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Pluralism In The Mirror

Former Canadian Ambassador Anne Leahy finds Robert Joustra’s new book a compelling call for greater religious literacy among Canadians, particularly our diplomats. 

4 minute read
Topics: Books
Pluralism In The Mirror October 16, 2017  |  By Anne Leahy
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Robert Joustra's short and dense book, The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology, flows from his doctoral dissertation at the University of Bath in 2013. It focuses on a field of application, foreign policy, while implicitly advocating for a society model. This is “principled pluralism,” a concept Joustra borrows from Jonathan Chaplin and refines further in the language of political theology.

The demise of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom in 2015 inspired the ideal case study. Joustra analyses the reasons leading to the creation of the Canadian and US Offices for Religious Freedom on the basis of a limited public opinion survey of mainstream media (English only unfortunately for Canada), and a few interviews. Working from the “contested meaning” of religion through “principled pluralism,” Joustra provides suggestions on how the government should promote religious freedom.

Not surprisingly Joustra, who is director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University College and teaches in the broad areas of religion, politics and international theory, writes for political theorists. Fortunately, his style is engaging and, with some humour, carries the reader through at times arid terrain. References to experiencing the sacred in the secular (Paul Kahn) had me wondering whether, like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, I had been speaking political theology all these years as a diplomat without knowing it.  The author’s wish is clearly that diplomats should, and knowingly.

While Joustra’s book is ostensibly on foreign policy, I sense that his true concern – which I share – is the precariousness of faith in Canada’s public square.  His definition of the “religious problem” as “rival versions of the religious and the secular which often persist, undisclosed, in political debates” is perceptive, and I would say explains why European countries, and now Canada, have a different rationale from the USA for promoting freedom of religion and belief. One need not endorse the premise that the State should advocate a given model of relationship to the sacred in its foreign policy – I consider this is essentially a political decision – to gain insights from the valuable research on political theology presented by Joustra.

The core of the book is the elaboration of a Canadian “principled pluralism” for which Joustra advances an avowedly controversial definition of political theology: “understandings and practices” that political actors (not religious ones) as protagonists have of  “meaning of and relationship between the religious and the secular and what constitutes political authority.” Joustra effectively holds a mirror to Canada’s pluralistic society and it reveals unresolved issues e.g., defining the hoped-for reasonable limits of consensual “principled pluralism.”  Think of Charles Taylor, philosopher and co-president of the Quebec Commission on Religious and Cultural Accommodation who changed his mind in February 2017 on a main recommendation of its 2008 Report, the wearing of religious signs.

A key part of the book is the discussion of concepts of laïcité including useful tables such as “Rival versions of the religious and the secular” and “Nine concepts of the secular.” Joustra summarizes various debates on freedom of religion or belief as “a continuum of laïcité…defined by exactly how dangerous public religion is, and whether and what kind of public expressions can be tolerated.”

This portrayal left me with an uneasy impression of laïcité, even of the “open” variety. I am not referring here to secularization of society and secularism. Many would say that secularity has positive attributes in a pluralistic society. One is the freedom from coercion to believe. Another is the religious neutrality of the State and its obligation to protect equally the rights of citizens.

Reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s use of “healthy laïcité” could have provided a fuller picture. This terminology appears significantly in the concluding 2012 document of the Synod on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The Pope insists that both the Church and the State have duties and responsibilities towards the individual and the community, and that neither must usurp the sphere of competence of the other.  This reminder of the virtue of prudence is relevant in the examination of the role of the State regarding the promotion of religious freedom as a society model.

Following on Joustra’s stimulating political theory observations, I found the part on foreign policy practices less compelling primarily because of its limited scope. Religious rights must be seen together with freedom of conscience and expression and in the framework of international human rights, a subject largely absent from this book.  He points to “religion in international affairs” as a further area to be explored. Indeed this is a lively subject, eminently political, encountered by our diplomats in multilateral forums for many years e.g., defamation of religion and right to life issues.  Extensive work is available in this field including analyses of the many forms worldwide of the state-religion relationship.

Joustra suggests practices for diplomats implied by ‘principled pluralism’ based on a model developed by the Institute for Global Engagement. Some have long been part of the Canadian agenda e.g. defense against persecution and the protection of religious rights during the Cold War era. One can refer to twenty-year old ministerial statements on freedom of religion and belief and to round-tables on human rights with Canadian religious leaders participating for China, Cuba and Indonesia.  

There is one major injunction that appears more than once in this book and it is essential: religious literacy. Without doubt, it should be compulsory training for diplomats. Since our society no longer provides it generally, except in Quebec with its Ethics and Religious Culture course, it would heighten diplomatic appreciation of its importance globally regardless of personal views about faith.

Anne Leahy served as Canada’s ambassador to the Holy See, Russia, Poland, Cameroon, and the Great Lakes Region of Africa.  She is an affiliate member of the School of Religious Studies at McGill University.

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