I’m not sure what kind of cognitive dissonance is required to claim, as incoming Quebec premier François Legault recently did, that the crucifix represents Christian values without being a religious symbol, but I’m guessing an ungodly amount.
This is the twisted “logic” that Legault relies on to justify planned legislation to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols, while fighting to preserve the most sacred and universally known symbol of Christianity, the cross, in the National Assembly, where laws are voted in and equally applied to all Quebecers. If true religious neutrality and state secularism were its desired goals, Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ’) party has already failed spectacularly.
Glaring double standard
The embarrassing double standard displayed in such a declaration is further proof that Quebec attempts to legislate secularism have always looked more like half-baked versions of state-sanctioned discrimination, in which all but Christian religious symbols are subject to discrimination. If you claim to be for secularism you can’t cherry pick which symbols stay and which ones leave. They must all go, or you appear profoundly hypocritical.
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Attempting to bypass the issue, or shelter your preferred religion from the new proposal, by pretending that the cross isn’t, in fact, a religious symbol, but merely a quaint heritage symbol, does not rectify the problem. It only points a spotlight to the glaring double standard.
If one argues that the cross isn't a religious symbol, but representative of culture and a certain set of a values, why then can’t an equivalent argument be made that a kippah, a hijab, or a turban are also cultural representations of values? And if they are, how can you make an exception for one cultural symbol, yet ban all others, without messaging that your culture is deemed more important than everyone else’s?
While it is true that many Christian symbols (think of Christmas or Easter) have been stripped of their initial religious significance and have been secularized, that also applies to the symbols of other religions. Many people wear the kippah, the turban, or the hijab for cultural reasons and less because they are deep believers. Yet it is extraordinary that the benefit of the doubt is afforded to symbols of Christianity, which are viewed as innocuous symbols of “our common heritage and history,” but not to those who are different from the majority. Other religious symbols are presented as only representing indoctrination, proselytization, female subjugation, and extremism. There goes that cognitive dissonance again…
Whether Legault acknowledges it or not, we live in a pluralistic society and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the rights of individuals from the tyranny of the majority (even if in this case the majority translates to a paltry 37.7 per cent of votes in the recent Quebec election.) It is deeply troubling that the premier of all Quebecers would consider using the notwithstanding clause to override Charter rights, allowing the government to single out and target a small minority of citizens who wear their religious beliefs in a visible way. It is also shameful that with so many major issues affecting Quebec, this is the issue he thought merited urgent attention.
This proposed legislation, which almost exclusively targets marginalized groups, won’t make any Muslim women who have been forced to wear the hijab remove them. It won’t make Jewish men devout enough to wear a kippah remove them. It will simply make them back away from public careers and isolate and marginalize them even more than Legault and his CAQ colleagues already assume they are isolated. So, what is the result here, if successful immigrant integration is ultimately the goal, as the CAQ claims? How does stigmatizing and “ghettoizing” people by preventing them from integrating and making them part of our common landscape accomplish successful integration? How does a policy that forces people to choose between expressing their faith or face economic consequences or social stigmatization make them feel welcome and at home here?
Which Christian values exactly?
According to the CAQ spokesman, the crucifix is nothing but a “heritage object” that is “part of our history” and, as such, should not be included in the larger argument about religious symbols in the public sphere.
Someone should inform the Quebec Catholic Church about this, because the press release they sent out says the exact opposite. In it they explain that the decision to place a cross in the National Assembly was made by the government and therefore the decision to remove it or keep it remains with the government. However, they also make it quite clear that at no point is the cross NOT a symbol of Christianity.
“The crucifix is the ultimate representation of Christ’s love for humanity, giving his life for our salvation,” reads the French press release. “It is venerated by millions of Christians around the world and by a large majority of Quebecers. It is not a museum object, a heritage item or something that solely belongs in the past. It should be treated with all the respect due to a fundamental symbol of the Catholic faith. Members of the National Assembly should ensure that it is.”
This press release, by the way, is identical to one issued by the president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec in 2013 in the midst of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on cultural and religious accommodation in Quebec. One suspects they have it handy and just keep sending it out every couple of years when this tiresome debate resurfaces.
But since Legault opened the door to discussing the hypocrisy of his double speak and the cognitive dissonance required to ban religious symbols from public office holders while allowing the cross in the National Assembly on grounds the crucifix represents "Christian values," let’s scrutinize these values.
