At the recent McGill Conference, I was asked to participate with four others on a panel to discuss “Religion, Sex, and the City.” We each got five minutes to deliver a few opening remarks, and to answer two questions: Does pluralism mean the end of public morality? And if not, what role, if any, ought religion to play? The discussion went from there. Here is my five minutes worth. At the end of the hour, there was some discussion of Charter-type paper documents that (I argued) nations seem to invent and then impose on their people as a kind of substitute for the absence of a genuine common moral bubble (this metaphor explained below). This led to some comments on the effect of Canada’s Charter on our status as a self-governing people, which I have added at the end.
I would like to begin by looking at the meaning of the City held dear by almost all who have come before us. Then I want to contrast that to the current view of the modern city, and offer some thoughts on what this means for religion and sex.
We know that the ancient city -called “the polis” by the Greeks – rested on at least four convictions:
1) Everything has an end, or good, toward which it aims for its fulfillment.
2) The city is an organic whole greater than the sum of its individual parts, the end of which is the flourishing of all. As the seed is to the flower, the citizen is to the city.
3) Citizens live under a common moral bubble of shalls and shall-nots sustained by moral and religious conviction and debate.
4) The most fundamental rule is that the good of all comes before my individual good.
However, the modern city – which we can date from the middle of the nineteenth century – stands as the complete and even proud repudiation of all that I just said, and for that reason I describe it as “the anti-polis.” In such a place –
1) There is no particular vision of the good that is considered better than any other, and so the idea of a common good is off the table.
2) The anti-polis is a collection of individuals, and it can never be a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
3) Each citizen lives in a private moral bubble, strictly off-limits to the uninvited.
4) And finally – and this is the key equation of the anti-polis: if all individuals follow their freely-chosen ideal of the good, then society will also end up good.
Needless to say, this notion of the City as a ship without a course, a rudder, a larger purpose, is unique in human history, and we have arrived at it via our embrace of what I call “hyperdemocracy.” This is a modern political form in which the idea of sovereignty, formerly vested in rulers above, after descending into the hands of “the people” for a century or so, has ended up vested, as we like to think, in autonomous individuals.
At the end of such a fateful journey, all questions about the proper ends of Man and the City, become non-questions. They cannot be answered because although they may be asked of you, or of me (as at this conference) they can no longer be asked of us, for there is no longer any corporate body in the name of which we feel moved to respond.
From this brief sketch, we can now ask:
* Does “pluralism” (which is really just a feel-good cover-term for the disunity of a people) mean the end of public morality?
Seen from the hinterlands, of course it does.
But if you are a citizen of the new anti-polis, where the very term “public morality” is considered retro, the answer is a firm no, simply because pluralism is itself the formalization and sanctification of the “anti-morality morality” I have described.
* Does religion have a role in public morality? I think we should face the fact that in the modern democracies, even before we surrendered our common moral bubble, the Christian religion (in Canada, at least), had not played a forceful role for a very long time, and whenever fresh opportunities have arisen to demonstrate moral outrage and religious fortitude – such as during the recent betrayal of traditional marriage – it has been weak beyond words.
* On the question of sex, I would simply say what everyone knows: In a secular and materialistic society purely spiritual purposes are diminished in principle, and this leaves sex – which was unlinked from biology some time ago – as something pretty close to the highest human joy. In its current free-floating pansexual form it has become a substitute for spiritual bliss and is now worshipped as such in the public square.
The invention of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was a backward step that returned Canadians to the kind of political condition they endured under their British masters during the colonial period. Let me explain. At that time those who governed the separate colonies in what was to become Canada were officials of the British Crown and were not responsible to the people but to the legislators, judges, and courts of Great Britain. So for decades Canadians fought hard to bring about “responsible government” – a term which in Canadian political history came to mean that government must be responsible to the elected representatives of the people. They were granted bits of this by the mid-1840s, and by Confederation in1867 the principle of fully responsible government was institutionalized in Canada. Accordingly, the laws made by their representatives in Canada’s Parliament were considered an expression of the will of the people and hence the supreme law of the land. (It bears noting, however, that the founders both of Canada and the United States of America considered even the will of their elected representatives supreme only with respect to new statute laws; to their minds, even statute laws were subordinate to the inherited legal rights, customs and traditions of the English speaking people since Magna Carta).
But this happy 115-year tradition was radically altered in 1982 with the introduction of a Charter that was declared “the supreme law of Canada,” and thus a law over and above the laws of Parliament and all other inherited and customary forms of law . The result has been that since then the will of the Canadian people as expressed in Parliament has been subordinated to and must now conform to interpretations of the law of the Charter. In short, the ultimate authority over the meaning of all existing laws and especially over any new laws made by Canada’s legislators is once again, as in colonial times, held by officials the people did not elect, who cannot be removed by the people, and who are not responsible to the people in any direct way.
In response to this charge, Canada’s judges maintain that parliamentarians still hold the ultimate authority because they can make and re-make laws. However, any balanced scrutiny of the record since 1982 will show an abdication, if not a judicial suppression of legislative freedom and responsibility: Parliamentarians are so fettered by the threat of actual or potential Charter scrutiny that they repeatedly defer to past court decisions or to anticipated Charter rulings prior to creating new legislation. The emphasis since 1982 has shifted from the question of what laws the people wish their elected representatives to make, to the question of what laws their judges will allow them to make.