More on the Culture Wars, the Charter and Moral Leadership
A friend responded to my previous blog on the culture wars and the silence of centrist and centre-left politicians on moral issues. His view has significant merit: he argues that many “social liberals” believe that they effectively won the “culture war” when Canada patriated the Constitution with a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was itself an act of great moral courage and leadership, and we have seen the transformative effects on Canadian society and on the relationship between citizen and state.
Less often discussed are the political consequences. First, those on the right became increasingly frustrated that moral issues were taken out of the political realm and instead given over to the courts in the framework of the Charter. Second, it meant that social liberals lost moral muscle. This is the great irony of the profound moral victory that the Charter represents. The Court got new muscle but the social liberal parties stopped providing the kind of leadership that gave us the Charter. Rather than debating the big moral questions, they increasingly tried to avoid reopening these debates, preferring to rely on, and at worst hide behind, the courts. Of course it is enormously important that fundamental rights are safeguarded in the Constitution and by the Courts. But our legislators cannot abandon the field. Political leadership and civilized debate remain crucial for the health of our political culture and society.
Same-sex marriage provides an instructive example of a relatively positive relationship between the courts and the legislature. While politicians for many years did not want to take on this issue, gays and lesbians were able to voice their views through the courts. That is important. Minorities must have avenues that do not depend solely on majority politics. Access to the courts is crucial. Court decisions forced government to take on the issue. The government of the day decided not to appeal but rather to recognize same-sex marriage in law. A strong case can be made that the statutory recognition of same-sex marriage was also important – even if it is a pretty safe guess that the Court was going in that direction sooner or later. First, it meant a serious discussion in which Canadians, including those who wished to hold to the traditional definition of marriage, could voice their views. These issues are never resolved once and for all; they never go away. They deserve to be debated. Second, it meant that our elected representatives could discuss how best to safeguard other values such as freedom of religion and do their best to make those safeguards part of the solution. Third, it meant that our elected officials had to declare themselves – that is show moral leadership – on an issue that each knew was highly contentious. And most important, it made clear that this was a decision of principle, a political and policy statement of what kind of country our legislators want. Surely politics rises highest when it deals with issues that arouse our passions and for which there is no easy consensus.
All this to say that just as “conservative” politicians have put morality back into politics, social liberals must retrieve their moral muscle too. They cannot abandon the terrain or try to close off debate but rather have to re-engage in a way that respects those with different views, seeks common ground but does not shrink from the responsibility of moral leadership, of taking principled stands even when doing so is politically difficult.
Values and preferences are learned. Leadership matters.