Which Christian values is Legault so determined to preserve and promote? Would it be when the Bible condones rape? Or when gays are shunned and told they will burn in hell? Are the Christian values we hold so dear associated in any way with the Catholic Church’s virulent opposition to birth control and abortion over the years, strict codes of religious conduct that have gravely affected women around the world for centuries, and are responsible for the untimely and tragic death of so many? Are those the Christian values that should be preserved in a room where politicians make legislative decisions about our lives and our bodies? Are they, perhaps, the Christian values associated with the Inquisition, forced proselytization, or later with Canada’s residential schools that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and abused them, starved them, terrorized them into abandoning their cultural heritage? Are those the Christian values we want to preserve?
If you mean “love one another” and “turn the other cheek,” and “be a good moral person,” I can assure you that the Christian faith does not have a monopoly on those values. Every single religion out there preaches similar values; compassion, kindness, fairness, and generosity of spirit are not the exclusive domain of Christianity and it is both presumptuous and ignorant to assume that it is.
The National Assembly cross is not symbolic of anything good
Most importantly, and much closer to home, by insisting on keeping the cross in the National Assembly as some sort of venerable and honourable symbol of this nation and this heritage, Legault displays an alarming and flagrant ignorance of Quebec history.
At its most elemental, the cross is nothing more than a symbol of a poor, uneducated and grovelling Quebec under the yoke of English British rule and a Quebec Catholic Church that was tragically and horrifically complicit in keeping it there. Installed in 1936 under Maurice Duplessis, it is largely symbolic of the unholy quid-pro-quo alliance between the Church and the Duplessis government, commonly referred to as the Grande Noirceur, the Great Darkness.
Even more groan-inducing, unbeknown to many Quebecers, the infamous Duplessis cross in the Blue Room (which politicians referred to as la “Salon de la race” ... now there’s a memory you want to hold on to!) isn’t even the original one. In 1984, when the Blue Room was renovated, the old crucifix was replaced. According to Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec by Sociology Professor Genevieve Zubrzycki, “the whereabouts of both the Salon Rouge crucifix and the original Salon Bleu crucifix are uncertain. […] Both are most likely in a dusty storage bin somewhere.”
There is something both immensely comical and tragic about the realization that there’s an unending, divisive public debate about the preservation of a “historical artifact” that's barely older than the furniture in my mom's house.
Catholicism still has a stronghold on Quebec
When the Catholic religion is invoked to define “who we are” as a Quebec nation, then it automatically excludes those who aren’t Catholic. There is no doubt that the Christian faith is a historically big part of Quebec and represents an important element of Quebec’s identity, expressing social, ethical, and philosophical values of society. Despite the secularization of Quebec’s national identity, Catholicism played a central role in defining French Canadian national identity and isn’t easy to shake off.
“Religion is a skeleton in Quebec’s closet, or a palpable absence, like phantom limb pain," reads Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec. But this current impulse to constantly stress connections with the past is also a way of reaffirming the predominance of the majority group, as the demographics slowly begin to shift. Catholicism continues to get a pass because it’s closely tied to its French-Canadian roots here. Religion may not have a stronghold in Quebec anymore, but by de facto being tied to identity as a nation, its religious heritage is ultimately what remains sacred and untouchable. French Quebecers may have kicked religion to the curb, but it's still everywhere around us, from our swear words to our street signs, to the giant illuminated cross that looms over Montreal. And while many religious symbols that are part of our lives have long ago been stripped of their religious connotations and in no way interfere with the state’s religious neutrality, it's amazing how strongly so many Quebecers feel about them. Why is the exact same allowance not afforded minorities? And if it isn't, how in good faith can an exception be made for the cross?
As the Bouchard-Taylor report clearly pointed out years ago, “the presence of a crucifix above the seat at the National Assembly’s president (or numerous court houses across the province) implies a special proximity between the legislative power and the majority’s religion,” essentially making it a political symbol. It is, after all, why they recommended its removal.
Legault’s insistence now on banning all other symbols from public office while stubbornly retaining this one shows a glaring lack of fairness and a deliberate blindness to how unfairly everyone else is treated in his quest to preserve what he believes is part of “our” common history. His blind spot would be funny if it weren’t so dangerously “othering” and marginalizing everyone it targets.