and aboriginal communities. These communities embrace marriage as a bond that bridges the sex-divide and strives to build stable community of life that connects children to their mothers and fathers. Social liberals argue that this public vision of marriage must be condemned. It must be denounced as “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional,” not to mention “sexist,” “patriarchal,” and exploitive of women. Driven from the public square, its last hiding place lies under a thinning veil of religion freedom.

But does this veil have any power to protect? The advance of social liberalism necessarily stirs real anxieties about cultural and religious freedom. The safeguard for religious freedom put forward in Bill C-38 is empty, almost cynical. The federal government promises that it won't break into the sanctuaries of Canada 's churches, mosques and temples to coerce religious officials to solemnize marriages against their conscience. That's it. The government conveniently forgets to mention that this bizarre safeguard is bogus since the federal government has no jurisdiction over the solemnization of marriage.

What about those many areas of federal jurisdiction that the government could have offered real and tangible safeguards: charitable status, communications , funding to defend against court challenges, and so on? Not a whisper.

Do these developments signal that political liberalism is dead? We are not quite there yet. However, bullied and cowered by the moral zeal of the new liberalism, political liberals are laying low. If political liberals cannot stir up the determination, risk and leadership required to renew this tradition, then it is doomed to slow extinction. In Political Liberalism John Rawls argues that free flourishing of our diverse familial, cultural and religious communities hinges on the vitality of a liberal political culture that is civil, disciplined, and not prone to ideological excess. The decline of this tradition of moderate liberalism and the growing dominance of its more hard-line adversary does not bode well for Canada .


Daniel Cere

McGill University


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