26 June 2017

Religion's apparent threat to sovereignty: Rousseau, Sanders and the religious test for public office

During last year's presidential election campaign, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a latecomer to the Democratic Party, positioned himself as a voice for the downtrodden against big moneyed interests, something that many Americans, especially the young, found deeply attractive. In so doing, Sanders drew on a deep tradition of social justice with biblical roots, as evidenced in his powerful address to Liberty University two years ago. Recognizing that “there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he laudably demonstrated his concern for the economically disadvantaged in our society. However, judging from his questioning last week of Russell Vought, the President's nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders appears not to understand that there is no justice where religious liberty lacks protection.

At issue was a blog post Vought had written as an alumnus of Wheaton College, a Christian university near Chicago, in response to a controversy involving one of its faculty members. The offending passage was this: “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” While it may sound harsh to a nonchristian, Vought was in no way suggesting that Muslims cannot be good citizens or should be treated severely by the governing authorities. He was simply reiterating what the vast majority of Christians have believed for two millennia: that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:7).

But this appears not to satisfy Sanders, who has shown himself in this respect to be a good student of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the Genevan political philosopher who famously proposes an ostensibly tolerant civil religion at the end of Book IV of his Social Contract.

There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them — it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.

The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.

Those who distinguish civil from theological intolerance are, to my mind, mistaken. The two forms are inseparable. It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them: we positively must either reclaim or torment them. Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it must inevitably have some civil effect; and as soon as it has such an effect, the Sovereign is no longer Sovereign even in the temporal sphere: thenceforce priests are the real masters, and kings only their ministers.

One needn't dig too far beneath the surface to discern rather quickly that Rousseau's offer of tolerance could scarcely be more intolerant. Anyone who believes that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific people and that even the state derives its authority from God cannot be a good citizen of the republic.

Rousseau represents a long western tradition extending back at least to Plato that prizes unity over plurality and is uneasy with the multiple overlapping spheres claiming the proximate loyalties of ordinary people everywhere. Indeed the major preoccupation in the modern age has been the establishment of uncontested sovereignty (often with an initial upper-case S), wherein one person or body possesses the final say, the last word—even in matters not generally given to the state. Thus Thomas Hobbes argued for the Sovereign's jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters. And while John Locke appears superficially more liberal and tolerant than his predecessor, he manages to weaken the church's authority by redefining it as “a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” Church as mere voluntary association is easily tamed by the state for its own purposes.

The purveyors of sovereignty have always seen themselves standing in the vanguard of progress—curtailing the influence of the apparently more parochial and old-fashioned communities obstructing their liberating and homogenizing agenda. Nothing lies outside their transformative aspirations, even “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases” which many assume are still protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. Senator Sanders is obviously heir to this ancient tradition of political monism.

However, there has long been a dissenting tradition more appreciative of the pluriformity of communities in which we are embedded and refraining from giving any one of them priority over the others. Some of its leading figures include Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Tocqueville, Leo XIII, Abraham Kuyper and Sir Bernard Crick. A hallmark of this tradition is the recognition that the very distinctions the sovereigntists seek to obliterate are the ones we must maintain if we are to live together peacefully over the long term. As Crick puts it, politics necessitates the tolerance of different truths. This requires us to distinguish between ecclesiastical, political and other forms of tolerance. No institutional church worth its salt will tolerate its clergy believing that Jesus was a mere prophet and not the second Person of the Trinity and Saviour of the world. On the other hand, the state—defined as the community of citizens led by their government—must draw the boundaries differently, asking from its office-holders, not confessional unity, but fidelity to the constitution and the laws.

More than two centuries ago, the American founders properly included Article IV, section 3 in the Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The mature articulation of such principles as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty lay in the future, of course, but in adopting this provision the Constitution's architects indicated that they understood that norms applicable in one sphere are not necessarily applicable in another. While a religious test obviously has relevance to the church, the synagogue and the mosque, it should not be relevant to the state and other communities, which, Sanders' opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, lack the normative competence to set confessional boundaries around citizenship and public office.

David Koyzis is Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology, Burlington, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another. This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.

