After I advocated that Winnipeg City Hall discontinue the practice of invoking supernatural magic at City Council meetings, a reader by the name of Froben responded to the effect that the majority can do whatever it damn well pleases.
In my rebuttal, I tried to emphasise that (1) Canada has a commitment to religious and cultural pluralism, (2) the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves to protect the rights of the minority from the whims of the majority, (3) government should avoid, where possible, marginalising minority groups, (4) abolishing government-sanctioned prayer does not in any way prevent City Councillors from praying either privately or publicly, and (5) failure to endorse Christianity does not constitute an endorsement of atheism.
While Froben neither conceded or addressed many of the points above, he has reaffirmed his position as a strict majoritarian (a position that I find rather sinister):
I suppose having been pressed in my vagueness I must flesh out my position a bit:
1: A government cannot afford to be neutral about absolutely everything, and in taking necessary positions will necessarily offend. Further, even when we clearly delineate the actual duties of the government in very limited terms, we find these limited duties demanding that the government take even more positions.
1.1: For an example: It is clearly the duty of the government to provide for the national defence and to wage war, if war be just and necessary. But it is apparent that the waging of war offends certain groups, both secular and religious, who for one reason or another espouse pacificism. Further, though it is now the practice (though it wasn't always) to give these pacificists duties which did not involve combat, nevertheless these pacificists clearly have as citizens in some measure to support the government, and thereby the government's official actions (if only by paying taxes which contributed to defence spending, even prior to the war), even against their conscience.
2: It seems apparent, then, that it is not within the government's power to protect absolutely the conscience of any man, even in matters of great importance.
3: To the question of my advocating a kind of majoritarianism, I plead only that Mr. Newman has convicted himself of the same position! I read that "the idea that a position endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the population should be the government's 'official stance' is dangerous," but in the very next paragraph I read that I should not be a majoritarian because, at some point in the past, a majority of Canadians passed a certain Charter.
3.1: Surely there was opposition to the Charter as it stands, if not among the legislators, at least among the nation at large? But that opposition, however small, undoes Mr. Newman's point: like it or not, we do take the position of the overwhelming majority to be the government's official stance, even as we also protect (read: tolerate) minority opinions to the extent that is possible (as in the case of the pacifists).
4: But, I contend, toleration is itself not a sufficient position from which to make any policy, to enact any law, or to carry out any functions of the government. Banking is out, for Muslims and strict Christians forbid usury. Taxation is out, for there be libertarians amongst us (I took "deists who believe in a non-interventionist god," as well as atheism, as representing philosophical positions rather than religions and so include adherents to various philosophies among those who might be offended). Motorcars are out, for an Amish man or Luddite might (heaven forbid it!) take offence. Consider that the government doesn't just allow motorcars; it builds them roads, provides infrastructure for them; plans cities around them!
4.1: So it is apparent that in many cases the government *must* take a position beyond simply tolerating diverse positions, and that this will offend people. It simply won't offend the majority of the citizenry, and it should make as much provision as possible to respect the consciences of the others.
5: Much can also be said about the philosophical and, yes, often theological baggage (but certainly moral) which underlies and must inform all of these positions.
6: Nevertheless, I am willing to discuss prayer in public meetings as an individual issue; I take issue more with the premises from which it was argued than the conclusion per se.
As the bulk of his argument is built on a straw man, I'll largely limit myself to this premise:
A government cannot afford to be neutral about absolutely everything, and in taking necessary positions will necessarily offend. Further, even when we clearly delineate the actual duties of the government in very limited terms, we find these limited duties demanding that the government take even more positions.
I'm not arguing that the government should be neutral about everything, or that it should avoid offending minorities at any cost. There are clearly many positions that the government must take, and all are bound to be unpopular with someone.
But it is not necessary for the government to take an official position on all matters. It is unnecessarily divisive for the government to take as the "official" position any position held by the majority of Canadians, especially when that position does not have any demonstrable impact on the functioning of the government. The government doesn't require an official position pro or contra the chocolate iced cream question, nor does it need to come down in favour of Edward or Jacob.
If taking a certain position is in the public interest or is otherwise required for the functioning of government, then surely the government must do so. But picking a favourite fairytale doesn't fall into this category.
Questions of whether to wage war or how much to tax the citizenry are questions that every government must answer. While Froben seems to be in favour of a strict majoritarian answer to these questions, I am not. If the government were to decide to conscript only Mulsims and to tax only Jews, this would not be permissible under the Charter, even if it were the will of the majority, yet Froben seem rather enamoured of his majority-rules mentality.
This is a form of bullying that is intolerable.
To the question of my advocating a kind of majoritarianism, I plead only that Mr. Newman has convicted himself of the same position! I read that "the idea that a position endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the population should be the government's 'official stance' is dangerous," but in the very next paragraph I read that I should not be a majoritarian because, at some point in the past, a majority of Canadians passed a certain Charter.
Oh, how cute!
While it is not strictly true that a majority of Canadians passed the Charter, I will certainly grant that it was passed by their representatives (and thereafter signed into law by the Queen). But that is hardly relevant! If a king abdicates in favour of a representative democracy, turning around and saying that the people are still effectively governed by a monarch because he was the one who installed the democracy is utter nonsense. Whether the protections afforded minorities were put to law by popular vote or not, they still serve to protect the rights of the minority from the whims of the majority, and are thus not "majoritarian" in nature. To argue otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy.
He seem to be arguing for a form of strict majoritarianism. I wonder how he can fail to see how dangerous this is. If the majority were in favour of legislation that, for example, required adherents of certain religious or cultural minorities to wear clearly identifiable articles of clothing, or that forbade them from holding public office, would the fact that it is the "will of the people" be enough for him?
Froben's majoritarian view would make Canada in some official capacity a white nation (for now). How would he feel if, instead of a prayer, governmental meetings were opened with a solemn affirmation that caucasians were the naturally superior race? After all, "to a [white person] it would be equally inconceivable and indeed offensive to undertake any public work without the invocation of the relevant [racial superiority]". I should hope that he would be at the very least uncomfortable with such a position, if not as outraged as I would be.
Froben might well reply that a majority of caucasians do not feel that their "race" (such as it is) is superior, or require such an invocation, but this misses the point. Despite the fact that Canada, as a nation, has a Christian majority, I don't believe for a moment that a majority of its citizenry would be offended if government just got down to governing, instead of speding its time patting them on the back for being Christian. But he are effectively arguing that if the majority were in favour of just such an affirmation, that would (or should) make it okay. That is monstrous.
I'll also note that the sort of majoritarian bullying that Froben advocates may feel good while he is in the majority, but that's not a position that he can count on maintaining.