Ah ... it is that time of the year when people object to public displays of religion. And then there are those, particularly Christians but also non-Christian traditionalists, who object to the objectors. Christian friends of mine talk vague (if authoritatively) about Canada as a "Christian" country, while others talk about politically correct madness, as if being PC had become anything more than a straw tiger. There are, I think, good reasons people are concerned about public displays of religion, specifically Christianity, and these are rooted in history. There is also good reason to defend public displays of religion, which is rooted in the ideal of democracy, individual freedom, freedom of conscience, and the right to the autonomy of the self. Let me explain both these things. My goal here is to suggest that, for most people, a few minutes thought will solve any troubles they might have over this issue and leave the extremes arguing with each other. And, that I can live with.
First, Christians -- like myself -- need to recognize that the issue is not Christianity per se but its place in Canadian history. Canada is not a Christian nation in any official sense, even if the majority of its population claims some affiliation with Christianity (we also know that a minority of Christians actually practice their faith so supposed majority status of Christianity is questionable, in my view). Canada is a liberal society that makes certain guarantees to the faithful. It guarantees that the state will not impede the practice of their faith, it guarantees that the faithful will not be compelled to perform economic duties on their sabbath, and it guarantees that one cannot be denied employment (as an example) because of one's faith. In addition to that, in realms of law and public policy, the faithful and those who do not subscribe to a faith must be treated equally. I work at a public institution (an institution that maintains a specific religion tradition as part of its history but a public institution nonetheless). This does not mean that I need to be a secular liberal to be hired. Far from it. What it means is that my employer cannot fire me because of my faith, whatever that faith my be, be it Christian, Judaism, agnosticism, etc.
Most Canadians, from what I can tell, consider this to be a good thing. They don't believe that employers or the state should be able to dictate the terms of one's faith through coercive measures (such as making it a condition of employment which, of course, means that to survive one could be forced to accept or reject a specific faith position). Indeed, from what I can tell, most Canadians believe that faith is rightly a private matter, best left out of the hands of public authorities (be they political, economic, cultural, or educational, etc.).
In the Canadian context, this situation is complicated by the fact that what I've described above has not always been the case. Indeed, in very recent history, Christian Churches exercised an undue influence over public policy. The residential school system for Original Peoples might be the most grave example of this but most people can likely think of others. The result is that the Christian calendar has been imprinted on the public calendar. Indeed, it is so normal that most people don't even bother to think about it. My students, regardless of their faith position, expect to write exams in December and "go home for Christmas." What is important to note here, however, is that the public calendar in Canada has been influenced by the Christian calendar and this influence is seen in other ways, too. It is seen at Remembrance Day in Christmas concerts at public schools, in small-town concerts. There are others, but you get my point. The objections to Christianity, in this sense, are objections to what non-Christians view as the intrusion of Christianity onto their space: after all, the public schools are not Christian.
Historically, we need to recognize that this intrusion has not been for the best. I want to be clear about this: not all Christians think this way and Christians, in Canada, have had a very strong progressive tendency that has contributed to support for universal health care, public eduction, community development and other things that most Canadians -- regardless of faith position -- support as well. However, Christians have also made mistakes, big ones, and have had the unfortunate tendency to blame this mistakes on God, as in God dislikes X. It is this tendency and this intrusion that is of concern to objectors to public displays of religion. There may be a few people out there who have serious problems with Christians practicing their faith. Understand, however, that there is a difference between having concerns about specific elements of theology and rejecting Christianity. Most non-Christians have concerns about some elements of Christian theology. That, however, is something different then rejecting the right of Christians to practice their faith and Christians need to keep this in mind.
I believe that Christians can address the concerns of non-Christians objecting to public displays of faith in a variety of ways and that they should do this. And, by the way, I believe the ball on this one is, rightly, in Christians court. Most non-Christians for example have at best a passing knowledge of Christianity. Sorry about that; I don't mean to offend anyone but that is the truth. Most of my non-Christian friends think they know about Christianity but what they know about is 1970s middle class church culture. Or, pick your date, but you see the point. What they know about is what went on the last time they went to church or what they have seen on TV. Christians need to explain what Christianity is about to non-Christians. They need to do so in a patient way because there is a steep learning curve. And, they need to be open to changing their views, too. Christians, in other words, need to be careful not to blame God for their cultural views or to assume that their cultural views have been sanctioned by God.
Second, Christians also need to understand what public policy in Canada is all about and be able to explain this very clearly and patiently to non-Christians. The public display of religion is a case in point. Most Canadians assume they understand Canadian public policy. They don't. What they understand is what has been conveyed through the media and, folks, that is frequently not a very good source of information. Let's pick multiculturalism. Everyone thinks they know what is is about, whether they like or dislike the policy. Yet, how many of you have read the multiculturalism policy? How many of you have read Kymlicka's careful work on the subject? In my job, I hear all the time about the problem of multiculturalism from people who know what multiculturalism is all about. Here is a made up but sadly typical example re multiculturalism.
"It costs too much."
"Really? How much is too much and how much does it cost anyway?"
"Well, I don't know how much it costs but its too much."
"So, let me get this straight. You have no idea how much multiculturalism costs and have never thought about what the proper level of state spending on, say, anti-racism, an important component of multiculturalism, might be but you will state definitively it costs too much."
As Kymlicka points out, a little bit of investigation explodes a great deal of the myths of multiculturalism and its effects (it costs about a buck a year per taxpayer, Canada has the highest or second highest rate of second language learning the world, residential segregation has gone down since multiculturalism was introduced, etc.).
The same thing with religion. Freedom of conscience was never about driving religion out of the public sphere. That is enforced atheism or agnosticism, depending on one's view. It was about stating that Christianity could not and should not rely on the support of the state to get its way. In the public sphere, it could make no greater claim to state support then any other faith position. The same thing, of course, applies to agnosticism, atheism, Islam, etc. None of these positions -- if we really believe in freedom of conscience; that is: in the right of adult individuals to determine their own faith position -- can make a greater claim then the other to public support. Christians cannot demand that, say, the Great Commission be taught as ethics to the exclusion of all other systems of ethics. Agnostics cannot impede Christians from the practice of their faith on the ground that Canada is secular, because Canada is not secular. It is liberal and leaves these decisions to the individual. To deprive the individual of their rights in this regard, would be to reject not, say religion or Christianity, it is to reject the Canadian constitution. It is to reject the basic principles upon which Canada is now established. It is to demand a constitutional amendment.
Hence, those who object to public displays of religion find themselves in, oddly, the same position as Christians who claim that Canada is a Christian nation. They are demanding that their faith position (whatever it may be but usually some form of agnosticism) control over thing that they have the final say and that no one else have any resource or appeal. In my view to accept this position or to support it in the name of equality is a farce because it is not equality. A real supporter of diversity would say "I don't agree with you, but you have the right to do what you do."
OK, I have now written too much and there was a bunch of points I wanted to make. The real point is simple: some thought, some investigation, some consideration of the meaning of important principles brings us closer together not farther apart. If we think, research, and consider, the extreme positions melt away and we are left with values we all may not like but the vast majority of us will recognize as essential for a good society.