Right from when it was first proposed during the May 2011 federal election, the Office of Religious Freedom (ORF?) was met with the accusation that it was an attempt to pander to its base, concerns that it would overstep the boundary of what Canada should be doing in foreign nations, and skepticism that it could be instituted in any kind of way that would be fair and balanced for all religions. As it turns out, it’s becoming not very popular among Evangelicals, either.
One of the clearest examples of late is RoadKill Radio’s interview with Jim Hnatiuk, who is the leader of the Christian Heritage Party of Canada. Hnatiuk, of course, has a vested interest in dissuading far-right conservative voters from supporting Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, but what’s noteworthy is the particular aplomb with which RKR commentators lead the discussion, and continue what appears to be an ongoing conversation among dominionist-leaning (those who seek to legislate their morality) Evangelicals. (Incidentally, the RKR commentators also indicate their support for Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill in that same webcast)
The growing discontent with the Office of Religious Freedom parallels an increased dissatisfaction with the Harper government on other fronts. Anti-abortion Members of Parliament have been breaking ranks and speaking in defiance after the Prime Minster’s Office quashed a motion that sought to reopen the abortion debate in the guise of condemning sex-selective abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision partially upholding hate speech legislation against Bill Whatcott has rankled many and been characterized as curtailing religious freedom, as well. In the case of the Office of Religious Freedom, RKR’s Ron Gray dismisses it as pandering and “window dressing to attract Canadians, people of faith.” Hnatiuk seems to object to the image of religious diversity projected during the launch, before characterizing the Office as a deflection from these and similar events (at 8:46 in the video):
When I saw the office being established… and I looked on the website of some of the presentations that were taking place around its establishment with all of these minority faiths standing behind the Prime Minister and I said “Oh my goodness, they’re actually believing that they’re going to benefit from this and that this is all about them and not about more votes and not about the attacks on the Christian freedom that we have in Canada….”
The Harper Conservatives have been coming to an ideological crossroads for some time, now, one that many predicted when the party achieved its majority government, but realized that it could lose power just as quickly if it appeared too radically conservative on social issues. Theocons became energized at the thought of being now able to legislate according to ideology, only to face the realization that the Conservatives are more concerned with maintaining power.
Only weeks before the ORF, Whatcott and sex-selective motion controversies, the Harper government came under fire for a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) donation of $560,000 for Crossroads Christian Outreach in Uganda, given that the organization had an anti-gay position statement on its website, and was doing work in a nation where anti-gay positions have fomented a volatile culture of violence and hatred toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people. In classic Conservative fashion, Julian Fantino ordered a review, and then reported it completed, later that evening:
“… Minister Fantino’s office contacted LifeSiteNews Monday night to say that the review was complete and Crossroads’ funding would remain in place.”
MPs have demanded a full audit of CIDA, but that is unlikely, now that the entity is being folded into the department of Foreign Affairs. It remains to be seen what will be made of the report coming down shortly which notes how funding to theological groups have risen significantly, while funding to non-theological groups has stagnated:
Some examples: Africa Community Technical Services received $ 655,000 from CIDA in 2010, almost three times more than in 2005. On its website, the NGO says it carries out its duties “under the authority of the scriptures” and “seeks to glorify our Lord Jesus.”
Cause Canada says: “We pray that our identification with Jesus, our concern for justice and our practical demonstration of God’s love […] attract people to Christ,” on its website. This Alberta NGO received $ 483,000 from CIDA in 2010, an increase of 32% compared to 2005.
This rise in money to religious groups also comes at the expense of womens’ programs, which have been shut out in many cases:
Then there’s the $495,600 CIDA grant to Wycliffe Bible Translators of Calgary, which works so that aboriginal people in far-flung corners of the world can read the scriptures in their native languages.“It’s okay to translate the Bible,” says Nicole Demers “But there are aboriginal women here who are dying.”
In fact, adds Demers, groups seeking CIDA funding are being told to leave the phrase “gender equity” out of their grant applications.
And it’s becoming clear that the controversies are only going to get rockier for the Conservatives as people become more aware of them and as the Canadian social landscape becomes even more polarized.
So it’s significant that Harper’s flagship promise to theological conservatives is floundering. Because as Jim Hnatiuk points out, these were the expectations of something like an Office of Religious Freedom (at 6:14 in the video):
Predominantly, worldwide, we see the whole issue of the Islamic worldview being predominantly the ones that are persecuting Christians — and others, and other faiths as well, but you know, by and large, it’s Christians out there. So if that is, if they’re going to be setting up an Office of Religious Freedom that can, they have to be saying, you know, in one sense, we’re going to really speak out against these… this, uh Islamic uh what do they call it a [could not make this word out]…
So if our government is saying that they’re going to be, I guess my point is, fight against, fight for religious freedom, they’re gonna be, they’re saying we’re going to start fighting against these Islamic regimes…
Best laid plans, and all…
(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)