Evangelicals in Canada are confused and conflicted when it comes to religious freedom. Then again, Canadians in general are confused and conflicted about religious freedom. Neither situation can be avoided entirely, but each can be improved. I would like to suggest at least one form of improvement, and particularly how a federal Office of Religious Freedom can help.
After defining what I mean by "evangelicals," I will offer a series of observations about Canadian evangelicalism in regard to attitudes toward religious freedom, religious diversity, and human rights in general. And I will conclude with what I think are the key implications of these observations and reflections for a federal Office of Religious Freedom, particularly as I coordinate these implications with some reflections on Canadian attitudes in general.
It's important to note that there simply isn't much solid statistical reporting about Canadian evangelicals in response to these issues. I myself am likely the most prominent of historians of contemporary Canadian evangelicalism.1 For this article, I approached Professor Sam Reimer of Atlantic Baptist University because I judge him to be the leading sociologist of evangelicalism in Canada.2 I also spoke with Rick Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, an office of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.3 Finally, I contacted Andrew Grenville, the leading pollster of evangelicals in Canada for almost two decades.4 Our collective judgment is that there are few data indeed when it comes to recent soundings of Canadian evangelicals on these issues. What little research is directly pertinent has been conducted by Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, from which Reimer has drawn the useful conclusion that churchgoing evangelicals are at least as tolerant of immigrants and those of other religions as any other group of Canadians.5 I therefore draw mainly on the considerable historical work on Canadian evangelicals, as well as my own personal experiences of it.
Evangelicalism arose in the eighteenth century as a movement of spiritual revival among Protestant churches from Germany, through Scandinavia, to Britain, and on over to British North America. It is generally understood by historians as including the following characteristics:
It is clear that none of these characteristics are unique to evangelicalism. What makes them useful to scholars is their collection into a single complex: When you see all of these factors in one individual or institution or co-operative, you see evangelicalism.6
Evangelicalism, therefore, is essentially a Christian movement of spiritual renewal issuing in action. As a movement that is oriented toward the clarification of murky beliefs, rehabilitation of ambivalent motives, and inspiration to costly mission, evangelicalism tends against tolerance of ambiguity, engagement in compromise, and the willing recognition of truth and validity in other positions. This basic character of evangelicalism shows up, then, in attitudes and actions relevant to questions of religious freedom, human rights, and the like.
When it comes to concern for the welfare of those outside Canada, Canadian evangelicals have a sliding scale of concern for several distinct categories of people as follows: (1) co-religionists—and within this category evangelical Christians would come first, then other Protestant Christians, then Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians (as the least similar and familiar to evangelicals); (2) the vulnerable—the poor, children, women, minorities (none of whom pose a threat to Canadian evangelicals in any way, in terms of religious or political power); (3) Jews—as many evangelicals have traditionally been Zionist and supportive of the Jewish people as both the religious forebears of the Christian church and God's chosen people among the nations of the earth; and (4) everyone else when their human rights are threatened, as an application of the Christian principles that all human beings are created in the image of God and that God loves the whole world and calls the Church to love it, too.
Thus evangelicals typically speak up on behalf of the mistreatment of missionaries in other lands, but also on behalf of co-religionists who are also poor, young, and female (such as refugees in Darfur), or poor, young, and female, whether co-religionists or not (such as child sex slaves in southeast Asia). Evangelicals also tend to oppose anti-Semitism everywhere and particularly then to support Israel's right to exist as a sovereign and secure state—even as a minority of evangelicals has also been championing the cause of Palestinians whom they understand to be victimized by heavy-handed Israeli policies.
More problematically, in the view of some, evangelicals will tend to protest policies that restrict missionary activity even when those policies arise out of other Christian communions. One thinks of the resistance the Orthodox Church has manifested to Protestant agencies setting up shop in post-Soviet Russia, much as the Roman Catholic Church worked with the state to hamper the work of evangelicals in Latin America—and in Quebec.
So far, then, it seems that evangelicals generally support human rights for all, especially for those for whom they feel either particular affinity (their own missionaries) or concern (the vulnerable and the Jews). Does this reflect a general support for religious freedom everywhere for everyone?
If we turn from the international sphere to the domestic situation, complications—indeed, conflicts—arise.
