Several months ago I asked, "Where is our ambassador of religious freedom?," and that day has now come. At an event tomorrow at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community facility in suburban Toronto, invited guests and media will welcome the new Ambassador-at-Large for Canada's newly-minted Office of Religious Freedom.
The politics of this new post are prickly. Liberal leader Bob Rae has gone out of his way in the recent Crossroads controversy, stirred up by the Canadian press, to accept and support the work of faith based organizations and religious freedom abroad. But in a speech not long before, the New Democrat's Thomas Mulcair decried "religion, not nutrition" in this government's foreign policy. Reactions in both caucuses will undoubtedly be mixed.
Conservatives themselves will be divided. Several MPs—including Bev Shipley, whose Motion 382 is timed to ride the waves of this announcement—have been outspoken in their support of the new Office. But more libertarian and fiscally conservative-minded MPs may not be so enthusiastic, perceiving the Office as at best a tacit electoral nod to the diverse immigrant communities that propelled this government into majority power in the last election.
Cardus has long been an outspoken supporter of religious freedom at home and abroad, believing in institutional and religious pluralism as the bedrock of a liberal democracy. We have argued for more, not less, religion in public life; the same kind of radical redefinition of the secular that doesn't suppress religion, but is predicated on the correct response of the state to diversity of all kinds. On this, there is unquestionably work to be done at home, but there is also no question that we have much to offer abroad, where blasphemy and apostasy laws degrade and destroy lives and societies. I commend the Ambassador to this work.
In foreign policy, civil religious secularism—which insists on expunging religion from the political balance sheet—has now been discredited. We can no longer afford the myth of a secular atheocracy, but instead must work to integrate not only religious freedom—as a human right—but also religious literacy itself into our foreign affairs. The real test for this Office will be how to upgrade religious freedom from one among many human rights, to a source and guide for, as sociologist Peter Berger put it, a desecularized world. Not every problem in the world is religious, but almost every enduring solution will require some level of religious accommodation. We need those diplomatic tools in our foreign policy tool box.
Not long ago Cardus asked several of the world's leading experts on religious freedom about those tools. Scott Thomas, Dennis Hoover, Thomas F. Farr, Paul Marshall, Janet Epp Buckingham, and John G. Stackhouse Jr. joined us for a special issue of Cardus Policy in Public, offering advice and context for the new Office. That advice is prescient now, a short time later, when the Ambassador will face critics and friends alike of religious freedom. The politics, and the perils, of religious freedom advocacy will unfold with time, but for now it deserves to be said: welcome, Ambassador. Let's get to work.