Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

Nothing raises Canadian political ire more than a politician's reference to religion, any religion, but especially religion in politics. Not that everyone is going to condemn every reference. Certainly not. But you can be sure that every reference will be polarizing. Some will approve, and some won't. Those who don't approve will cite precedents for keeping religion out of politics. Those who do approve this time around will be citing the same precedents next time around.

Political conservatives and liberals both have their own way of doing religion, which they see as unproblematic. Even vocal atheists, who tend to be politically liberal, do religion. Some references will slip by as being harmless and not worthy of response. Other references almost seem to require a sarcastic response. Everyone is reaching for a moral high ground; but in the case of the violently derisive discussion about religion, it is unlikely anyone will ever reach it.

So naturally Twitter experienced a minor eruption as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the name of an ambassador to head Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom. Commentary came mainly from the liberal end of the political spectrum. Comments were incisive and pithy. With only 140 characters to spend, they had to be. Here are a few of the choicer contributions:
CC ‏@canadiancynic

In a shocking turn of events, the new head of the Office of Religious Freedom is a Christian, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/02/19/pol-ambassdor-office-religious-freedom-announced.html?cmp=rss …
Herbert Pimlott ‏@Herbert_Pimlott

Proof #Harper has a sense of humour?! Setup Office 4 Religious Freedom & gag scientists, cut dissenting NGOs #cdnpoli http://soc.li/6lwm9id
collin grasley ‏@mode23

Theological Action Plan - harper opens office of c̶h̶r̶i̶s̶t̶i̶a̶n̶  religious freedom. #cdnpoli #FIVEMILLIONTAXDOLLARS
Secular types wonder why Harper has cut government funding everywhere else. Federal Liberals and NDP wonder, in a very predictable turn of events, why the new Ambassador is Christian. Atheists wonder why there is not an Office of Freedom From Religion.

As a religious studies student, and a Christian with an interest in the study of the so-called world religions and natural religion, it immediately strikes me that the cast of the objections are predictably Christian objections. Granted, the objectors may not individually profess the Christian faith. They may even despise everything about Christians and what they believe. But as long as they appeal to a manifest obviousness that actual religious confession has no place in the public square, they whole-heartedly identify with a basic Christian dogma about the separation of the separation of the powers spiritual and temporal (or civil). Render unto Caesar, etc. etc. The joke is on them.

As an idea, at least, an Office of Religious Freedom actually makes a fair amount of sense in a post-Soviet, post 9/11, post-Arab Spring, post-, post- world. The End of History came, pace Francis Fukuyama, but the Last Man turned out to be some variety of cleric: an imam, pastor, or priest. Critics of the Office risk exposing themselves for the cultural dinosaurs that anyone who still has in their head that a secular utopia is just around the corner must inevitably be.

Critics of the choice of a young Roman Catholic prof for the position of Ambassador risk exposing their ignorance about the difficulty of staffing the Office. The critics themselves demonstrate that secular types won't touch the position with a 50-foot pole, which means you are going to have to look for a committed believer, which means...some particular faith. We are told that two other people turned the position down. Which means Dr. Andrew Bennett not the first choice for what will inevitably be a controversial and thankless job. Whether he is a bad choice, however, will not be determined until  we have gone a little ways down this road.

The latest Twitter post:
Iain Harnish ‏@IainHarnish

Office of Religious Freedom http://cbc.sh/ckzNeVR How did a once forward-looking country come to this.
Instead of this sort of armchair quarterbacking, it's better to accept the Office of Religious Freedom as a fiat accompli. Our energies, if we care at all, should be directed towards what sort of issues exactly the office is going to champion at home and abroad. The one danger I see is that the Office very quickly becomes a lobby group for the protection of Christian missionaries abroad. If so, it will champion a very narrow conception of religious freedom, once comes dangerously close to equating religious freedom with the Christian freedom to proselytize. (Other religions proselytize; but only Christianity makes proselytization part of its raison d'etre.) That will undermine perceptions of the Office in Canada at large. It will also undermine, I would argue, genuinely Christian interests, which, I would argue, in the public sphere, ought to be directed towards the dignity of humanity. Beyond that the powers of the state are a honey-trap, which ought to be held at arms length.

And rather than mock the new Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I think it more appropriate to extend the poor bastard my sympathies. We are watching you. And by we, I mean all of us Canadians. And we don't agree on very much at all.

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