Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett is the director of religious freedom and faith community engagement at the think tank Cardus.
Eliminating sexism, racism and other social evils from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is a laudable goal. But sadly, the National Defence Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination has recommended an approach that appears to be based in religious bigotry: a theological cleansing of the military’s chaplaincy from some faiths.
More specifically, the panel recommends the CAF no longer employ chaplains from faith communities that don’t accept same-sex marriage, distinguish different leadership roles for men and women, or reject polytheism. In short, the panel seems to want to fire Christian chaplains from Catholic, Orthodox and most Protestant backgrounds, as well as many Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis.
Defence Minister Anita Anand should firmly and publicly reject this recommendation. Indeed, how could she accept a recommendation based on ad hominem attacks and caricatures of any faith community?
The report speaks of “genocide at the hands of Christian religious leaders,” slams churches for “sexist notions” in their teachings and condemns faiths “requiring conversion” of those considered “pagan.”
Yet government officials have no jurisdiction or competence to judge religious teachings.
Clearly, the panel neither understood the faith communities it casually dismissed, nor made any attempt to learn about their beliefs, practices and traditions. Had they done so, they would’ve at least known the faiths in their crosshairs don’t require anyone’s conversion. Instead, in the name of inclusion and diversity, it simply declared some groups worthy of exclusion.
The panel’s chaplaincy recommendation also comes with some practical problems. If the faith backgrounds of CAF members roughly mirror Canada’s population, just over a third of them would be Catholic. The panel’s recommendation would simply deny them pastoral care.
What about the other third of the CAF that is likely part of non-Catholic, Christian communities? What about Muslim and Jewish CAF members?
If Ms. Anand accepted this change to the chaplaincy, they’d find access to spiritual care reflecting their specific beliefs and traditions increasingly difficult.
Ironically, this would also marginalize many Indigenous CAF members who are part of Catholic, Anglican or other Christian groups.
This is not just, nor is it inclusive. It perpetuates the very problems the panel says it wants to solve.
Worse yet, the panel would destroy some of the good work that Canadian chaplains do today. Consider Lt-Col. Terry Cherwick, a Ukrainian-Greek Catholic priest who is part of the CAF’s humanitarian mission in Poland to help manage the influx of refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. Father Cherwick has been standing at Warsaw’s train station welcoming and praying with refugees, offering on-the-spot pastoral care – a product not only of his specific faith, but of his vocation to serve others.
But if the panel had its way, Father Cherwick would be out of a job. Meaning that expunging such faith from the CAF chaplaincy wouldn’t just hurt military members and Canadians generally – it would hurt some of the most desperate people in the world.
Finally, the panel’s recommendation is an assault on Canadian pluralism. True and deep pluralism ensures all citizens can participate fully in the public life of our country informed and guided by their deeply held beliefs. Those beliefs vary regarding humanity, God and even right and wrong; on some things, they disagree profoundly. Some beliefs may even seem eccentric, bizarre or offensive to those from different faith communities, but that’s okay: Canadian society is profoundly multicultural and multi-religious. The armed forces are no exception.
Today, chaplains serve all CAF members and their families “whether they identify with a particular Faith Tradition, have no specific spiritual/faith practice, belief or custom, or are spiritually curious.” They have specific guidelines for respecting Indigenous religious traditions.
We’re thankfully long past the days, back in 1986, when the CAF would ask whether a member should be allowed to wear a turban as part of their uniform. Today, we know that a Sikh soldier belongs in the CAF just as much as an Evangelical one, regardless of differences in dress and, more fundamentally, of faith. And that’s a good thing: No Canadian should ever have to question if their faith will exclude them from serving our country.
Yes, racism, sexism and other forms of extremism have no place in Canada’s military. But we won’t win that battle by wielding bigotry. Ms. Anand should reject the panel’s chaplaincy recommendation firmly and publicly.
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