It’s easy to make a bad argument against the Harper government’s plan to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. You grumble that religion has often been oppressive, and thunder that Canada as a secular state ought not be pursuing religious objectives. Eventually, you subside.
These objections miss the point. Worse, they actually make the point – in favour of the office’s establishment. Yes, religion has not only been oppressive in the past but, in many places in the world, still is. And yes, Canada is a secular state, meaning that, as a state, it is of no religion and enforces none.
The first point underscores the ongoing need for the promotion of religious freedom. The second confirms the appropriateness of a country such as Canada undertaking it. A beacon of religious freedom itself, it thereby expresses its concern that other countries share this blessing.
There’s a lot of careless invocation these days of “separation of church and state.” This isn’t a Canadian doctrine, and is only very dubiously an American one. (In recent years, U.S. courts and scholars have offered a more nuanced view of permissible co-operation between the state and faith-based organizations to achieve legitimate secular ends such as education and social welfare.) Even if you adopt this term as your mantra, however, it doesn’t preclude a public stand on behalf of religious freedom. On the contrary, it implies one.
Religious freedom is precisely what the secular state was invented to secure. To the great philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and the legions of Enlightenment thinkers who followed him, religion could be free of coercion by the state only if the state was freed of coercion by religion. Instead of there being an official or established church whose bidding the state was obliged to do by suppressing or otherwise disadvantaging rival churches, religion would be disestablished. The state would go its way, and the churches theirs. Never again would any church get the state to do its dirty work.
But nor would any church be permitted to recruit anyone else to its dirty work, either. There remained one crucial function for the state to perform within the realm of religion. In undertaking it, however, it acted in its secular capacity rather than in a religious one. That task was precisely to enforce freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion is not religion itself, and to promote it is not to support religion (even if, on balance, religion benefits from its promotion). For freedom of religion, banishing all coercion from the religious realm inevitably entails the freedom not to be religious. The church of one’s choice at which one worships can be no church at all. And if one does choose to worship at a church, it can only be at a tolerant one, one that has laid its arrogance aside and recognized the right of all human beings to worship at any church or none.
Freedom of religion is not itself religious; rather, it reflects the modern decision to put (and keep) religion in its proper place. It’s best conceived not as sui generis but as one of the larger basket of personal freedoms, protection of which defines the core of liberal democracy.
So, far from contradicting Canada’s commitment to secularism and tolerance, the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom will affirm it. Its goal will be the promotion not of religion as such but of respect for the rights of the individual in matters of religion. Its task will be to press illiberal regimes to treat religious dissenters more liberally. This will doubtless prove an uphill struggle, for, historically, freedom of religion has flourished only with other liberal freedoms.
Yes, there are many pitfalls here, but the impropriety of the very notion of an Office of Religious Freedom isn’t one of them.
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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