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The Struggle for Canada's Soul

November 24, 2011 - Robert Joustra

The Office of Religious Freedom has a Herculean task ahead when it comes online this month: to define and operationalize religious freedom in Canadian foreign affairs with $5 million. To bureaucrats at the Department of Foreign of Affairs and International Trade it may well look like a modern day Augean Stables, a stiff shovel and proper pile of horse manure.

As perverse and baffling as it is to imagine doing anything so ambitious with so modest a budget, the devil may well be in the definition rather than the execution. Religious freedom has not been much of a priority of Canadian governments at any level until now, and its rapid introduction will take on something of a neglected, illegitimate political child in the bureaucratic home of foreign affairs. Even more because of its perception as an election-time carrot for conservative religious groups pressuring from the Conservative base. As John Stackhouse writes in this issue, the definition of religion and its freedoms will be fraught with political peril.

And definition is everything. Religious freedom, after all, is enshrined in Islamic constitutions around the world which still carry the death penalty for conversion. All of which strikes the casual observer as confusing and barbaric. Surely the most basic tenet of religious freedom is the ability to hold beliefs about things which a society or state holds to be aberrant?

But think outside the secular box: conversion in a theocracy is not merely a changing of opinion on a series of private convictions. Conversion is essentially the Western equivalent of treason, a betrayal of identity, community, and practice which necessitates expulsion if not eradication.

The problem is not just that religion is notoriously complicated to nonbelievers, but—as Scott Thomas argues in his article—that it encompasses much of what we think of as secular or neutral. Convictions about the nature of human kind are inevitably going to filter through politics. Are they religious? It's almost demeaning to spell it out: where, after all, do such irrational notions of fundamental equality and fraternity come from, if not some tradition of non-propositional logic? At some point people and societies simply believe things. And those things have political implications and limits.

Canadian democracy is in existential crisis, and the multiculturalism debates are only the tip of the secular iceberg. But be that as it may, there are worse things in the world than hypocrisy and ignorance, and those are inaction and silence in the face of terrible injustice. To go abroad is not to absolve Canada of its own sins of discrimination, religious or otherwise. But to say that Canada does not have religion and pluralism figured out is also not is not say we haven't made some pretty good progress. A malicious modesty nestled in postcolonial platitudes would rob the world of Canada's greatest gifts: peace, order and good government, even—especially—when tyranny and hegemony oppress.

What this office signals from the sitting government is some heard-learned lessons from Afghanistan: yes, religion is a vital part of the social infrastructure of a society, and its correlations to economic, social and political tranquility are not incidental. In fact, if Canada is going to be engaged in foreign affairs at all in the next century, God's Century, as the highly regarded academics Daniel Philpott, Timothy Shah and Monica Toft say, it must overcome this secular squeemishness and get deep into the guts of religion. None of the three pillars of Canadian foreign policy—defense, development, or diplomacy—can stand without an articulate strategy of engagement with the globe's growing religious communities. Like it or hate it, God is back, and his followers will command the disproportionate amount of population and power in the century to come.

In this Cardus Policy in Public we join those already thinking through these quandaries, whether in international law, foreign development, the parallel American Office, or right here, with religious groups at home. We've asked some of the world's most accomplished scholars and practitioners for advice and best practices. Religion and its freedoms are not always obvious, but they have never been more important for a consistent, sustained pluralism.

Which makes the Office of Religious Freedom politics at its best. It's a program and an office built on an idea Canada itself only vaguely understands. It is an unapologetically pragmatic exercise, qualified at every turn by the ignorance and hypocrisy of its proponents, and rooted in a ferocious and existential struggle for Canada's soul, the definitions of the secular and the sacred in our own—not just others'—public. Tagged to this Office is some heavy existential baggage, and it's long overdue that we snapped to it. That is why this Office is exactly for Canada at such a time as this.

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. November 2011: The Office of Religious Freedom
    CPIP - The Office of Religious Freedom The federal government announced this past spring that it would open an Office of Religious Freedom. This issue of Cardus Policy in Public brings together some of the best thinkers and practitioners on religious freedom in North America to give context, advice and encouragement as the office goes online in the coming days.

    Register to download the full issue PDF.