Thinking ahead about state neutrality and religion in Canada

02 October 2018
Text of a presentation by David Guretzki, EFC Executive VP & Resident Theologian, delivered at the 7th Annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom (held October 1, 2018). The MP who hosted the event has now released a video of the full two-hour forum also featuring other speakers. Near the end of the text below you will also see two short video clips from Guretzki's presentation.

Remember when Google first appeared? For some here, Google has always existed, but I’m sure many of you remember a world without it. I was one of the so-called early adopters. I liked its minimalist aesthetic, and especially, no pop-up ads!

What I didn’t understand then (and barely understand now) is that Google has a secret 1000-variable algorithm that dictates which content appears top of your search. Though Google explicitly states, “We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results…,” it’s well established that Google’s search results are not “neutral,” and in fact, clearly favour Google’s own content and that of its partners. Google sometimes even blocks content not aligned with its own political agenda.

Knowing Google is not a neutral tool—a servant which enacts our every peck and search—will that change your relationship to and use of Google? In case you think I’m at the wrong forum, let me clarify: my use of Google is meant to be a metaphor of how we may have thought about the State’s relationship to us, especially those of us in religious communities. We may think about the State and use it as if it is neutral ‘til at some critical point we find out we’ve been duped.

For you see, in Canada we have often thought about the State as taking a “neutral” stance toward religion. (Or at least a relatively neutral stance because a State committed to liberalism can never be neutral toward its own liberalism.) Nevertheless, my colleague, Bruce Clemenger, has pointed out that State neutrality has historically been understood in one of two ways. Either the State is neutral toward religion by formally favouring none (the American model of neutrality), or the State is neutral toward religion by providing equitable access to State services without discrimination (the model more akin to our Canadian context). But the pressing question now, is, Will the State in Canada maintain a principled form of neutrality toward religion?

We needn’t rehash the convoluted tale of the Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) program and its now infamous “attestation” here in full. But a clear take-away from that political episode is that religious groups (including the EFC where I work), and indeed, even many in the media, pointed out that the attestation was a type of ideological test which called into question the State’s neutrality in regard to providing otherwise publicly accessible funding. Thus, Is the CSJ kerfuffle a cautionary tale of the eventual erosion of State neutrality here in Canada? And if so, what will be the response of those of us concerned about matters of public policy relative to faith and religion?

Let me begin by clarifying something fundamentally important, mainly, that there are two basic types of religious freedom. One type is given and inviolable, and the other type is legislated and violable. I’ll call these two types (cleverly I might add!) Type A and Type B freedom respectively. Distinguishing Type A and Type B is crucial to clarifying strategy forward.

Although clearly paralleled in many other faiths, Type A religious freedom in the Judea-Christian tradition is grounded in Holy Scripture. From the Psalmist, we read, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out [God’s] precepts” (Psalm 119:45). And from St. Paul, we hear, “It is for freedom that [Jesus] Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). From these texts I gather that there is a unique freedom to serve God—if somewhat anachronistically yet accurately what we call “religious freedom”—that comes to us as a divine gift as we seek after God and his ways. Religious freedom in this sense is ontologically and logically prior to any other sense of freedom, because regardless of social, legal, or political circumstances, Type A freedom is from God himself and cannot be violated by human states of affairs.

However, to use the language of the Charter, Type B freedom is a legislated “right” or “freedom”—a legal construct that seeks to protect individuals and communities in their religious devotion without hindrance from others, or indeed, from the State itself. It is, to be sure, a type of religious freedom currently enjoyed in Canada—and for which we should be grateful—but which we acknowledge is not a reality in many places around the world. It could also someday cease to be a reality even here in Canada. Recent Supreme Court rulings already insist that Type B freedom sometimes is legitimately violated here in Canada in favour of other interests.