The general evangelical impulse to convert everyone to Christianity and to reform every society into a Christian one naturally prompts evangelicals to resist those who resist this. Secularists—those who want religion evacuated from public life and who frankly think religion is a regrettable feature even of private life—are obvious enemies of the evangelical cause. So are those of deviant, pseudo-Christian orientation (from an evangelical point of view), such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. So are those of clearly different faiths, such as Muslims and Buddhists. And so are those who don't have an ideological bone in their bodies but instead concentrate on making their bodies as happy as possible—what a previous age would have called "libertines," and what our age might call hedonists or "just ordinary people trying to have a good time."
Evangelicals see these people to be wrong, and to be wrong about the most important matter about which one can be wrong. Worse, most of them are culpably wrong, since by dint of living in Canada they are exposed to the truth of the Christian gospel and are refusing to accept it. So evangelicals have trouble leaving them alone in their mortal error. Such people ought to be corrected or, if recalcitrant, restricted from influencing others by their errors. Forget championing their freedom of religion or freedom of speech. If they persist in their error—and remember that for evangelicals, as for Christians in general, to be wrong about God is to be wrong about what matters most and what influences everything else in life—they must at least be silenced. How can we aid and abet their lethal confusion? Thus we encounter the classic logic of the persecution of heretics, including state persecution, for such people endanger not only themselves, and not only other individuals, but society itself as they pull everyone around them in an evil direction.
Thus, the evangelical impulse to make everyone and everything as Christian as possible, and its corollary to resist all that resists God, is balanced by two equally foundational convictions: that everyone, no matter his or her outlook, is created in the image of God and that those in need, no matter their outlook, must be cared for in God's name. These universal principles of justice and charity, therefore, militate against, or at least mitigate, the evangelical impulse toward hegemony and even coercion.
Canadian evangelicals, therefore, are in the grip of two apparently conflicting motives: to make everything as Christian as possible while yet respecting and even caring for those who are not Christian and may not ever want to be Christian.
What evangelicals have needed, particularly since Christianity lost its dominant place in Canadian culture in the 1960s, is a new theological outlook on diversity. They have needed a different and more complex understanding of God's way in the world, one that will maintain the evangelical conviction that God is at work to call the world back to God's self. But also that Christians are to cooperate with God in that work while in the midst of a social pluralism that entails both religious freedom for others (for God is not interested in coerced "conversion") and cooperation with others on a wide range of matters for the common good.
Such an alternative outlook is already present within Canadian evangelicalism. The Christian Reformed community in Canada, with theology and social theory forged in the Netherlands by such luminaries as Abraham Kuyper (d. 1920) and Herman Bavinck (d. 1921), has led the way in evangelical circles in thinking about how to live as Christians in a pluralistic society. Popular evangelical authors such as Don Posterski and Brian Stiller have published helpful introductions to such a stance. And I have written a much more ambitious ethics outlining an evangelical approach to pluralism.7 Some evangelical leaders—notably those of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—have been influenced by such thinking, as have scholars and pastors from coast to coast. The rank and file, however, still find these ideas new—as is evidenced in letters to the editors of Christian periodicals or comments on weblogs whenever such ideas are articulated.
Canadian evangelicals, therefore, can be counted on to continue to support religious freedom for co-religionists elsewhere. They are also pragmatic enough to connect that concern with religious freedom more generally—as has been the case among evangelicals campaigning for religious freedom in the United States.
Evangelicals will also continue to be deeply ambivalent about religious freedom here at home. But, then again, so are most Canadians, whose commitment to the ideological freedom of their opponents is not always obvious, including Canadians among our elites in the media, higher education, the judiciary, or government. We Canadians have a long history of pragmatic cooperation, yes, but also of one group setting the terms for everyone else for proper Canadianness—whether in colonial New France or British North America, in Maurice Duplessis's Quebec or "Toronto the Good," or in post-Christian Canada now dominated by secularist, liberal ideals from which one dissents only at one's cost. We Canadians are not yet reflexively multicultural, or even all that tolerant of dissent when that dissent is significant enough to affect elections, education, or economics.
Indeed, Canadian evangelicals increasingly demonstrate worry that their own religious freedom is being curtailed here in Canada. Evangelicals typically (not universally) think abortion is wrong in most, if not all, instances. Evangelicals also typically (not universally) think homosexuality is a psycho-spiritual disorder that ought not to be "normalized" in Canadian society (by, for example, the legitimization of same-sex marriage) even as homosexuals ought to be protected as fellow citizens entitled to the same human rights as anyone else. In today's cultural climate, evangelicals fear the curtailment of their freedom to continue to voice their convictions on such issues and to work for public policies in accord with those convictions. Even sharing the gospel with Canadians of other religions has been denounced as offensive, "anti-multicultural," even racist. "Hate speech" laws, arbitrary human rights commissions, unsympathetic judges, and bullying pundits combine to form a "chilly climate" indeed for these and other social concerns of evangelicals in Canada today. A federal Office of Religious Freedom must ensure that its policies internationally square with vigorous defense of human rights domestically as well.
