The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom

The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology (Hardback) book coverWhat began as a series of personal curiosities about why public debate in Canada polarized so dramatically around not only about how but why and whether to promote freedom of religion or belief in its foreign policy, eventually took the form of a longer comparative study. The fruit of that has just been released by Routledge as The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology, an argument that underlying rival and incompatible meanings of religious freedom are often rival and incompatible definitions of the the religious and the secular. The argument is empirical on the front end (surveying the public debate in the United States and Canada around their Offices of Religious Freedom), theoretical in the middle (explaining the larger concepts and problems at work in these obvious disagreements), and political and prescriptive on the back end (given this, how and why to make freedom of religion or belief a priority in post-secular foreign policy).

I am grateful especially to my friend Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for international religious freedom. He wrote a very generous Foreword to the book, some of which I excerpt here as not only a great summary but also far sighted extension of the book’s arguments. The book itself is available for purchase for libraries (or independently wealthy individuals). Review copies can also be requested.

In his historical surveys and his judicious encounters with both the New Critics of the Immanent Frame and the Toft-Shah-Philpott school, Dr. Joustra charts his own path in offering us a guide towards navigating the contested waters of religious freedom. In acknowledging that the rival versions of religious freedom exist due to the rival and increasingly conflict-ridden meanings and practices of the secular and religious, he provides clearer language for us as practitioners to engage religious freedom. Additionally, Dr. Joustra prompts us to consider new approaches to communicate with secular elites who are often unable to converse about the core elements that undergird the freedom to privately and practice one’s religious beliefs: human dignity, theology, metaphysical encounter, contemplation, and the praxis of faith. Finally, Dr. Joustra’s understanding of political theology as “the understandings and practices that political actors have about the meaning of and relationship between the religious and the secular, and what constitutes legitimate political authority” provides a framework for championing principled pluralism, which is perhaps the most honest and truly diverse approach to dialogue between conflicting secular and religious viewpoints.

As ambassador, this conflict between the religious and secular, the privatisation of the religious in liberal democracies, and the corresponding exalting of a secular public reason that had little or no encounter with the religious was the single greatest challenge in articulating the rationale and imperative for our defence of religious freedom. As Dr. Joustra states, “political theology cannot be done by ambassadors and prime ministers. They may facilitate, but they cannot do the work of political theology itself.” Never was a truer statement made in the field of religious freedom advocacy! If we acknowledge that human rights are inviolable. If we acknowledge that religious freedom is universal as is evinced in the UDHR and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); if we affirm that at the core of religious freedom is the freedom to meet, what Rabbi David Novak, has referred to as humanity’s metaphysical need, the need to contemplate “Who am I?”, “Who am I in relationship to you?”, “Who am I in relationship to the world in which I exist?”, and “Who am I in relationship to God, or a philosophy to which I choose to adhere?”, then we must be able address head-on the contested notions of religious and secular. A political community, which cannot recognize that “the line demarcating the secular and the religious, the public and the private, will continue to be a site of considerable disagreement in the twenty-first century” cannot move forward with any genuine dialogue on the importance of religious freedom.

Too often I was met by foreign government officials who took issue with the fact that I expressed deep concern over the serious violations of religious freedom in their countries. In response to my advocacy as ambassador the pointed rejoinder often came that we in Canada regularly seek to restrict or limit public manifestations of religious faith, the implication being: “Who are you to criticize us?” – a comment that, granted, does not take into account the dissimilarities between restrictions on religious freedom in Canada and certain countries and the degree and form in which they impact people. While their criticism failed to hit its mark when one considers that Canada’s democratic institutions and the rule of law enables citizens who feel their religious freedom is being violated to seek redress in any number of ways, their critique was fair comment on our relatively poor effort in understanding political theology and our limited success in embracing a principled pluralism. As one who embraces the principles and worldview of Judeo-Christian secularism, I am well aware of the work that is required and so I am deeply grateful for Robert Joustra’s scholarly efforts in articulating the imperative of principled pluralism and of the deep need within western liberal democracies to recognize the contested nature of the religious and the secular. If we are to build a truly common life with our fellow citizens, we must recognize and embrace difference, in particular different approaches to the secular and the religious. Without such efforts we cannot begin to understand religious freedom, its relationship to other fundamental freedoms, and the human dignity it affirms.

About the author

Robert Joustra

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.