13 February 2008

A plurality of laws

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been under a lot of pressure lately, mostly over his handling of the imminent breakup of the Anglican communion. Most recently, however, he has come under fire for suggesting that the coming of Sharia to the United Kingdom is inevitable. However, the Rev. Dr. Andrew Goddard believes that Rowan Williams' remarks have not only been taken out of context, but reduced to a few controversial sound bytes that do not come close to doing justice to his views: Prudence and Jurisprudence: Reflections on the Archbishop's interview and lecture. Though I have not followed this story closely, I find persuasive Goddard's analysis, in which he even cites my friend and colleague, Jonathan Chaplin, as a "leading evangelical political theorist."

Here in Ontario we had a similar controversy in 2005 when Premier Dalton McGuinty ruled out the use of "faith-based arbitrations," proclaiming that "There will be one law for all Ontarians." Yet this is not an adequate account of the plurality of laws governing our lives in their diverse realms. If a child disobeys her parents, the latter do not call the police in to punish the child under the public law of the state. Rather they themselves mete out an appropriate punishment within the context of the particular norms governing that family itself. Similarly, a faculty member is subject to rules internal to the university, while a church institution is governed by canon law or church order. McGuinty must surely recognize this?

To his credit, Williams appears to understand the reality of multiple and overlapping allegiances in a complex, differentiated society better than many of his compatriots, who are echoing McGuinty's somewhat panicked response of two years ago. I understand, of course, that anything having to do with Islam and Sharia in western societies is a touchy subject these days. Yet the full import of Williams' argument is being lost. Here is Williams:

I think at the moment there's a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what's been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what's written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts'. I think that's a bit of a danger. . . .

It would be a pity if the immense advances in the recognition of human rights led, because of a misconception about legal universality, to a situation where a person was defined primarily as the possessor of a set of abstract liberties and the law's function was accordingly seen as nothing but the securing of those liberties irrespective of the custom and conscience of those groups which concretely compose a plural modern society.

Of course, there is a difference between what I call the pluriformity of authority and the sort of pluralism rooted in divergent spiritual commitments. Yet these two intersect in so far as one can expect particular religious norms to impact the internal ordering of, say, marriage and family life. To reduce all legality to the public law of the state tends in a totalitarian direction. Fortunately our political leaders, including McGuinty, formulate policies that are better than their expressed commitments might suggest.

While you're reading Goddard's article, you might also read this post by the winsome — and sorely missed — Mr. Brian Dijkema, who alerted me to it.

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