In this regard, we do well to remind our religious communities that the State may, or may not, protect Type B freedom, but that the State never has been, nor never will be, the source of Type A religious freedom. Rather, true religious freedom precedes, supersedes and indeed, transcends every dictate and historical manifestation of the State. In this we take heart: the erosion or loss of Type B religious freedom, while regrettable, cannot diminish Type A freedom. Type A freedom may fade from memory or consciousness, but it cannot be eradicated in the deepest recesses of the human soul. Indeed, history reveals over and over again that religion can flourish even when the State seeks to legislate it out of existence.

So where do we go to from here? Let me suggest, briefly, three principled points of strategy.

First, in regard to the neutrality of the State toward religion, let me suggest that the religious community is pressed toward one of two options. Either we labour at reminding the State of its need to remain fair and neutral toward religion, or we reckon the idea of State neutrality toward religion a dead concept and move on. The former is the optimist’s option: with God’s help and with a lot of hard work with the right people reminding those with appropriate influence, it may have good effect. But the realist, if not the pessimist, protests that the latter is more likely where effort needs to be expended.

Granted, these options are not a true dichotomy and I believe we are compelled to do both. But the question is: Where shall we allot the proportion of our efforts? If we expend all of our energy trying to influence the State, we may well fail to prepare for what may be inevitable—waking up to find out that neutrality is either gone, or, had disappeared a long time ago, and we aren’t ready.

Here religious communities should, as much as possible, act publicly in the present as if State neutrality exists, but strategize for the future without presuming that it does. That is a delicate place to locate ourselves, perched as it were on a tightrope between the two options, persuading and influencing as we have ability and energy on the one hand, but on the other hand, preparing our communities for when religious freedoms may disappear. And of course, as already noted, we do this all while teaching our communities to be confident that our ultimate religious freedom does not finally depend upon the State but is only a divine gift.

Second, religious communities will need to be vigilant of State discrimination not only on behalf of their own faith community, but also on behalf of others. Here I’m deeply convicted by a poem from Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler. As he put it

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller’s chilling poem suggests that religious freedom cannot simply be scrutinized relative to our own faith communities; we confess we are far too prone to defensiveness and self-preservation to do that well. Rather, erosion of religious freedom and loss of neutrality, if it is to be detected and protected, needs to be monitored across religious borders, whether at home or abroad. Yes, we know it is a risk to speak up or to act on behalf of religious communities other than our own, but religious freedom in Canada is meaningless if it only applies to me, and not also to you. Religious freedom must be for all, or it is an empty concept.

What will this mean practically? At the very least, it means developing personal relationships by walking across our streets, and into each other’s homes to listen and to learn. We may also consider that, much like clergy congregate regularly in city-wide Ministerials, we intentionally find ways to encourage regular inter-religious gatherings not only for greater mutual understanding, but to become more acutely aware of the religious freedom struggles other communities may be facing that we are not.

And last, and certainly not least, we need to figure out how to model public religious disagreement, the spirit and tone of which goes against the grain of the divisiveness characteristic of partisan and identity politics regularly seen in public and in media. In this regard, the interreligious coalition on CSJ is an example to be commended, even if we know we can always do better. In other words, what our society really needs to see is civilly respectful public religious engagement on matters where there is sharp disagreement, not only on public policy issues, but also on explicitly religious, theological, ethical, and doctrinal matters.

Critics of religion love to point out how the history of war and conflict is so often the history of religion. But surely, we can do better! Surely, we can find ways to deal with our deep differences in charitable, respectful and public ways that model what a society of deep difference can look like without violence. And surely, we can display a genuine form of tolerance which simply does not gloss over the discomfort of difference, but a tolerance that highlights difference openly while simultaneously allowing space irenically and courageously to persuade one another of the truth of our convictions.

It may be hard to envision what this might look like, but what a testimony to our elected officials and to the public at large in Canada if one day they would see religious leaders disagree with one another vigorously but charitably, and the next day see them working arm-in-arm on a community project serving the most vulnerable amongst us. This is a vision of the outworking of religious freedom in the midst of diversity and division that I, for one, could wholly endorse.

Author: David Guretzki