How should a healthy democracy balance competing priorities while respecting and protecting the rights of minority groups? This question arose recently when a panel advising the Canadian military suggested chaplains from some faith groups should be banned from serving soldier’s spiritual needs. The panel called for the ban because it felt some faith groups do not share the military’s commitment to gender equality and full rights for LGBTQ folks and also because some faiths advocate converting others, a move the panel finds offensive. Suddenly, military members who were Catholic or Muslim might find that spiritual counselling would not be available for them. Thankfully, amidst backlash, the minister rejected the suggestion. While I am relieved the minister rejected the report, the attitude shown by the panel seems to be gaining traction in Canada. This is nowhere more obvious than Quebec’s Bill 21 which prevents people with visible religious garments from simply working as a nurse, police officer, schoolteacher or any other government job.

I worry sometimes that the growing polarization south of the border risks affecting Canadian culture, turning our politics too into a ground war where we go beyond trying to get our policies passed, instead aiming to create less and less space for those we deem wrong. I don’t think that is a good path ethically or for the country’s cohesion.

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Below, I want to set out some thoughts I have on these issues. These are complicated matters. You may find you agree with some points but not others. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

People are not doctrines: The Catholic Church has a doctrine forbidding the use of birth control. Yet Catholics by the millions absolutely use birth control. Counter to the myth that people “blindly follow” their religions, people inhabit their religion in multiple ways, accepting some things, rejecting others, and creatively adding in outside ideas or their own personal take. In short, there is a giant leap from “this religion doesn’t have female clerics” to “these people advocate sexism” or “we should ban every chaplain from this religion.”

Religious communities are like extended families: I use this analogy a lot when I am teaching. There are gay Hindus, unorthodox Muslims, and feminist Mormons. Feminism and LGBTQ activism have had an unprecedented impact on virtually every religious community. Where possible, we should let these debates play out in these communities. My family might be flawed and I might criticize my Uncle Harry but if you come after them, I will get defensive. In the same way, outsiders making an effort to tell a religious community how it should think and act frequently spawns backlash and undermines the internal voices for change.

Religious freedom is a bit of a canary in the coal mine. Whether in India, Iran, or China, you will find clear patterns in how the granting and denying of religious freedom correlates with the freedom of people more genuinely. Many find religion central to who they are. When we clamp down on that freedom, we deny not mere doctrines but people’s sense that they count in the society.

When possible, persuasion over coercion: Democracies work best when we try persuading our fellow citizens of our point of view and are reluctant to use state coercion to force matters. In some cases, state power is needed to protect someone’s rights such as a lesbian being denied a job or the right to hold her own wedding. This is what a state and our courts are for. But targeting military chaplains is not protecting some citizen’s rights. It makes the state aggressive and coercive.

Defense Minister Anita Anand responded to the immediate backlash to affirm that chaplains will still be available for military personnel of different traditions.

Beware of liberal overreach: In the 1960s, liberals in North America challenged societal norms around gender, sexual identity, race and much more. Their argument drew partly on arguments about freedom of speech, the freedom to question dominant norms in order to make room for different ways of living. People who were Jewish or gay deserved to have their rights protected and be left in peace. Today, liberals in Canada are in the ascendant, less often challenging social norms and more often setting them. Will the view that there must be room for people to challenge dominant norms be upheld?

The state should be reticent to judge religions: A secular state should foster freedom for people to follow or not follow any religious or spiritual traditions they wish. The state, however, should strongly resist assessing and judging the worthiness of religions. Again, when people’s rights are being denied, the courts and legislation have a proper place. We have seen court cases on whether a gay student at a Catholic school can bring their date to the school prom or whether a Sikh man can join the RCMP if their turban prevents them from wearing the black hat that comes with the uniform. But in these situations, the state is being pulled in to solve disputes. State initiatives that ambitiously judge traditions, as this military advisory panel did in evaluating traditions on various criteria, should be avoided.

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What is a Healthy Democracy? This is a tough one. I think a healthy democracy has to find a very delicate balance between what it simply must ban (overt racism is a good example) with nonetheless protecting a certain amount of divergence of opinion. Democracies ask a lot of us. They ask us to participate, to argue for our causes, but also to live with a certain tension. They ask us, as the political theorist Chantal Mouffe puts it, to see opponents as political adversaries and not moral enemies. Social media and events in the USA have made this more challenging of late I feel. But I think we need to continue to work at creating space for those we disagree with.