20 June 2017

Grace and justice: a response to Brunton

The Gospel Coalition's website tells us that, "as a broadly Reformed network of churches, [it] encourages and educates current and next-generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom he shed his life's blood." Founded by Donald A. Carson and Manhattan pastor Tim Keller in 2005, it publishes numerous articles reflecting its commitment to renewing churches through proclaiming the gospel. I have published with them once, and an interview with me recently appeared on their website.

Last year Jacob Brunton posted a critique of TGC which recently came to my attention: How The Gospel Coalition is Killing The Gospel With “Social Justice”. Brunton laments what he sees as the substitution in many circles of "economic justice" for "charity."

Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same — and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week.

Well, not exactly. To begin with, Brunton's argument is missing a recognition of what Abraham Kuyper calls sphere sovereignty, one of whose implications is that justice's meaning must be qualified by context. In marriage justice requires that husband and wife be faithful to each other. In the state justice demands that government treat equitably individuals and the variety of communities of which they are part. In the classroom justice calls both instructor and students to fulfil their responsibilities relative to the educational mission that governs their relationship. So, yes, justice may mean something different in the institutional church context than in the state, the business enterprise, the school, the labour union, &c.

More seriously, Brunton risks confusing God's relationship with us on the one hand and our multifaceted relationships with each other on the other hand. God relates to us as Creator to creature, while we relate to each other as fellow creatures under God. One needs to be cautious in drawing too close an analogy between God's unmerited grace, which we do not deserve, and the creational contexts rightly ordered by the jural norms conditioning ordinary human interchange. If someone buys my house, then, once I've turned over the keys to him, he definitely owes me the amount of money we had agreed on irrespective of whether either of us has received God's saving grace.

The crucial difference here is that God is God and we are not. As his creatures, we confess that our very existence is conditional on his freely granting us life. God owes us nothing. But this is definitely not true of our relations to each other, whether in the context of ordinary economic life or in the realm of assisting the poor to fulfil their respective callings. Whether such help for the poor is deserved or unmerited must be weighed according to a variety of factors related to the norms for economic life and not by analogy to God's relationship to his people. For example, is poverty a byproduct of lack of effort? Or is economic life structured in such a way as to exclude indefinitely certain segments from its benefits? Either or both may be true. Who deserves what will depend on how we assess a variety of economic and other factors based on observation, synthesis and analysis of conditions on the ground.

What we ought not to do is pretend that a correct theology of grace will by itself give us an answer to the complexities of economic life in our society.

11 May 2017

Youth and age, energy and wisdom

The Arrogance of Rehoboam, Hans Holbein the Younger
The majority of the world’s faith traditions make much of the wisdom of age. Some eastern religions go so far as to advocate the worship of ancestors. Of course, Christians worship God alone, but Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy famously make an important place for the cult of the saints, relying on the presumed efficacy of their prayers to God for the wellbeing and salvation of the living. Nevertheless, our society and particularly our workplaces continually neglect the wisdom of age, preferring youthful enthusiasm in what can only be called a cult of the young.

The Bible has much to say about the wisdom that comes with age: “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32). “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. . . . They still bring forth fruit in old age” (Ps. 92:12,14). These are not just isolated proof texts. The wisdom of old age is a theme found throughout Scripture.

Moses, we learn in Exodus, was 80 years old and his brother Aaron 83 when they were called to liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt (Ex. 7:7). In Canadian terms, Moses would have been eligible for his CPP pension 15 years earlier, after having laboured for more than half a century. Yet God still had work ahead for him – vastly more important than anything he had accomplished as an adopted prince of Egypt. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike regard Moses as a hero of their respective faiths, recognizing that God’s call can come even when we assume that our fruitfulness is declining or at an end.

In 1 Kings 12 we are told that, after King Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam was faced with rebellion by the northern tribes and was confronted with a stark choice: to continue the misguided policy of his father in conscripting only non-Judahites into forced labour, or to treat them more equitably. The elders in the kingdom advised him to acquiesce in the legitimate demands of the northerners: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever” (vs. 7).

