Public Peace through Private Gods

Canada has always put cultural coexistence before religious free expression

In 1987, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission approved the country’s first religious cable channel, Vision TV. The CRTC had rejected many applications before this: Christian applicants hoped to broadcast American-style televangelism, but they had run aground on the CRTC’s requirement that religious programming include a diversity of faith-based views. Vision TV, by contrast, made multiculturalism its brand image. The channel offers a “mosaic” of religious shows ranging from the evangelical 700 Club to Sikh poetry and music, as well as agnostic programming that simply “celebrates the human spirit” (whether you consider watching Downton Abbey a religious experience or not, you can catch it at 10 p.m. Eastern on Wednesdays).

Five years later—in response to evangelicals who claimed that the CRTC’s rules violated the guarantee of religious freedom in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the commission loosened its restrictions to permit single-faith radio and television stations as long as they obeyed a rigorous standard (no insulting any group or person; no targeted evangelizing; make sure any charges of “sinfulness” do not affront anyone’s dignity; don’t do much fundraising and be sure to expose viewers—during prime time, mind you—to “differing views on matters of public concern”). To many evangelicals, the new regime was not much of an improvement, even if the “balance” requirement no longer applied to subscriber-only channels. In their view, the point of television or radio ministry is not to preach to the choir, but to persuade unbelievers to follow Christ.

Most Canadians assume that religious freedom goes hand in hand with the government’s commitment to preserving citizens’ multicultural heritage. After all, the Charter enshrines both. However, Janet Epp Buckingham’s Fighting over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada makes it clear that the two principles are frequently at odds. When they clash, Canadian courts and regulatory agencies have often curbed religious freedom out of fear that unbridled expressions of faith may “promote religious, cultural, and racial intolerance in Canada,” as CRTC commissioners warned after they relaxed their rules in 1993.

Buckingham’s account of Canadian battles over religious freedom is encyclopedic in both the best and the worst way. The book’s chapters—arranged thematically, rather than chronologically—detail every major court case and piece of legislation bearing on religious expression in such realms as education, broadcasting, employment, family life, institutional governance and worship. But Buckingham offers little analysis. In the book’s introduction and conclusion, she perfunctorily reviews the subject’s long-range historical context and draws almost no comparisons to the story of religious freedom abroad. The result is an immensely useful resource for students of Canadian politics and history, but also a missed opportunity—because cases like the 1980s battle over faith-based television reveal a great deal about the road that Canada has travelled since colonial times and the internal contradictions at the heart of Canadian democracy.

Canada’s patchwork of restrictions and protections for religious freedom is not grounded in a single foundational principle akin to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States. Instead they arose gradually, over many years of pragmatic responses to specific crises and problems. From the time of Protestant Britain’s conquest of Catholic New France, the negotiation of competing religious claims was not a matter of lofty ideology, but a question of political survival.

Buckingham hurries through the story of religious controversies prior to the First World War. She is a lawyer by training, not a historian, and her interests lie mainly in more recent conflicts. But careful attention to late 18th- and 19th-century history is crucial for explaining why, by the 1980s, Canadian television virtually banned religious programming, yet many provinces still directed public money to religious schools. South of the border, by contrast, a far more stringent separation of church and state historically prevented the direction of tax dollars to religious education, but American airwaves are crowded with smooth-talking televangelists.

“Religious freedom” is central to Americans’ founding narrative, from their Thanksgiving stories of the Pilgrim refugees from Anglican tyranny to their First Amendment’s guarantee that the federal government will “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But this promise of free religious expression depended on the fact of Protestant hegemony in the southern colonies—the confidence that schools would remain de facto Protestant, and that Protestants would control every important cultural and political institution for the foreseeable future. No such self-assurance could obtain in British North America.

In 1791, the same year that the United States ratified its constitution and bill of rights, the British Parliament passed the Constitutional Act. Among other things, the law protected the Catholic church in what is now Quebec and bolstered a weak-kneed Protestantism by setting aside lands called the “clergy reserves” to support “Protestant clergy,” which initially meant only the Church of England. The Crown’s central worry was not preserving religious freedom, but maintaining stability, unity and loyalty in its North American possessions.

