The Canadian government is in the process of setting up an Office of Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is about the right of people to hold certain beliefs, and to act upon them, so long as in so doing they do not harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere. It is the right to be free from interference from other faiths and from the state. For a government to set up an official body to oversee religious freedom is precisely to interfere in matters of faith. The state setting up an Office of Religious Freedom is a bit like a fox setting itself up as protector of the hen coop.
The state promotion of religious freedom, the political scientist Elizabeth Hurd has pointed out, ‘may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend’:
The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion… Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences.
Hurd’s argument about the dangers and paradoxes of state management of religious freedom is strikingly similar to my own critique of multiculturalism:
Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.
As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.
The similarities in the arguments should not be surprising. Because, as the journalist Doug Saunders has observed,
the Office of Religious Freedom will simply be a reprise of Canada’s old policies of official multiculturalism – with all their flaws and none of their advantages. It will force even narrower cultural definitions, and seek to define people strictly by their religious identities, under the leadership of spiritual authority figures who want it that way.
The debate about religious freedom is, in other words, not simply a debate about religion. It is also about how we have come to understand diversity, identity and freedom. One of the reasons for ‘the second coming of religion’ is that the multiculturalist demand that cultural differences be given public recognition and affirmation has helped erode the distinction between public and the private. At the same time, the growth of identity politics has shaped the character of contemporary religion, transforming it into the religious wing of identity politics:
As broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, so the resultant atomisation of society has created both an intensely individual relationship to the world and a yearning for the restoration of strong identities and moral lines. The new forms of faith address both these needs.
The Canadian government’s proposal for an Office of Religious Freedom is part and parcel of the erosion of the distinction between the public and the private and of the growing state management of identity. That is why it should be resisted. That is also why we need fundamentally to rethink ideas of diversity, identity and freedom.