The state is not neutral

quecharterIn Canada, a recent proposal by the Quebec government to implement a “Charter of Values” has generated considerable controversy. The basic premise of the charter is that the state should be neutral and, as such, officers of the state should not be adorned with anything that would betray their specific beliefs.

If you put a big “X” over the image to the right, you get the idea.

Now, there are several reasons why this is problematic, and political philosopher and Quebecker Charles Taylor recently gave a good interview on why this is. You can view it here on CBC.

Now, whether or not this new legislation goes through, it begs the question of whether the state is neutral and whether this is even a goal that can be stated in neutral terms. That is, neutrality itself may very well be the outcome of a particular political point of view.

Taylor starts out by making a nice point, that requiring people to stop wearing outward symbols of faith immediately makes a judgment about faith being something that one holds in their inner person. Which is very much okay for some faiths (i.e. Christianity) but not so for others where certain practices are necessary for belief.

Strangely, to me, not much discussion has arisen about whether the goal of state neutrality is even worth pursuing. It is certainly a long-standing part of the rhetorical and philosophical armament of political liberalism. There, the idea is that our policies, and methods for reaching them, should not intrinsically favor the beliefs of any particular group. In Habermas’ book, Between Naturalism and Religion, he suggests such a view is “post-metaphysical.”

For my part, I would like to see the broader conversation get going in Canada. To do so, we would first need to acknowledge that, because the goal of state neutrality requires conformance to practices that leave our beliefs at home, this is already making a substantive judgment about beliefs, and how and why they matter. We would need to acknowledge that the state is not neutral.