At the time of Confederation, these remained the abiding concerns. Canada never had a single strong established church in the same way that Britain did. Westminster refused to spend the money necessary to entrench the Church of England in North America. But the Fathers of Confederation believed that religious expression required judicious management if the Dominion hoped to survive as a unified country. The British North America Act sought to keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants by guaranteeing minority rights to religious education.

If Americans’ founding—and enduring—anxiety is their dread of a powerful centralized state, Canadians’ oldest and most fundamental fear has been that one of Canada’s constituent elements might challenge the uneasy composure of the whole. This worry has shaped Canadian regulation of religious freedom from the country’s origins until today: the assumption is that Canadians need protection, not against the overreach of a ruling tyrant, but against one another.

Denominational schools did not yield ecumenical harmony during the 19th century. (Buckingham politely notes that the Orangemen’s frequent anti-Catholic riots were “seen as a legitimate means of enforcing communal values.”) She makes no mention of Louis Riel in her account of the Manitoba Schools Question, but that conflict—over whether the government should fund Catholic schools for French-speaking Métis settlers—unfolded against the backdrop of violent rebellion.

When Buckingham writes that “the Roman Catholic religion was very much at odds with the various Protestant denominations of English-speaking Canada,” she puts the matter rather mildly. This was not just a theological dispute or ethnic prejudice. Canadian Protestants inherited a long tradition of doubting that Catholics loyal to the pope could also be faithful citizens. In North America, Protestant hate-mongers updated the old British fear of gunpowder plots with warnings that Catholics were unsuited to the requirements of democratic citizenship: they mindlessly fingered their rosary beads, voted as their priests instructed and would subvert the rule of law at the command of the Whore of Babylon.

In both the United States and Canada, the tide of Protestant-Catholic conflict receded as Catholic immigrants (at least outside Quebec) assimilated and demonstrated their loyalty in the First and Second World Wars. The glaring exception was the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ unrelenting battle against Catholicism (they believe that the Catholic church is a tool of Satan). In the 1953 case Saumur v. The City of Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada defended the right of a Jehovah’s Witness to distribute anti-Catholic literature, arguing that “freedom of speech, religion and the inviolability of the person, are original freedoms which are at once the necessary attributes and modes of self-expression of human beings and the primary conditions of their community life within a legal order.” Maurice Duplessis, Quebec’s Union Nationale premier and longtime scourge of the Witnesses, would not be beaten that easily. The Quebec government amended the Freedom of Worship Act to permit a ban on “any group that published insulting and abusive comment about established religious groups,” Buckingham writes. (In the United States, the Witnesses’ main foe was not Catholicism but civil religion: there the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that Jehovah’s Witness children could refrain from saluting the flag or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school.)

The role that the Jehovah’s Witnesses played in the expansion of religious freedom highlights the paradox of toleration in a pluralist democracy: it may sometimes require tolerating intolerance. By the 1950s, Canada was already shifting from the era of Protestant-Catholic détente to the era of secular multiculturalism, but the presuppositions of the former continue to shape the latter.

Until the 1960s, few Canadian politicians or intellectuals questioned the Christian character of their country or the need to maintain Catholic and Protestant privilege wherever one group was the minority in the other’s community. This consensus reflected the underlying assumption that ensuring Protestant and Catholic access to public resources such as funding for education would do more to prevent violence and political instability than limits on religious speech ever could.

But during the 1930s, as events in Europe illustrated how hate speech could enable mass violence, Canadians had begun to restrict it. (Toronto banned the swastika in 1933, for instance.) A vigorous Christian nationalism still pulsed through the country—suffused, it must be said, with plenty of residual anti-Semitism. But as new immigrants from outside Europe complicated Canada’s religious landscape, religious slurs became a more pressing threat to social unity.

In 1970, following the recommendation of a special committee, Parliament criminalized hate propaganda. Several provinces followed with legislation that restricted the public expression of hatred: the 1979 Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, for example, banned the publication or display of any communication that “exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles, or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground.”