This is a very diverse country with people of so many perspectives, religions, identities, and immigrants coming from across the globe. If we are to live together, we will need to make space for differences we can’t always settle. And we need a state that respects those differences and is hesitant to close down that space.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that the key to democracy is that it shifts opponents from moral enemies to political adversaries. The latter are seen as legitimate in a way the former are not. Photo credit: Stephan Röhl, Chantal Mouffe (University of Westminster, London),

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    1. Dr. Marty Shoemaker May 27, 2022 at 3:49 am - Reply

      Hello Brian. It’s Marty, the Humanist Chaplain that took your World Religions course. I have read the report you are referencing particularly the recommendations section plus yours and a few traditional religious publications on this review. I understand your concern as if you read the journalists like the National Post, Catholic Review, etc. you would conclude that this is a first example of “reverse discrimination” in the history of the CAF Chaplaincy policy development. The result with be barring the Abrahamic traditions because they are gender and LGBTQ biased. This is not what is being recommended.

      But some of these religious commentators have not read the report and are acting on group fear that the monotheistic religions must agree that all of the myriad of indigenous and polytheistic religions are on equal ground and equally truthful. This is ridiculous and not what the report suggests. This is not about questioning the personal beliefs of a religious chaplain but what they do publicly and say privately to CAF members in accord with their religiously- based ethical standards and proselytizing efforts. That is not what the governance rules of military chaplaincy supports. You can believe in your personal theology developed by your church but what you say and suggest must be sensitive to the beliefs and needs of the CAF member you are working with. It is to be inclusive and have a multifaith, diversity philosophy which is not ethically dogmatic or conversion oriented. Chaplaincy counselling and support is to be problem focused and client centered. This is what chaplains are taught and asked to do in our prisons, hospitals and universities where I volunteer. The panel is concerned as their data indicates this is not happening by some chaplains and these interactions are making the CAF member uncomfortable because they are gay, being discriminated against due to gender or non-religious stance. These traditional chaplains are often unfamiliar with these marginal beliefs and feel it is their duty to say so. This is why Humanist, Atheist, Indigenous, Buddhist, Pagan and Wiccan chaplains are some of the fastest growing areas in Multifaith Center.

      I appreciate your sticking with my comments. I will finish Brian by saying you are questioning whether this is a slap in the face to democracy. If it was indeed what some of the religious pundits have said about it being reversely discriminatory then it has validity. However, absolute liberty is anarchy and therefore laws and process have to have freedom that confronts the problem of how my actions affect the other. Am I doing harm to someone because I say something very hateful, or judgmental. Can I say whatever I believe regardless of its effect on you. Of course not. The rule of law is to prevent harm and your freedom driven actions are wrong if they harm and hurt me to an extreme. Not just because we disagree but in your position of authority, as a chaplain, you question my beliefs as wrong because you believe differently and I have confided in you with trust. Chaplains are not allowed to proselytize and read scripture to a gay soldier to try and convict his conscience. But this is occasionally being done and needs to stop. Remember your Lord and Savior whipped and threw out the temple exchangers (religious capitalists) and called the pharisees, no better than the dung heaps in the city. He became a revolutionary prophet but not a good chaplain in a multifaith setting.

      . It is time that chaplains be hired that support this secular-diverse approach and philosophy and be embodied by chaplains in the CAF. There some reports that most do but there is a great need for some marginalized belief systems to be included in the hiring process. The survey of beliefs indicates that almost 40% of CAF are not religious and until last week their was not a SINGLE chaplain hired who shared this more secular stance. This is changing and it really time for this to happen. The fact that the screening process will ask a prospective chaplain how they would handle a indigenous soldier’s need for a healing ceremony that they are unfamiliar with has been a problem and therefore the CAF has set up a complete division to meet this need. Now they want to do the same for the LGBT population and address the gender bias in the military which is why Trudeau requested this review in the first place.

      • Brian Carwana May 27, 2022 at 12:42 pm - Reply

        Thanks Marty! I would agree with much of what you say. A chaplain must respond to a person appropriately and cannot be proselytizing or condemning their sexuality. I have not read the full report but some quotes I read made me think this goes further. Numerous reports suggest it advocates that members of certain faiths be excluded (i.e. not merely individual chaplains who might be acting inappropriately). The two quotes below seem to imply this (which I did get from the national media):

        “If the defence team rejects gender discrimination, anti-Indigenous discrimination, and racialized discrimination in every other area and is working hard to remove systemic barriers to the employment of marginalized people, it cannot justify hiring representatives of organizations who marginalize certain people or categorically refuse them a position of leadership,” the panel’s report says.

        “If a religion openly forbade a Black person to serve within its ranks, its members would be banned from the chaplaincy in the CAF. The same scrutiny should be applied to those religions that forbid women to serve within their ranks or are against equal rights for same-sex couples.”

        There is a logic to the recommendations but I think, if these quotes are accurate, that it ventures too widely for the reasons I mentioned above. And of course, you and others might feel differently.

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