But Rehoboam also consulted the young men with whom he had grown up, and they gave him different advice: “Thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than myfather’s loins. And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’” (vs 10-11). Rehoboam was undoubtedly impressed with the intellectual brilliance and youthful vigour of this second group of advisors in contrast to the less appealing demeanour of the first. Yet following youthful advice resulted in his losing most of the old kingdom of Israel, with only Judah and part of Benjamin remaining under his sovereignty.

Today many organizations – from churches and businesses to schools and governments – are tempted to run with the young. After all, they are less expensive, their formal education is more recent, and they are brimming with new ideas with potential benefits for all stakeholders. And, face it, the young present a fresher appearance to the outside world, ready to tackle the challenges ahead and to put aside the past. Christian organizations are not immune to the pressure to rejuvenate their images and to sideline those with more experience.

While many jurisdictions have enacted legislation prohibiting age discrimination, it is not too difficult for organizations to find ways around this. But this should not be the main issue. The fact is that no community, whatever its purpose, can afford to reinvent the wheel and to keep repeating the mistakes of the past. It is for this reason that the Bible associates wisdom with age and experience. We should too.

05 May 2017

Announcement: emeritus status

As many of you know, not quite two months ago, I was laid off from my thirty-year position at Redeemer University College due to financial constraints and programme restructuring. At the time I was told that I would not be eligible for emeritus status.

This week I was informed that the Senate and Board of Governors have approved emeritus status for me after all.

Nevertheless, I am still seeking opportunities for service in other contexts after the next academic year. I am grateful for the large numbers of people who have expressed support for me in recent weeks, and I would appreciate your continued prayers.

Thanks so much.

David Koyzis

14 April 2017

How 18th-century Virginians nearly made the United States more like Canada

James Madison
Two-hundred thirty years ago America’s founders met in Philadelphia to hammer out a new constitution that would bring the thirteen newly independent states together into an innovative kind of union: a federal union based on a separation of powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. At least this is what Americans have been led to believe over the centuries.

The reality is a little more complicated, as F. H. Buckley reports in his book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (Encounter Books, 2014). James Madison is often said to be one of the key architects of the Constitution of the United States, primarily because he defended it so eloquently in the Federalist Papers, a series of essays written to persuade the states to sign on to the new union. While this effort was successful, few are aware that Madison actually got little of what he had originally wanted out of the meetings held during the summer of 1787.

The majority of delegates to the constitutional convention thought the popular election of a president a very bad idea indeed. Better, they thought, to tether the chief executive to Congress, which would be responsible for putting him in office. Madison was one of a group of delegates from Virginia, arguably the most significant of the thirteen states and certainly the principal catalyst for bringing them together.

The Virginia Plan would have created a two-chamber legislature, the first chamber being directly elected by voters. The first chamber would in turn appoint the members of the second, and the two together would appoint a president, who would remain dependent on them for his power. In short, the Virginia Plan would have made the United States into a parliamentary system similar to Canada and Great Britain. Needless to say, the Virginians, including Madison, did not get their way, and we now associate Madison with a separation of powers constructed not so much out of principle as out of compromise between the larger and smaller states.

However, one element was missing from the ill-starred Virginia Plan. If, like our prime minister, the chief executive was to be dependent on Congress, the Virginians neglected to consider the need for a distinct head of state who would be counterpart to the monarch. We may think of the Queen and her representatives as ornamental fixtures in our own constitutional system, but this is not so. The principal role of the monarch is to ensure that there is always a government in place. She herself does not rule, but she must see to it that she has ministers in office capable of doing so. More significant yet, the Queen plays an essential unifying role that no mere prime minister can do. As J. R. Mallory put it, the monarchy
denies to political leaders the full splendour of their power and the excessive aggrandizement of their persons which come from the undisturbed occupancy of the centre of the stage. The symbolic value of the face of the leader on the postage stamp, the open and undisguised role of the leader and redeemer of the people, are hints of the threatened presence of the one-party state.

Indeed, as Buckley points out, the majority of countries with American-style presidential systems have gone through periods of dictatorship, and the concentration of executive power in one person makes this more likely.

By contrast, parliamentary systems with a divided executive tend disproportionately to be stable and more democratic for longer periods of time. This includes constitutional monarchies, like Britain and the Netherlands, but also parliamentary republics such as Germany, where a president serves as head of state and a chancellor as head of government.

