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Brian Dijkema: This proposed assault on Canada's religious freedom cannot stand
It’s up to people to decide which religions they follow: it is emphatically not the government’s role to decide which religions are acceptable for the people.
By: Brian Dijkema
Calling other parties racist in the House of Commons is bad. Calling whole religions and their adherents racist, misogynist and bigoted is worse
And yet, this government is being called to support one of the most egregious examples of anti-religious sentiment I have ever seen in Canada, and it was published by the Minister of National Defence Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination. This document is supposed to advise the Canadian Armed Forces on racism and discrimination in the military and, if the government were to follow through on its recommendations, it would effectively disqualify chaplains from Canada’s largest faith groups.
In its final report, this panel recommends that the military should “not consider for employment as spiritual guides or multi-faith representatives Chaplaincy applicants affiliated with religious groups whose values are not aligned with those of the Defence Team.”
As you read the document, it quickly becomes clear that their understanding of “values” appear to be completely ignorant of the actual practice of the very religions they defame. Yet the report would disqualify clergy from — at the very least — the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) under the grounds that these faiths are inherently discriminatory.
Not content to deal with actual cases of misogyny, sexism and discrimination, the government’s panelists have taken a go at determining which beliefs and philosophies are acceptable in Canada’s new modern military.
“The Advisory Panel has observed that there are varying degrees of misogyny, sexism, and discrimination woven into the philosophies and beliefs of some mainstream religions currently represented in the cadre of chaplains in the CAF,” the report says.
Then it gets worse.
The panel has noticed that “some of the affiliated religions of these chaplains do not subscribe to an open attitude and the promotion of diversity,” and recommends that candidates be screened to ensure that they have “an intrinsic appreciation for diversity and a willingness to challenge one's beliefs.”
Setting aside the massively illiberal nature of government officers inquiring about and regulating attitudes and intrinsic appreciation of anything, one might wonder to which religions this refers. While the Panel claims it “does not seek to evaluate or categorize these religions in this report,” it does, in fact do just that. It doesn’t take a great student of religions to identify the targets when the report specifies that “some churches' exclusion of women from their priesthoods violates principles of equality and social justice, as do sexist notions embedded in their religious dogmas … or are against equal rights for same-sex couples.”
So, Jews, Muslims, Catholic, Orthodox and most Protestant Christians, Latter Day Saints, and a bunch of others need not apply. If the panel’s thinking holds sway, a Catholic soldier dying from wounds sustained in battle may not not have access to last rites — something absolutely critical for that soldier’s life — because the military thinks her priest is inherently misogynistic.
What if a chaplain was heterodox and had disagreements with his religious tradition? Not even that would get you past the military inquisitors. They recommend that the military not hire chaplains whose “values are not consistent with National Defence’s ethics and values — even if those members express non-adherence to the policies of their chosen religion.” (Emphasis added).
And, if you thought it couldn’t get worse, here’s the kicker, chaplains who believe that their religion is true — or, as the panel puts it “faiths (that) have strict tenets requiring conversion of those they deem to be ‘pagan,’ or who belong to polytheistic religions” — are also not welcome.
We are a long way from the Canadian tradition of pluralism that welcomes people with all sorts of views on the divine to love and serve their country. Reading a government document which recommends the state pick one side in the millennia-old debate about whether God is one or many, and which recommends policing “attitudes” and “intrinsic motivations,” causes me to wonder if this is not all just some late April fool’s joke.
If it is, it’s not funny. It is an attack on religion, and on the many faithful and devoted chaplains who have long served in the military, and a cruel removal of spiritual care from Canadian soldiers.
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of history knows that religion has often been the place of, and occasionally source of, terrible behaviour. But a simplistic distillation of traditions that span millennia into categories of misogyny and racism shows a fundamental failure to understand what religion is, and does. Even a moment’s discussion with actual chaplains or soldiers who adhere to the forbidden faiths would show that religion contains resources to restrain the very injustice that panelists imagine.
Is the panel aware that even those “misogynistic” priests believe that God made men and women in his image, and that they therefore believe that there is no superior or inferior sex? Is the panel aware of how those same religions teach forgiveness and grace, surely something we need more, not less, of in this country? Can they consider the possibility that things might be a bit more complicated, and that people might have seemingly strange and divergent views on things like sex while still being completely capable of loving their neighbour as themselves? Has the panel even considered the implications for military members?
The panel’s recommendation is also an abomination of our constitutional democratic tradition. That tradition obligates the state to ensure that all religious people are protected from discrimination — not to engage in this discrimination as a matter of policy.
A common response in our “secular age” is to demand that religions prove why they should be accepted. And yes, absolutely, that is precisely what should happen — religions should convince individuals. It is not up to the government or any of its organs to make that demand of religion. It’s up to people to decide which religions they choose to follow: it is emphatically not the government’s role to decide which religions are acceptable for the people. Nobody is forcing anyone in the Canadian military to believe anything and if you don’t think that Jewish, Christian, or Muslim claims are true, you are free to go to brunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
According to our constitution, the onus is on the state to prove why it is acceptable to discriminate in the way the panel wants to, and not on religions to prove that their beliefs are acceptable to government. You don’t have to agree with the Catholic understanding of the priesthood (I don’t) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s misogynistic. And that’s kind of beside the point. We don’t want the state to be the arbiter of what is misogynistic when troops themselves hold the same beliefs and have an expressed desire for spiritual counsel or presence on the battlefield or in the barracks.
Instead of having the top brass decide which religions are worthy of chaplaincy, the government should follow the American military’s approach to chaplains, and let the troops lead. Are there a group of Sikh troops who wish to receive spiritual counsel? Appoint a Sikh chaplain. Are there a group of Muslim soldiers who wish to serve their country, and desire spiritual guidance and support? Hire an imam. The same should be true for Hindus, soldiers who follow Indigenous spirituality, Jews, Christians of all sorts, you name it. True pluralism would expand, not shrink, the pool of spiritual counsellors.
If you are not a religious person, I would encourage you not to think this is a problem that doesn’t concern you. Anytime a government that — literally — wields the power of the armed force is given the authority to make judgments about which attitudes and intrinsic motivations are acceptable among those who fire the guns, you should be concerned. And that concern, for the good of all Canadians, needs to start at the top.
Minister of National Defence Anita Anand’s press secretary has responded to reports about the panel’s recommendations, and in a statement, said that, “Minister Anand believes that the chaplaincy should represent Canada’s diversity, uphold the values and principles of the military, and provide CAF members with access to spiritual or religious guidance if they seek it, regardless of their faith.” That’s a non-statement. It could mean anything. I maintain hope that the minister and the government will back true and deep pluralism. I would encourage them to act in ways that enlarge the space in which all Canadians can live out their basic beliefs, and to be clear to the men and women of the armed forces that their spiritual supports will not be stripped away.
The choice Anand and her government must make is whether to embrace an open, plural Canada or to raise up the drawbridge and retreat into a closed society of government-defined values. Canada can handle difference; our soldiers fought and died for the pluralist country we have today and to which thousands of people of all religions flee for a safe haven. It would be a shame to see a minister surrender to those seeking to snuff out that difference.
Brian Dijkema is vice-president, external affairs at the Canadian public policy think-tank Cardus.
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