Pierre Trudeau served on that committee, and he came to favour a strong role for the state in Canada’s intercultural minuet. As he pushed to institutionalize multiculturalism as a national ideology, he did not wholly reject the legacy of Canada’s old regime, the logic of Protestant-Catholic détente. Trudeau agreed to include a reference to the Almighty in the Charter’s preamble precisely so that “it would prevent courts from taking the anti-establishment approach of American courts,” Buckingham writes.

Proponents of multiculturalism interpreted the Charter not only as a peace treaty between Quebec and the rest of Canada, but also as a way to reinforce Canada’s cultural autonomy against the gravitational pull of the United States. So it is ironic that the Charter opened the way for the “Americanization” of Canada. It encouraged the litigious defence of individual rights against the state and enabled evangelicals—many of whom trained in the United States—to claim that Canada’s practice of constraining electronic religious expression and fundraising violated their human rights.

In recent years, Quebec has become the main battleground in the fight over religious freedom. In 2007, scholars Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor led a provincial inquiry into “reasonable accommodation” of religious differences. Their report highlighted native-born Quebecers’ fear that multiculturalism was allowing new immigrants to resist assimilation and undermine Québécois culture. Last fall the Parti Québécois proposed a charter of values that would prohibit government employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as a yarmulke or hijab. The Quiet Revolution and the rise of secular Québécois nationalism separate the PQ from the Union Nationale campaigns against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but there is more continuity between Maurice Duplessis and Pauline Marois than meets the eye. Both have assumed that good citizenship requires a barrier between private belief and the public square. Both have insisted that the state should aggressively police this boundary.

To some degree, all western democracies are struggling with the dilemma of how to balance tolerance with free expression, especially the claims of groups that insist that their doctrines alone are true. Over the decades Canadians have largely accepted their government’s restrictions on inflammatory religious speech, and the judgement that exclusive truth claims are all right for Sunday sermons but do not belong on the airwaves. Quebec’s charter of values strikes many Canadians as a bridge too far. Yet the PQ is only carrying the assumptions that underlie the CRTC’s restrictions on televangelism to their logical conclusion.

One of those assumptions is a definition of religion that, it turns out, does not apply the whole world round. The secular democratic West has mostly shaken off the spectre of wars of religion—not by being consistently multicultural, but by privileging a uniquely Protestant understanding of religion. The Supreme Court of Canada made a fumbling attempt to define religion in 2004: “In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to his or her self-definition and spiritual fulfilment,” the justices wrote. The definition mentions worship, but suggests that practice and community life are secondary: the core of religion is the personal assent to a set of truth claims. So, according to this logic, it is not outrageous to ask people to preach in private, to obey civil courts rather than religious tribunals, or tone down their religious garb—after all, it is what is inside that counts.

This is not a definition that many people outside the post-Enlightenment West would recognize. For many Hindus, Jews, aboriginal people and others, “religion” is not primarily about personal belief but a matter of membership in a community; dressing properly and observing rituals are inseparable from, if not more important than, what goes on in your head and heart. There is no clear line between what counts as “religion” and the rest of life. In the case of Muslims in Montreal or Paris, the geopolitical clash between the secular West and the Muslim world has exacerbated this conflict between world views. Toward the end of her book, Buckingham expresses a faint recognition of this dilemma, although she tiptoes around it. She calls for a more “inclusive secularism” and warns that “if the state imposes secularism on society, all religions are equally marginalized.”

Many Canadians may be uncomfortable at the thought that their multiculturalism only works by privileging one religion’s assumptions. They may begin searching frantically for some way to jettison these relics of European imperialism. But this is neither possible nor desirable. The only way that the secular West has managed to reduce religious violence over the past four centuries is by privileging private belief over public action, and placing firm limits on the latter. To accept such limits is not to call for a totalitarian secularism of the kind the PQ seems to desire, but simply to recognize that Canadians must balance competing interests on a case-by-case basis. Pragmatism, more than ideology, has driven Canadian history from the beginning, and pragmatism remains the best way forward.