If Madison and his fellow Virginians had had their way back in 1787, today the United States might look more like, well, us!

Principalities & Powers, Christian Courier, April 2017.

13 April 2017

Interview with Ashford

Bruce Ashford, Professor and Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has posted an interview with me. Here is an excerpt on the subject of contemporary libertarianism:

Libertarianism is really an early form of liberalism that was recovered in the 20th century by the likes of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and others. It follows a principle articulated by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, sometimes known as the harm principle. It runs like this: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Originally this was intended to apply only to the state, whose coercive power must be kept within strict bounds. From the libertarian perspective, a parliamentary body should not be legislating morality. The state makes no effort to impose and enforce social mores on the larger polity, and individuals should be granted the widest possible space for exercising their liberty. As long, of course, as they do not injure others.

However, at this latest stage in the liberal project, there has been a concerted effort to extend Mill’s harm principle into other areas of life where it does not really belong. In the real world all communities impose standards on their members, and not all of these are related to protecting them from injury or from doing harm. For example, a church congregation expects its members to confess the Christian faith and to live according to the Word of God. It further expects them to come together to worship God every week, even though their staying away for long stretches does no obvious harm to fellow members. Similarly, our daughter’s high school mandates the wearing of school uniforms. Not wearing the uniform does no evident injury to anyone, yet the school requires it all the same.

Our societies are made up of countless communities which impose on their members standards that vary from one to the next. Once the libertarian impulse has overtaken the state institution, it is difficult to limit it to the state alone. Yet if all communities were to adopt the harm principle and abandon the very standards that support their unique identity, the result would be an homogenizing of these communities. Every community, even marriage, family, church and state, becomes a mere voluntary association stripped of every claim to authoritative status. In this respect, libertarianism, which begins with a healthy suspicion of state action, ends in a kind of totalitarianism suspicious of all authorities and standards not rooted in the freely choosing wills of individuals.

30 March 2017

The Evolving American Constitution: Change Without Amendment

Might the United States be headed for significant constitutional change without formal amendment of the document we know as the Constitution?

One of the key features of the modern constitutional document is the amendment process, which is found in Article V of the US Constitution and in Part V of Canada's Constitution Act, 1982. Yet even without formal amendment, constitutions continue to develop, often simply through change in usage. In the Westminster tradition, the unwritten principles which govern a political system are known as conventions of the constitution, enduring for long periods of time and perhaps falling into desuetude when no longer deemed appropriate. In this way, the strong Tudor and inept Stuart monarchies gradually developed into constitutional monarchy, then parliamentary government, Cabinet government and, eventually, something approaching prime ministerial government. These are not insignificant changes in the ancient English constitution, yet the fundamental institutions have remained the same over many centuries, prompting Samuel Finer to call Great Britain's constitution “a democratic one, but poured into a medieval mold.”

Ironically, it was the American victory in the war for independence that led to the effective transfer of executive power from the king to the prime minister. But it was an even earlier event—a scandal, actually—that had led to the establishment of the office of prime minister itself half a century before.

Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister
King George I was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs called upon to rule, not only his German territories, but the two Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, beginning in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts. Three factors prevented King George being a hands-on king. First, he was absent from Great Britain for about a fifth of his reign, preoccupied with matters in his Electorate of Hanover. Second, his mother tongue was German, and he spoke very little English, rarely meeting with his ministers, thus setting a binding precedent to be followed by later monarchs and their representatives. Third, his reign was plagued by scandal, politically incapacitating him and further empowering his advisers. In a 300-year-old precursor to the crashes of 1929 and 2008, the South Sea Bubble of 1720 impoverished many investors, implicating the King in this imaginative scheme connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thus discredited, George had to rely increasingly on his ministers, including one Robert Walpole, who became thereby the first prime minister, a post that came into existence almost by accident.

