The Madonna, turbans and the secular state

di Francesco Veronesi del 4 September 2019

TORONTO - “Those who enjoy the privilege of fulfilling the responsibility of institutional office must avoid associating religious symbols to partisan slogans in the course of political meetings. Matthew, in my estimation these behaviors [of yours] are episodes of religious disrespect. They risk offending the believers' faith while simultaneously clouding the principle of secularism, a fundamental trait of the modern State”.

With these words, in his speech to the Senate before resigning, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte condemned (Minister of the Interior), Matteo Salvini's propensity to use and wave a rosary in front of the cameras. Conte, incidentally, is a practicing Catholic, devoted with a special devotion for Saint Padre Pio.

The Italian prime minister was reiterating a basic concept, born of the French Revolution, and a distinctive element of all Western democracies: that of the secular state and institutions - the clear separation between religion and those who hold and exercise public functions.

And, in this context, there is no differentiation between and among the various faiths and sects. It is still a work in progress here in Canada; these days, we are witnessing the debate on the law that in Quebec prohibits certain public employees from wearing religious symbols.

But as the election deadline of October 21st approaches, the clash of values has spilled once again on to the federal level. It was left to Jonathan Richardson, executive member of the NDP for Atlantic Canada, joined by 13 other NDP candidates, to open the Pandora’s Box by leaving the Party and crossing to the Green Party.

His justification for so doing was that fact that the Party Leader, Jagmeet Singh, wears a Dastar, the turban of [“baptised”] followers of the Sikh religion. "Many potential NDP candidates - he said - were hesitant to run in these elections because they thought the electorate would not vote for a party whose leader wears a turban".

Richardson went on to add that "racism is one of the main reasons why the party cannot find candidates.” It doesn’t answer the question: are the electorate or the current crop of candidates themselves racist?

One must ask oneself whether racism is really the trigger for this mass flight from the NDP. Racism among potetential NDP electorate, always in favor of acceptance, multiculturalism, diversity and a progressive vision of society? Unlikely.

The answer probably lies elsewhere, and it may have nothing to do with racial intolerance and xenophobia. Many voters in the vast and diverse Canadian progressive galaxy do not like a politician who flaunts religious symbols in public life.

Many, the vast majority in our society may be unwitting supporters of the “sacrosanct principle” expressed by Giuseppe Conte: respect for a secular state and its institutions separated from personal religious affiliation.

And, for this reason, Canadians will not vote for Singh, as they would not have voted for a “Canadian Salvini” who exploits the Madonnina, or for any other political figure who brings religious symbols into the political arena. Those are better left to the private life.

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