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Media Bites: the Office of Religious Controversy

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It says something about the obsessively, nervously secular character of Canadian politics that it's possible to stir up religious controversy merely by acknowledging religion exists.

On Tuesday, the Harper government announced the creation of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom, a small sub-department of the foreign ministry tasked with the humble goal of "promoting freedom of religion or belief around the world." It will have about four employees and a budget of five million bucks. So, uh, tyrants beware!

No one in the press seems to know exactly what ol' man Harper is trying to pull with this one.

Canada already "spends $2.5 billion a year" hectoring foreigners about this-and-that, scoffs the Toronto Star editorial board. "If Harper wants to whistle down rights abusers he has an army of diplomats to call upon. It's hard to see how spending 0.002 per cent more can make much of a difference."

Yeah, agrees Kelly McParland over at the National Post, in this big ugly world of ours, we already know that religious minorities are being beaten and killed and oppressed by terrorists and dictators, "and we know where." So "why do we need to hire an 'ambassador,' and staff a new office, when we already know the problem and have lots of facts to back it up?"

Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say this religious freedom office seems more about politics than foreign policy!

That's probably because this religious freedom office "seems more about politics than foreign policy," concludes poli-sci prof Peter McKenna in the Ottawa Citizen.

Doc McKenna figures the whole thing is just simple electoral math: Harper's base contains a lot of religious voters, religious voters care about religion, and doing ostentatiously religious things is a good way "to solidify this vote (especially the evangelical Christians)" and extend Tory "tentacles into other immigrant communities" who might be into God stuff, too. So if Ahmadinejad isn't exactly shaking in his sandals, well, that's not the point.

Oh please professor, replies Jon Ibbitson at the Globe, if anything, the ORF (nice acronym there, BTW) shows a marked "lack of a Conservative hidden agenda." I mean, the PM launched the thing with a speech peppered with references to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists -- and made the announcement inside a friggin' mosque. If this is his idea of pandering, "the Christian right can only shake its head at how little Mr. Harper cares for them."

Only lonely Michael Den Tandt, the man of a thousand Postmedia papers, seems willing to raise his well-syndicated voice in defense of Harper's "worthwhile experiment."

Look, says Mike, I know all you liberal members of the "urban chattering classes" think "religion is passé" and assume anyone who cares about it in this day and age is some sorta delusional weirdo, but unfortunately much of the rest of the world never got that memo. While we may be busily de-godding our own country within an inch of its rational humanist life, purging crosses from university crests and banning prayers at city hall, in most non-western nations "religion is not only an important element in society, but the dominant one," colouring all aspects of life, love, politics, and headwear in some form or another.

So this is the global reality Canadians have to work with. "Arguing intellectually that Egypt or Iraq should become more secular is well and good," says Mike, but "It's not likely to get you far on the ground." Acknowledging the global power and popularity of religious movements, however -- and protecting the rights of smaller ones -- will.

To this I'd add that regardless of how often we good, secular Canadians do it, exercising freedom of religion is also the world's ultimate calibration test of all other freedoms.

Think of it this way: the freedom to practice the faith of your choice automatically requires freedom of conscience (to believe), freedom of speech (to preach), freedom of assembly (to attend services), freedom of the press (to distribute scripture), and even freedom of movement (to evangelize).  When it comes to the right to hold, the right to protect, and the right to promote unusual beliefs or unpopular dogma, in short, the only institutions demanding simultaneous protection of all of the above are organized religions. Well, and political parties, I guess. But I repeat myself.

From our comfortable booth at the choose-your-own faith buffet that is the cosmopolitan west, it's also easy to forget that freedom from religious persecution often explicitly intersects with the rights of third world citizens to enjoy freedom from ethnic or racial persecution as well. When we talk about the Uighur Muslims of China or the Sephardic Jews of Iran, after all, we're not referring to a gang of college kids who impulsively chose to embrace a new religion after reading some book from the bargain barrel outside the unattractive poncho store. In the developing world, spirituality is just as often an expression of geographic and cultural community as it is the philosophical beliefs of an individual. Which makes defending the former inseparably tied with backing the latter.

But whatever. ORF's liberal critics have valid points, too, and I guess rallying against some totemic stereotype of fundamentalist Christian right-wingers and their nefarious electoral conspiracies to win votes from the easily duped churchy set is an important cause as well.

It's just not one with much interest in promoting religious tolerance. Abroad or at home.

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