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Lori G. Beaman has posted an interesting short essay over at the Immanent Frame in which she explores possibilities for moving “beyond separation” as a dogma for church-state relations.  Writing in light of James Beckford’s claims in The Return of Religion , Beaman ponders how the twenty-first century, which seems to be marked by a revitalization of religion as a serious force in world affairs, can best provide space for this resurgent phenomenon in the public arena. Beaman sees a kind of “unofficial establishment” as bridging the gap. Taking the example of Canada:

Is there a religious establishment in Canada? Yes and no. The constitution does not explicitly address establishment, but instead guarantees religious freedom in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the  preamble  to the Charter states: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law,” and in  Section 29  recognition is given to the historic compromise that supports state funding for Protestant schools in Québec and Roman Catholic schools in Ontario. Public discussions of religion sometimes casually mention that “we have separation of church and state” in Canada, even though this is not constitutionally true, and, in fact, evidence from the constitution itself as already noted would support the opposite conclusion.  David Martin  has argued that there is a shadow establishment, and  others  have suggested similar conclusions.  I have argued  that there exists a Christian hegemony . . .

Essentially, what this means is that religion can have a (quite elevated) place in public life, but the vehicle through which it makes its claims to general applicability is cultural rather than exclusively religious:
. . . while a critical analysis of the various ways in which religious freedom is deployed is important, equally crucial is suspicion about the ways in which religion is constructed by majorities as “culture,” thus displacing discussions about religion and religious freedom altogether. The 2011  Lautsi and Others v. Italy  decision in the European Court of Human Rights, developments in the Canadian province of Québec, and case law in both the US and Canada serve to make the point. In  Lautsi ,   a crucifix and Roman Catholicism were transformed in arguments by the Italian state from religious symbol and religion to cultural symbol and universal values. Thus, the crucifix in an Italian classroom wall was not ‘religious’ but ‘cultural’ and part of Italian heritage. A similar sleight of hand occurs in the Canadian province of Québec when the Bouchard Taylor Commission Report recommended that the crucifix be removed from the Salon Blue, which is the provincial legislature. The day the report was issued the National Assembly  voted unanimously  to keep the crucifix, stating that it was an important symbol of Québec’s heritage . . .

By constructing the practices of religious majorities as culture rather than as religion they become a benign presence in the face of the (dangerous, offensive, alien) religious practices of the Other or of the (also dangerous) godless atheist. By pushing past establishment frameworks and exploring the ways that particular religious traditions/practices/beliefs are woven though social institutions and practices, a richer exploration of religious diversity and religious freedom becomes possible.

This position is intriguing, particularly because it has proven to be a winning formula in many parts of Europe, where a still largely-secular public has become uneasy with rigid non-establishment in the face of looming cultural erosion and resurgent “outsider” faiths like Islam. Indeed, figures as diverse as David Cameron, Italian judges, and even Nicolas Sarkozy (see his recent statements in honor of Joan of Arc) have warmed to a reassertion of religion’s cultural claims. And it is, indeed, a good place to start, even if it is not quite ideal (its assessment of religion as “an important part of our culture” is deeply true yet ultimately incomplete). Still, if the political realm occupies the upper tiers of a society’s thought and action, perhaps beginning with the forces that shape and sustain politics—mores, identity, and shared cultural experiences—is not a bad place to begin a counter-argument.

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