Sex, religion, and politics are three topics said to ruin convivial dinner conversations. So it was interesting to pay attention to how Canada's media and establishment voices would deal with the Office of Religious Freedom meal that they were served by the federal government yesterday afternoon.
The sophisticated elders at the table were a bit put off by the focus on religious freedom. On CBC's Power and Politics, host Evan Solomon worriedly asked about whether this was creating a "hierarchy of rights," while panelists mused about how to deal with the challenges that come when religious rights come in conflict with other human rights. While allowing that "a right to freedom of religion is part of a larger set of human rights," Natalie Bender still opined in the Toronto Star that "religion is too multi-faceted in its forms and contested in its practice to be championed impartially by any government office."
There were the miffed in-laws who felt they hadn't been properly included or consulted on the matter. Consultation sessions were held and the ambassador was introduced in a Toronto-area mosque with as religiously and ethnically diverse an audience as one might imagine. Still, the CBC found "some scholars" who criticized the consultation process as being too Christian-focused since four of the six panelists at a 2011 closed door consultation were from the Christian religion. It also turns out that a Saskatoon Anglican priest who heads multi-faith groups in that province was not consulted and "first found out about the proposed Office of Religious Freedom in a newspaper."
Thankfully a few common-sense members of the family were there to remind the group of the present urgency in this situation. In her Globe and Mail commentary, Lorna Dueck cited several examples, including 53 Christians attending worship in Saudi Arabia who were arrested last week for exercising their basic human right to worship. And speaking of common sense, John Ibbitson, in his Globe column, answered those who would cite this office as evidence of a socially conservative Christian agenda on the part of the Harper government: "Let's face it. The Harper government is economically conservative, pro-family and anti-crime but it is not socially conservative and it is emphatically not Christian conservative" (emphasis mine).
The snarky pre-pubescent teens—who could only immaturely wisecrack off-colour comments on Twitter or in newspaper comment sections—are best ignored. They were mostly insulting and irrational noise that betrayed a raw intolerance regarding anything religious.
Is there anything we can learn from eavesdropping on this discussion? I'm struck by how religion is understood in Canada—or misunderstood. Many spoke about religion as an impermanent personal life choice, as if religious consumers choose between Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam in the same way diners choose between Italian, Greek, or Thai. The connection between a person's faith and her fundamental identity seemed generally misunderstood. And while no one was so crass to say it out loud, it seemed that when some panelists were discussing religion being subsumed under the existing rights of expression, assembly, and speech—and therefore not needing special protection—they were implicitly suggesting that the 53 Christians arrested for worship in Saudi Arabia should be smarter next time about when and where they choose to worship.
The oft-repeated theme that government should stay out of religious matters with a-historical references to American jurisprudence involving the wall of separation between church and state (which the Supreme Court of Canada noted in a 1985 decision 'is not particularly helpful in defining the meaning of conscience and religion under the Charter') demonstrates further confusion. I fully respect the right of my secularist friends to not believe in God, and their right to openly express their views and even mock religion, whether mine or someone else's. But to suggest that one can understand global affairs or domestic affairs, protect the rights and space for free expression, or enjoy the various social benefits we all take for granted without thinking about the place and contribution of religion is naïveté in the extreme. I have argued elsewhere that religion is the civic oxygen of our social ecology, and to ignore its role is equivalent to ignoring the role of the rain forest in our physical ecology.
There is a lot of work to do. While the announcement of Ambassador Bennett and his $5 million office represents a welcome commitment to focus on the question, especially in its international dimension, it admittedly is but a small step. The conversation sparked by his appointment suggests there are bigger conversations that still need to be had and that when it comes to questions of religion at the dinner, the Canadian family has a fair bit of squeamishness to overcome.