[English version of text originally published in French in Huffington Post Québec on September 20, 2013]
It is in the name of the modern value of the state’s religious neutrality that the Quebec government has proposed to ban its personnel from wearing obviously visible religious symbols. It is therefore deeply ironic that the proposal in its essence harkens back to a medieval mindset.
We can see this as soon as we ask why medieval and early-modern European Christians tried ruthlessly to impose religious uniformity on their populations. Why, for example, did Protestant states forbid publicly visible Catholic church buildings, and vice versa? Two reasons were salient. First, medieval and early-modern Christians assumed that a single, common, publicly shared religion was necessary for social order: tolerating religious diversity would destroy the state. Second, they made a very peculiar assumption about public space. They assumed that if a person expressed herself in public – if she expressed herself in a way that was visible to her fellow citizens – she was speaking in the name of the entire political community! They assumed that to speak in public was to speak for the public, to represent everyone in the society. This is why the visible expression of heretical views was so dangerous for them: they thought it would result in the damnation of all citizens, and not just the heretics, to eternal hellfire. Religious intolerance was a collective act of self-defence!
With modernity, Christian Europeans abandoned both of these assumptions. First, they learned that social order does not require common religious values: what causes social conflict is not religious diversity but intolerance of diversity. Second, they came to distinguish what is visible to the community from what represents it, what is in public space from what is in the public’s name. Europeans learned that individuals could do things in public – in public spaces visible to all – without purporting to speak for the public.
This distinction, between what is visible and what represents the community, is one of the foundational elements of the modern, secular, liberal, democratic state. My expression can be private, in the sense that it is only in my own name, even if it is public, in the different sense that it is visible to all my fellow citizens. Individuals can walk down the street, even in their capacity as civil servants, and freely display features private to their own person without purporting to represent everyone. Not everything a state employee says or does “represents” the state: when she drinks coffee instead of tea, laughs at a joke, or wears high heels instead of flat shoes.
The recent proposal to regulate what kind of clothing state employees can wear returns us back to the medieval worldview. To annihilate the distinction between what is visible and what represents the community is to destroy a pillar of modernity. It is to invade individual liberties without any legitimate reason. By the government’s medieval logic, we might as well argue that, since the state should represent all citizens, not just men, it should also ban obviously visible items of clothing that are recognized masculine symbols – like ties. Absurd? Yes, and a step towards totalitarianism. The desire to use the coercive power of the state to regulate how people dress – to regulate what the public can see – is a fundamentally totalitarian temptation. We should be careful not to indulge it.
Photo: Christian Martyrs of Nagasaki, Japanese 17C