We Canadians con- tinue to struggle with the implications of steadily increasing
cultural diversity (including religious diversity) as we have welcomed
over 25,000 Syrians along with
thousands of others from across
Meanwhile, we are embroiled in
arguments regarding the legalization of euthanasia, increasingly
explicit sex education in public
schools, and the freedom of religious organizations to insist upon
ethical and doctrinal conformity
among their employees or students.
It is time again to support the
cause of religious freedom in Canada, and I gladly raise two cheers
on its behalf.
One cheer goes to recognizing
religious freedom as simply basic to
the very nature of Canada. Perhaps
the most remarkable feature of
the remarkable deal pulled off in
Confederation in the 1860s is the
mutual tolerance of Catholics and
Protestants – groups that had spent
the previous several centuries excommunicating and, when possible, outlawing each other.
We have largely forgotten that
longstanding animosity in this age
of relative amity between Catholics
and Protestants. But we would do
well to remember how fiercely
Catholics and Protestants feared,
despised and opposed each other
well into the 20th century – and yet
formed a country together.
The second cheer goes to recog-
nizing religious freedom in Con-
federation as far more than some
thin “freedom to believe what you
want in the privacy of your own
mind” – the kind of “religious lib-
erty” many Canadians today only
grudgingly allow each other.
In Confederation, Canadians not
only allowed each other freedom to
worship as each saw fit, with tax
breaks for churches and clergy, but
even to erect whole school systems
to educate new generations in a
way of life others saw as worse than
nonsense – as positively dangerous
to the soul.
We take for granted the scattering of churches across the Canadian
landscape while still being startled
by temples, gurdwaras and
mosques. Yet we stand in a tradition
of tolerating “the Others” as partners in the Canadian enterprise of
surviving and thriving together.
I cannot, alas, raise a third cheer
– one that would champion religious
freedom as absolute above all the
others. Some say we should be free
to shield our children from whatever
we don’t like being taught at school.
We should be free to say whatever
we like, wherever we like, about
controversial subjects. We should be
free to practise our faith fully and
without compromise, and the rest of
society should accommodate us.
Yet in an age of science-resistant
Christians, family-splitting cults,
polygamous Mormons and the barbaric Daesh, such a view is dangerously simplistic.
The State, which we construct and
maintain together, is obliged to seek
the common good and also the good
of each citizen. So when a religious
group threatens that common good,
or the welfare of an individual, we
have something to work out. We
cannot have a common life together
if it is vulnerable to disintegration
anytime some religion happens to
disagree, however sincerely.
The rest of our public institutions, which we construct and
maintain together, are obliged to
seek the common good and also the
good of each citizen. And when a
religious group compromises the
education our teachers have generally agreed ought to be provided to
each child, or the health care our
medicos have generally agreed
ought to be provided to each patient, we have an authentic challenge that cannot be answered
merely by invoking religious rights.
Canada and Canadians are the
product of a series of negotiations.
That’s what Confederation is – a
deal worked out for mutual benefit.
No one claimed it was perfect. No
one proclaimed Canada is a light to
the other (unenlightened) nations.
It’s just a good way for people of
very different views to live, and
As we anticipate the sesquicentennial of Confederation, therefore, let’s give a few minutes to
thinking hard, perhaps harder
than we have, about how religion
can and should be honoured by our
Canadian institutions and neighbours. Then let’s give a few more
minutes to considering how we
Christians ought to be prepared, as
the apostles and fathers of Confederation were, to compromise for
the common good.
And then let’s give two cheers
for religious freedom in Canada,
still the envy of so many countries
in our fractious and intolerant
We stand in
LIVES WI TH HIGH OR
VER Y HIGH LEVELS
OF RES TRICTIONS ON
CEN TER, 2013
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Two cheers for religious freedom
What will we make of the remarkable compromises we’ve inherited?
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall
University in Moncton, N.B. His most recent
book is Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for
Egalitarianism (Intervarsity, 2015). Find more of
these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/