What's religion got to do with it?
Christian Week, April 1, 2005
In his parliamentary speech on C-38, Paul Martin used the R-word sixteen times. And for good measure he used the F-word (faith) and the B-word (belief) just about as often.
But what's religion got to do with it? We are talking about changing the definition of our most basic social institution, and the prime minister promised to address the arguments against doing so. Most of them aren't specifically religious. They are arguments about rights and about children.
About rights, because what is at stake legally – that is, from the standpoint of the Charter (may its name be blessed) – is whether same-sex marriage really is a right. That is the question the Supreme Court would not answer, if only for fear of the people. But it has to be answered.
Stephen Harper, in his speech, answered plainly: No, of course it isn't a right. Mr. Martin meant his own answer to be clear, but he didn't succeed. Indeed, so keen was he not to appear irreligious that he ended up appearing simply illogical.
On the one hand, he tried to argue that same-sex marriage is a right because times and perspectives have changed: “That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as we understand it today.”
On the other hand, he insisted that any move to over-rule recent provincial court decisions would be a rebellion against Eternity itself: “We cannot exalt the Charter [may its name be blessed] as a fundamental aspect of our national character and then use the notwithstanding clause to reject the protections that it would extend. Our rights must be eternal, not subject to political whim.”
I have a very secular question to ask the prime minister at this point: Can't my tax dollars buy better speech writers than this? But never mind, let's go on to the other main issue, children.
Children is one of two C-words – the other being conscience – that didn't appear in the Prime Minister's speech. Curiously, it hardly appeared in Mr. Harper's speech either. But the rights issue and family issues are interlocked.
It can't be denied that the new definition accommodates homosexual couples only by refusing to accommodate procreation as a defining feature of marriage. This removes children from the immediate purview of the institution, as legally understood. It thus deprives both children and parents of the one institution that entrenches, at the very foundations of civil law, their natural rights to one another.=
But it does something more than that. It also restructures the law in such a way as to make, not only marriage, but the whole nexus of family relations into a pure legal construct, subject precisely “to political whim.” That is, it brings them under the control of the state and makes them subject to whatever definitions the state wishes to impose upon them.
There is no greater threat to the rights and freedoms of Canadians today than this creeping statism that denies the priority of the natural family to the legal constructs of the state. Nor is there any greater threat to the ethnic pluralism that ultimately depends on that priority for its own legitimacy.
It is no accident that the consequential amendments section of C-38 strikes down the language of “natural parent,” “blood relationship,” and the like – language that acknowledges the priority of the family to the state. In its place is put “legal parent” and “legal parent-child relationship‚” etc., language over which the state has full control.
Now let me ask again, what has religion got to do with all of this? Why can't we discuss these things on their own terms, without being side-tracked into questions about religious freedom?
I will venture an answer. For Mr. Martin, who claimed in his speech to be a man of strong faith, the Charter (may its name be blessed) provides a much surer path to what is eternally right than does his own Catholic religion. We must conclude that his justice minister, Mr. Cotler, would say the same respecting his Jewish religion. Their “strong faith” is, at bottom, faith in what Mr. Cotler calls the Charter revolution and in the new Sanhedrin that interprets it (a Sanhedrin they themselves appoint).
So maybe religion does have something to do with it, after all. Maybe the Prime Minister and his allies really do believe in a kind of Charter religion; that is, in a civil religion that must trump all real and actual religions, the religions of the people of Canada. And perhaps it is because the people of Canada are beginning to sense this that they are growing concerned about their freedom of religion.
There is more to this debate, the debate about C-38, than meets the eye.
Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University. He is editor of Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society and co-editor of Divorcing Marriage .