What we now know as the Westminster constitution, famously described by Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution (1867), was never planned. There were no founding fathers, no constitutional engineers weighing alternative political arrangements appropriate to the times. There was no Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan or Connecticut Compromise. Political leaders simply adjusted their actions to changing circumstances within longstanding institutions. Canadian John Farthing aptly described the Westminster tradition in these words:
Our constitutional inheritance was the living product of a long process of historical growth and development, and the tradition it embodied is of an order already proven of value in dealing with changing conditions of life and with changing climates of opinion.
For Farthing, Americans tied their Constitution “to the ideas and mental climate of the eighteenth century,” while the unwritten British constitution, because it is constantly evolving, “is in no way bound to or fettered by any historical epoch.” Farthing was the son of an Anglican bishop, and it was easy for Christians to defend the British constitution as the happy result of the workings of divine Providence.

We all know, of course, that the Constitution of the United States was the product of hard-fought negotiations in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Or was it? Yes, the basic institutions were established then, but their subsequent functioning has been just as subject to the vagaries of history as the British and Canadian constitutions. This suggests that there is a larger unwritten American constitution whose principles are not easily captured in a single document but are based on a general respect for the rule of law. Until 1940, the two-term presidency was one such unwritten convention, established as a precedent by George Washington in 1797 and later codified in the Twenty-Second Amendment (1951).

Judicial review is another convention. Unmentioned in the text of the Constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court simply asserted it in Marbury v. Madison (1803), and no one bothered to stop them. The congressional power to declare war, enshrined in Article I, section 8, may be said to have become by convention a dead letter simply because it has not been invoked for three quarters of a century. And finally, the constantly changing relationships between federal and state governments on the one hand and between President and Congress on the other have developed in ways parallel to the shifting relationship between King and Parliament across the pond. Yet no formal amendment has wrought these profound changes. In other words, there is a case to be made that British and American constitutions are not that different after all.

A young Woodrow Wilson
F. H. Buckley has recently argued that the American founders originally desired, not so much a separation of powers, as congressional government, with a president dependent for his position on Congress, and not on the electorate. A century after the American founding, Woodrow Wilson, the only academic political scientist to become president, believed that the US was moving along the path pioneered by Westminster and expressed this view in his Congressional Government (1885). With a series of weak presidents following the Civil War, effective political power had passed to congressional leadership, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, if not exactly becoming a de facto prime minister, nevertheless taking on an increasingly central role.

Present circumstances could see many of the founders and Wilson finally getting their way. As the current occupant of the White House is widely regarded as less than fully competent, and with many observers seriously questioning his ability to govern, effective political power could shift back to Congress, with congressional leaders increasingly taking the reins of government. This would require no formal amendment to the Constitution, yet the constitution in the broader unwritten sense is flexible enough to accommodate such a possibility.

Would this be a good or bad thing? Having lived in Canada for over three decades, I understand and appreciate the advantages of separating the offices of head of state and head of government, of forcing a government to defend its policies before the people's representatives on a daily basis, and of ensuring the easy removal of a government that has lost the ability to govern. Of course, not every form of government works everywhere. A constitution that serves Britain and Canada well may not be a good fit for Americans, who are famously attached to their political institutions and are convinced of their innate superiority. Nevertheless, it might be a very good thing to see the presidency cut down to size and to have the gap filled by the people's representatives in Congress. It has happened before, and it could happen again.

David Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office and the Image of God. He has recently begun work on a new book exploring the relationship between political culture and governing institutions. A slightly different version of this was published at First Thoughts.

20 March 2017

Announcement: termination of employment

Friends:

This is to let you know that, after teaching political science at Redeemer University College for thirty years, I have been let go due to programme restructuring and budgetary constraints. Some of you may recall that I was nearly let go two years ago but was reprieved by the institution's senate. This time, however, my termination was approved by the senate and the board of governors. Accordingly I will not be teaching during the 2017-2018 academic year.

As I am approaching the normal retirement age, I may take that option at the end of that year, but, if so, under the conditions of my termination I will do so without receiving emeritus status from Redeemer. Instead I will use the next year for my own research and writing, as well as to seek other employment opportunities. If you know of any such opportunities, I would be grateful if you would let me know.

In the meantime, if you have young people who are considering university, please do consider Redeemer, where they will continue to receive a high-quality education.

I would appreciate your prayers for my family and me, as well as for my soon-to-be former employer.

Thank you.

