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Authors are not always best served by the titles of their books.
Michael Coren, for example, famously wrote a book called Why Catholics Are Right. Moments after publication, it seems, a change of heart convinced him that Catholics, and the whole Catholic Church, are an abomination. He subsequently, of course, apostatized to make a new career of criticizing old friends. Righty-ho, then.
Title turmoil might seem an equal risk for Ottawa lawyer Don Hutchinson’s new book Under Siege, which examines the evolution of religious freedom in Canada from 1867 up to our 150th birthday this year.
Some might eagerly expect the book to be a compendium of wrongs committed by the State and Canadian culture against faith. Others might avoid it from the same expectation. Neither should do either.
Book and title comprise a clever overlapping of irony and strategy. An attentive reader barely needs to get past the cover to appreciate how effectively Hutchinson brings the two distinct elements together.
Under Siege is provocatively not a culture warrior’s cry for religious communities to mount the barricades against the larger society. Nor is it a flag of retreat to insularity in the style of Rod Dreher’s recent The Benedict Option. On the contrary, it challenges both alternatives. It says in sum: Stop reacting and start responding to the real world.
It’s one thing, Hutchinson argues, to indulge rhetorical fantasies about being besieged by hyper-aggressive secularism driving religious believers from the public square. But the real world has little time or space for prolonged handwringing. It demands, rather, honest assessment of whether the state of siege actually exists, and specific strategizing for how to escape or endure it
If people of faith knowingly adopt a siege mentality, he says, then they had better be well prepared for the outcome.
“Withdrawing into a fortified, inescapable structure should be the result of serious strategic consideration,” Hutchinson writes.
In fact, he told me recently at the Ottawa launch of Under Siege, before laying plans to build that inescapable structure, religious believers would do well to survey the landscape of Canadian law to make sure they know where they stand. Many, he says, might be surprised to see how secure their rights really are.
Other voices in other rooms legitimately warn that secure as those rights might seem now, the anti-faith culture pressing implacably around us will not leave them safe for long. Hutchinson is by no means deaf to the threat.
He is not, having appeared a number of times before the Supreme Court of Canada to argue faith rights, a wide-eyed naïf. As a former board chair for the Christian Legal Fellowship in this country, and having had a voice in launching the Harper-era Office of Religious Freedom, Hutchinson has seen his share of genuine threats to believers’ rights.
He considers the actions of the law societies of British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia in their treatment of Trinity Western University to be, frankly, scurrilous. He certainly shares widespread concern about assaults on freedom of conscience that arise from doctors being forced to perform so-called medical aid in dying.
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But evaluated in a balanced, fair-minded and informed manner, he says, the overall work of Canadian courts gives far more cause for encouragement than discouragement. Indeed, he saves some of his most pointed criticism for those Christians who are eager to hold up their faith as a political shield against perceived secular assaults, but are less than energetic about upholding the tenets of faith itself.
Fittingly for an Evangelical Protestant, Hutchinson situates his understanding of the difference between political holding and upholding faith in a moment of personal revelation as a young man. It suddenly struck home, he writes in Under Siege, that he was not a Christian just because he was a Canadian. The uncoupling of baptism and civic status led to full appreciation of the reality that Canada is not, and never has been, a Christian country.
To acknowledge that, he argues, is to recognize the vitality of Christianity as a free personal choice that is independent of, and utterly unaccountable to, secularism, much less relativism. To free ourselves from the belief that being a Christian is affirmed by cultural or civic association gives us a double vision. It lets us see both our Christian faith, and our cultural-civic association, most clearly.
Here is where the irony of the title Under Siege reveals itself. We are not, and in fact cannot be, under siege because we are in Christ. This is not to deny the evident fact of persecution in the world. It is to say that as Canadians living under the law, our freedom to live under God is first and foremost a matter of refusing to live as if we are under siege.
Titles can, it’s true, lead readers astray. The risk of confusion rises when the writer, too, is straying through unresolved ambiguity. Though it is ironic, there is nothing ambiguous about Don Hutchinson’s work, which argues consistently and effectively that we are well served by being Canadians made right as followers of Christ.
Under Siege is a book that can be fairly judged by its cover provided the reader is willing to sit and learn what the title words mean.
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With the release of a new research paper this week exploring relations between law, faith and government, and with planning underway for launch of a new religious freedom institute later this year, Cardus Law Program Director Andrew Bennett took time to catch up with Convivium.ca publisher Peter Stockland and discuss the critical balance between individual and institutional faith rights.