I Saw Mommy Kissing the Establishment Clause
My first encounter with Canada's approach to religious matters came the other day when my son asked me for $5 so he could go see "The Chronicles of Narnia" (which he'd long ago read) with the rest of his 6th grade class. No permission slip, no guidelines for opting out. Nor, from what I could tell, was there any suggestion of a need for either. It was a done deal.
"Is everyone going?"
"Uh, yes. Why wouldn't they?"
Now there are few if any Jews in our little Rocky Mountain town, but there are plenty of Wiccans and kindred souls. (The mother of one of our daughter's classmates habitually wears a pentagram around her neck.) And they take their religion quite seriously. Woe betide the political cartoonist who uses Macbeth's witches to make a point (to pick an actual example). Long, indignant letters to the editor, lecturing the paper's readers on the noble history of Wicca and demanding an apology, are sure to follow.
So it was with some bemusement that I forked over a fiver so my son could share a taxpayer-subsidized Christian moviegoing experience with the rest of his peers. Now, the purpose of the outing was entirely hedonistic. There was no after-movie discussion, and the point was simply to enjoy the end of the semester. But in some ways this only intensified my nonplussedness. Assuming such a public-school outing ever took place in the States, is there any chance that either the People for the American Way or Focus on the Family wouldn't have been involved, if not at each other's throats? Ditto the following night's school Christmas pageant.
Similar thoughts attended my evening walk through our tiny business district a few nights later, where the annual "Christmas on Baker Street" was held, complete with reading from a let-it-all-hang-out vernacular Gospel ("And so Joseph waited until after Mary had given birth to Jesus before consummating their marriage"), Christmas carolers, and tableau vivant nativity scene. Footed by the local churches, this unabashed celebration of Jesus' birth amid the hustle and bustle of small-town holiday shopping was a scene straight out of Frank Capra, except for the nearby hemp clothing and New Age stores.
If the Wiccans had a dim view of this annual appropriation of what everyone knows was originally a pagan solstice celebration, I did not detect it. ("Does anyone object to this?" I asked one person. "No, why?") If anything, the vibe all around was one of happy indifference. Families milled about, rubbing shoulders with stoners and ski dudes, all spiritually united by one common bond: free hot dogs and cocoa. The only group doing any prosyletizing was Remax Realty, who had a tent incongruously set up next to the manger.
In a normal world, none of this would be particularly noteworthy, but thanks to America and cable TV, the public face of Christmas the world over now resembles that of a miserable 8-year-old child in the middle of a bitter custody battle, a prop for implacable enemies each professing undying love for the little tot while seeking above all to make life as miserable for the other as possible. America may import virtually everything else, but this orgy of missing-the-point is apparently a US export covered by NAFTA.
So, even though I had yet to encounter a secularly correct greeting in the de facto capital of BC bud, CBC apparently felt compelled to cover the controversy a few days ago, asking its listeners if they felt there was a "war on Christmas" in Canada. A couple of callers gamely flogged Bill O'Reilly's hobby horse, pointing to the odd Canadian university somewhere that outrageously mentions Kwanzaa, but the feebleness of the effort only confirmed my anecdotal impression: Canadians in general don't really care what you celebrate, and they don't really care what you call it. If you believe the whole virgin-birth-followed-by-unexplained-30-year-gap-before-getting-on-with-saving-mankind story, jolly good for you; if not, well, put Him on the mantle next to Santa and his reindeer. Both are nice stories, and Jesus has better songs.
Why the live and let live? It's not news that Canada does not have a doctrine of separation of church and state, and because of that, the two interpenetrate in many other ways as well. This yields results that many in the US might find intolerable (or a dream come true); government-subsidized religious schools, for example. But the net effect ironically seems to be to drain religion of its more fetishistic aspects. As I blogged about the other day, the hyperreligosity of American politicians is nearly nonexistent here; indeed, it's a liability (despite high levels of religious self-identification in both countries). Says Canadian pollster Michael Adams, "In the United States, ...there is one category of person who cannot be elected, and that's an atheist. And in Canada, there's a category of person who can't be elected and of course that is a person who is an ostentatious religious person. In fact, people who believe in God are suspect and we want to know a little bit more about them."
Perhaps overgeneralizing from this seeming paradox, I wonder if many of the intractable battles in the United States are exacerbated rather than held in check by the Bill of Rights, if placing certain issues off limits, whether through the First (religion), Second (guns), or Fourth (privacy) Amendment, only fetishizes the conflicts involved, replacing pragmatic politics with all the irrationality that fetishists are prone to. Canada has had since the early 80s a Charter of Rights, modeled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it's essentially an elaboration of the First and 14th Amendments (minus the Establishment Clause of the former), and even contains a clause providing for its own overriding. Is it despite the Charter's largely hortatory character (Brian Mulroney said it "was not worth the paper it was printed on"), or because of it, that culture war issues such as religion, abortion, gun control, gay marriage and drug legalization largely lack the Manichean rhetoric that they engender in the States, while still yielding generally progressive/libertarian outcomes?
I don't pretend to know the answer, but I think it's worth asking the question. Putting one's beloved on a pedastal, behind a veil, or in a chastity belt certainly demonstrates the importance one attaches to her virtue, but it also suggests something else about one's community that over time may become more problematic. A less suspicious attitude towards one's fellows may seem an invitation to disappointment and betrayal, but in the long run it may be the only route to civic maturity--and, dare we hope? peace on earth for wingnuts and moonbats alike.