David Koyzis

09 January 2017

'No core identity'? The impossibility of the state without a soul

I am no friend of nationalism. Given what my paternal relatives experienced as refugees in their own country of Cyprus, I thoroughly detest the clashing ethnic nationalisms that tore apart the island. I hate what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915 and what they did to the Greeks of Smyrna seven years later. I dislike what Serbs did to Croats and vice versa. And, of course, I need hardly mention the Holocaust ruthlessly implemented for the sake of an ethnically pure Germany.

That said, I cannot endorse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion that Canada is "the first postnational state," as indicated in this article from The Guardian: The Canada experiment: is this the world's first 'postnational' country?  Here is author Charles Foran:

But as well as practical considerations for remaining an immigrant country, Canadians, by and large, are also philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, articulated this when he told the New York Times Magazine that Canada could be the “first postnational state”. He added: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

The remark, made in October 2015, failed to cause a ripple – but when I mentioned it to Michael Bach, Germany’s minister for European affairs, who was touring Canada to learn more about integration, he was astounded. No European politician could say such a thing, he said. The thought was too radical.

For a European, of course, the nation-state model remains sacrosanct, never mind how ill-suited it may be to an era of dissolving borders and widespread exodus. The modern state – loosely defined by a more or less coherent racial and religious group, ruled by internal laws and guarded by a national army – took shape in Europe. Telling an Italian or French citizen they lack a “core identity” may not be the best vote-winning strategy.

Trudeau's description calls up some very strange mental images. One might envision a robot programmed to do all, or most, of the things a human being can do, but, like the unfortunate tin woodman in The Wizard of Oz, lacking a heart. In Canada we like to think that our identity resides in our very lack of identity. Not satisfied with citizenship in a soulless nation, some go so far as to assert that what defines Canada is its universal health care. But neither of these will work, and they certainly will not satisfy the human soul.

Following the late Benedict Anderson, we might call a nation an imagined community, given that we do not naturally feel a sense of kinship and camaraderie with those living even half an hour from us, much less on the other side of the country. But this is all the more reason for a country to cultivate and maintain certain intangibles that cannot simply be created de novo. Even the most diverse of nations requires some sort of commonality, that is, certain shared assumptions about life that set the tone for the larger society and for just governance. A common culture—especially political culture—is needed if a nation is to be more than just a collection of insular tribes under a political order so abstract as to be unable to command popular support.

Such shared assumptions need not be based on skin colour or blood ancestry. We needn't follow Gus Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding in asserting that there are two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and those who wish they were Greeks. There is no reason to conclude that our nation is the biggest and best in all respects and has a special mission to fulfil, based simply on the fact that we happen to live here. This is jingoism at its worst. Nevertheless, a nation should include at least such elements as common commitment to the rule of law, generally-accepted limits on political power and rhetoric, belief in constitutional governance, the rights of citizens, etc. English-speaking democracies have generally excelled at cultivating this political sense of nationhood better than many continental European countries whose governing institutions have not yet stood the test of centuries.

The danger of Justin Trudeau's rhetoric, however well meant, is that it may provide a pretext for government to manage all this diversity if it gets out of hand. Such government management will not, of course, be devoid of assumptions about the best way of life. The political managers will operate on the basis of their own worldviews, which in some sense they will be imposing on everyone else. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus correctly observed more than three decades ago, a naked public square cannot long remain naked. Some comprehensive doctrine—some "thick" conception of human life—will inevitably fill the vacuum. If this is true in political life, it is also true in social life. Canadians, like Americans, cherish the contributions made by their immigrants, whom they have generally welcomed. But immigrants have come here, not because Canada has no core identity, but precisely because of Canada's core political identity: a stable democracy with a vibrant tradition of the rule of law rooted in British and French precedents. More to the point, this core identity is unlike the political cultures these immigrants have left behind.

Common assumptions, usages and customs, passed down through the generations, infuse life into a nation and generally preclude the necessity of government's micromanaging the larger society. A government that makes a policy of denying the normative character of these customs in favour of a vague multiculturalism does so at the peril of the larger culture to which it owes, yes, its own core identity as a constitutional government.

A slightly different version is posted at First Thoughts.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com