Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom

Apparently, Canada  - or rather our Prime Minister - is deeply concerned that Christians abroad are getting a rough deal and we should have a specific office to do something about that. I have linked to a CBC story that tries to explain how that will work.

Basically the concern is that some countries - mainly those in "the third world" - persecute Christians. There is nothing in the article that singles out states that have a formal religious component in the governance system. Indeed the only country that is identified is Pakistan.

The CBC story also picks up on the concerns of organizations that represent people who do not profess any religion.

Ambassador Bennett made clear at his first news conference Tuesday that if people face persecution for their lack of belief, they could expect his office to speak out.
"All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected," he said. "That's what this office is about."
Good. So here is a very big job Mr Ambassador. There is a very large and very powerful country to the south of us that persecutes atheists. The constitution of the United States is supposed to uphold a complete separation of church and state. That is because the founding fathers were mostly dissenters. People who objected to the position of the Church of England as the official state church where the monarch replaced the role of the Pope. To get an idea of what it was like to be a heretic in Henry VIII's kingdom, have a read of the recent great historical novels by Hilary Mantel.

What has been happening in the United States is that the conservative Republicans have been very successful in persuading Christians - who used to stay away from politics for fear of being tainted by its less desirable characteristics - to vote and become active in pursuing faith based policies. It is for this reason that issues like abortion and same sex marriage continue to dominate debate, even though the vast majority of Americans have views that these issues have been settled, and in the case of abortion, by a very old Supreme Court decision (Roe v Wade).

Some of the great successes of the Christian right are symbolic. Replacing E Pluribus Unum on the currency with In God We Trust, for instance. But others are direct assaults on civil liberties, such as the prevention of atheists from holding public office in many states. Here are the ten scariest places in the US to be an atheist. No, they don't burn people at the stake.

Bennett ought to be making representations at the highest levels that the Land of the Free should not be denying freedom to its own citizens. Freedom From Religion being as important as Freedom of Religion.

I will be very surprised indeed if a Harper appointee who was formerly  "dean of Augustine College, a small, private Christian liberal arts college in Ottawa, where he taught the history of Christianity there and who was completing a part-time degree in theology" actually does anything at all for atheists in America. But I will be watching.  And I hope he lives up to the commitment he made.

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