Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Religious Freedom Wars

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

February 7, 2014 

If it’s God’s Century, like Philpott, Toft, and Shah say, we’d best get an idea of what he’s doing. Divination has a long and distinguished history, but don’t fret the pig entrails and tea leaves. Knox Thames, Director of Policy for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has given a sober and clear-minded account of what to expect in religion and foreign affairs in 2014. But what’s surprising, and not a little baffling, is the renewed resistance religious freedom is getting not just abroad, but at home. The religious freedom wars have just begun.

Thames names several trends for the year ahead. He predicts increasing pressure on Christians in the MENA region, especially in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. He says that attacks on religious minorities globally will persist, underscoring that religious freedom is not a zero-sum game. And further, that the advance of religious freedom in highly religious political contexts requires both a cocktail of freedoms (religious freedom never travels alone) and the special hermeneutical innovation of regionally dominant political theologies. Or, as Chris Seiple puts it, only good theology beats bad theology. In short, both the builders of religious freedom, ground up, and the advocates for religious freedom, top down, will have a very busy year attending to an extremely basic respect for freedom of religion or belief.

Thames’s final prediction is that global interest in religious freedom will grow; he neglects to say that not all of that growth will necessarily be positive. In fact, just when an overwhelming amount of quantitative data demonstrates that freedom of religion or belief is under increasing siege around the world, some influential scholars are losing faith. Just when defenders of these basic rights are most pressingly needed, cracks in the edifice are showing; the religious freedom wars are brewing.

Thames, whose blog is called “Thirty Years Wars,” would undoubtedly hasten to caution us about how “new” such wars are. Indeed, the old contest between laïcité and Judeo-Christian secularism in Canada, for example, dates back well before this year, the Office of Religious Freedom, or probably even Canada itself. Laïcité denies religion a productive political role; its story is about the successful privatization of religion and the slow eventual victory of purely secular politics. Judeo-Christian accounts, by contrast, tell the story of liberal democracy made possible as a result of, not despite, religious tradition. Watch that drama play out in the Charter of Quebec Values, a legislative attempt to suppress problematic and potentially divisive religious identity beneath a veneer of secular citizenship. 

But Quebec is not alone. The anxiety that our pluralism has gotten too deep and too broad to sustain a holistic polity is causing flash points across the global north, from France, to Switzerland, to Germany. There is a very real fear that apart from civil religious legislation, social cohesion may break down in anomie and ghettoization.

Enter a third faction to the front lines, what Daniel Philpott calls “the new critics.” These critics, warns Philpott somewhat ominously, are on the vanguard of replacing the “culture wars” of yesterday with the “religious freedom wars” of tomorrow. At stake is the most basic definition of political pluralism. The New Critics challenge not only whether religious freedom should be a policy priority (it should not) but whether states should be in the business of working with highly politicized, and very likely oppressive, definitions of the religious at all. To paraphrase Winnifred Sullivan, does not such an act privilege certain kinds of majority religions over other minority practices? 

A pox on both your houses, they say, and a pox it is: the postmodern pox of perpetual politics which imagines religious freedom as “a site of resistance” or identity performance. The criticisms, echoing bracing theological deconstructions by those like William T. Cavanaugh, can be important. But the actual proximate work of policy making under pressure of the very real trends Thames outlines, yields empty gestures where the basic human rights of freedom of religion or belief are badly needed. What imaginative resistance is available to the 116 Baha’is wasting in Iranian prisons? 

Make no mistake, these contests are about the nature of political pluralism, about how thick or thin the consensus should be, and they are sweeping the globe. Laïcité imagines a thick civil, religious, secular account; Judeo-Christian secularism is a specific political-theological tradition rendering liberality possible; the New Critics have no such consensus at all, lest the violence of modern theory outweigh the now growing violences to people’s communities, homes, and bodies. We badly need a principled alternative, principled pluralism, which talks unpretentiously about universal values, but unapologetically about varying – even rival – rationale for those values. That’s not new either, but it’s work that must be renewed in the year ahead, if we’re to meet the wars on and for religious freedom.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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