To be sure, the ambivalence among evangelicals and among Canadians generally regarding religious freedom here at home is appropriate in at least one key respect. For freedom of religion is always properly bounded by other concerns, such as the freedom of others, the common good, the limitation of resources, distinctions about which modes of freedom are appropriate (e.g., shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire), and the reality that some neighbours will use their freedom to try to curtail, or even take away, mine, someone else's, or everyone else's but theirs.
Not only do evangelicals need a better theology, therefore, to help them negotiate the fact of Canadian and global pluralism with their various ideals intact and their several convictions coordinated, but Canadians in general need a better theory: of multiculturalism, inter-culturalism, diversity and the common good, and the like.
For the current fad of "affirmation,"—supposedly a better word than "tolerance" (who wants to be merely tolerated when one can be affirmed?)—masks a new hegemony. If "affirmation" is the new mode of dealing with diversity, only those elements of Canadian society that can be affirmed, in fact, will be allowed. And that attitude is much more restrictive than the older, wiser attitude of tolerance. If I allow into my house only those of my sons' girlfriends I can affirm, I will allow many fewer than those I can bring myself to tolerate. Toleration, in fact, is the more expansive and generous term.
Yet the mode of toleration provokes the question of what is intolerable. And this, too, is a question both evangelicals and Canadians of all stripes need to face more squarely than we have. For a society cannot tolerate just anything, and particularly cannot tolerate long those elements that work against it. The persecution of heresy now makes sense if translated into the secular terms of the prosecution of sedition. Evangelicals already recognize that some outlooks result in harm and they are trying to figure out the right way to respond to those outlooks in a pluralistic situation under the Providence of God. Canadians, perhaps only since 9/11, have begun to realize that some outlooks, including religious outlooks, do indeed result in harm and cannot be tolerated among us.
Rather than the ideal of affirmation, therefore, we need to adopt an ideal such as harmony. This concept, which can sound sentimental, instead entails certain hard-headed practical realities: commitments to both procedures and ideals without which we cannot have Canadian society (we must agree to sing and to sing the same song); compromises among those whose ideologies incline them to prefer everything their own way (this would include evangelicals); and compulsions such that those who do not participate in this common project are restrained, removed, or kept out of Canadian society.
A federal Office of Religious Freedom, I conclude, must commit itself to the demanding theoretical work of discerning which religious freedoms are, and what are not, compatible with the flourishing of this country as well as of its individual and communal constituents. It must also do the same in regard to religious freedoms elsewhere. Only on the basis of this clear philosophy will Canada be able to champion religious freedoms both internationally and domestically without embarrassing inconsistency but with a firm, sure integrity.
1 Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century: An Introduction to Its Character (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); "The Historiography of Canadian Evangelicalism: A Time to Reflect," Church History 64 (December 1995): 627-34; "‘Who Whom?' Evangelicalism and Canadian Society since Confederation," in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience, ed. G. A. Rawlyk (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 1997), 55-70; "Evangelicalism," in The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, ed. Gerald Hallowell (Toronto: Oxford UP, 2004), 207-8.
2 Evangelicals and the Continental Divide: The Conservative Protestant Subculture in Canada and the United States (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2003).
3 www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/page.aspx?pid=743; accessed 27 October 2011.
4 See George A. Rawlyk, Is Jesus Your Personal Saviour?: In Search of Canadian Evangelicalism in the 1990s (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1996), which is based largely on Grenville's work with Ipsos-Reid.
5 Sam Reimer, "Does Religion Matter? Canadian Religious Traditions and Attitudes toward Diversity," in Religion and Diversity in Canada, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Peter Beyer (Boston: Brill, 2008), 105-125. Reimer points out the unsurprising exception: churchgoing evangelicals are more resistant to interreligious marriage than rank-and-file Canadians.
6 I have most recently set out this definition here: "Generic Evangelicalism," in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 116-42.
7 Don Posterski, True to You (Kelowna, BC: WoodLake, 2000); Brian C. Stiller, From the Tower of Babel to Parliament Hill: How to Be a Christian in Canada Today (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1997); John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008).
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