Bringing Religion into Foreign Policy

To promote religious freedom internationally, Canadian policymakers must first debate this principle at home, argues Robert Joustra
By: /
June 27, 2013
Assistant Professor of international studies at Redeemer University College


Whether or not they see this as God’s century (or the more ominously named ‘revenge of God’) most pundits and scholars of international relations are calling for their discipline to do a better job of making sense of a thing called religion. Actual foreign policy has kept something like pace with this sentiment: the United States government was a front runner, opening an Office of Religious Freedom in 1998. This year has seen a UK Parliamentary Report on Religious Freedom and Public Policy, EU Guidelines on Religious Freedom, and the February launch of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom. Now there are rumblings south of the border of an office or task force for religious engagement.

Well enough is enough, say the critics. These efforts to engage with religion are motivated by the misguided belief that the inclusion of religion encourages a more peaceable global order. The evidence, critics say, is overwhelmingly on the side that religion is a great destroyer, not stabilizer, of liberal peace, and that only through its careful excision from the public space can rational politics and social solidarity be assured. Religion may be back, but this is no time to celebrate diversity, because it’s back with a bang, and quite a lot of bangs at that.

In Canada, this disagreement is basic. It is between two rival understandings of the relationship between the religious and the secular, between an understanding of democratic secular politics which flourishes exclusive of any religious tradition on the one hand, and an understanding sustained in continuity with and intrinsic to a specific tradition – the Judeo-Christian one – on the other. This debate manifested most recently over the creation of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.

This rivalry is not particular to Canada. It stems from religion’s position as an ‘essentially contested concept’. What this means is that even in the relatively settled Canadian context, religion provides the foundation for basic disagreement and polarizing foreign policy choices. Is religion, for example, intrinsic or anathema to a democratic political life? The answer to that seemingly philosophical question will determine whether religious actors in Canadian society are engaged by foreign policy, whether religious regimes can or should be Canada’s allies, and of course, whether and in what fashion religious freedom is a foreign policy priority at all. It will determine whether we need freedom of religion, or freedom from it.

What is Religion? An essentially contested concept

When Scottish social theorist Walter Bryce Gallie shared the idea of an ‘essentially contested’ concept with the Aristotelian Society in 1956, he presented the idea as a way to help understand various interpretations of abstract or evaluative notions such as art, religion, science, democracy, and social justice. Essentially contested concepts are understood to be so value-laden that no amount of argument or evidence can lead to one single, standard, or correct use. These concepts are contested so deeply because they seek to define a complex whole. The meaning of art, for example, is notoriously shifty, the subject of protracted debates in large part because doing so forecloses particular modes of the aesthetic, which are often variable and subjective. Yet while Gallie was clear no understanding of an essentially contested concept can be viewed as the “best” one, he did nonetheless insist that there are some that are considerably better than others.

Today, scholars like Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Daniel Philpott, and Charles Taylor are building upon Gallie’s “essentially contested concept” to offer deep critiques of how we understand religion. Hurd has argued that the prior act of defining what is and is not religious, especially by states, renders a kind of hegemonic framework that implicitly does violence to other meanings of and practices of the religious. Religious freedom for this reason, she argues, needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance. While Hurd’s critical method reveals important political consequences for the meaning of religion, it also makes conceptual analysis, to say nothing of actual foreign policy, a tricky proposition. It is, in a general sense, the postmodern problem of definitions of any sort: the intrinsic exclusions that inevitably accompany our claims and stakes in the world.

And if this is, after all, God’s century, any credible and effective foreign policy will need to get, as Thomas Farr puts it, “deep into the guts of religion”

In Revolutions in Sovereignty, Daniel Philpott argues that the concept of religion as it has been inherited within the western tradition depends on a variety of theological and social forms which proceed from the Protestant Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia. Charles Taylor calls the innovation of secularity the coming of a whole new age, one which renders the content of cosmic and transcendent claims into a category called ‘religious’ which tends now toward privatization and individualization.

Such shifts have indeed occurred in the social imagination of political cultures throughout history. But it does not necessarily follow that there is no historical thing as religion and its freedoms. That the meaning of and relationship between the religious and the secular have shifted is not the same thing as saying these things have no meaning or existence prior to the powers of the state and the community. In fact, it is precisely because the concept of religion has gained such global importance that policymakers cannot afford to ignore it as a way of framing their thinking around the global resurgence of organized faiths like Islam, Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and so forth. What we must be, then, is very clear about rival meanings of the term. Only once we clarify these meanings can we decide if we are prepared to truly acknowledge religion’s contested nature in the structure and aims of our foreign policy. And if this is, after all, God’s century, any credible and effective foreign policy will need to get, as Thomas Farr puts it, “deep into the guts of religion.”

The Two Rival Versions in Canadian Foreign Relations: Laïcité and Judeo-Christian Secularism


There are at least two rival versions of religion in Canadian foreign policy: the first, laïcité, is a widespread and deeply influential way of understanding the religious and the secular, and nowhere more so than academia. John Esposito writes:

Religious faith was at best supposed to be a private matter. The degree of one’s intellectual sophistication and objectivity in academia was often equated with a secular liberalism and relativism that seemed antithetical to religion. . . . Neither development theory nor international relations considered religion a significant variable for political analysis.[1]

In this view, “the mixing of religion and politics is regarded as necessarily abnormal (departing from the norm), irrational, dangerous, and extremist.”[2]

Hurd argues that laïcité has several dimensions: “the exclusion of religion from the spheres of power and authority in modern societies (structural differentiation), the privatization of religion, and a decline in church membership and potential disappearance of individual religious belief.”[3] These dimensions of laïcité have been alternately influential in a wide variety of contexts, including France, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, China, and elsewhere.

The term itself comes from the Jacobin tradition of laïcisme, and is suggestive of what Partha Chatterjee calls “a coercive process in which the legal powers of the state, the disciplinary powers of family and school, and the persuasive powers of government and media have been used to produce the secular citizen who agrees to keep religion in the private domain.”[4] José Casanova, echoing Taylor’s use of the Secular, says this privatization is “mandated ideologically by liberal categories of thought which permeate not only political ideologies and constitutional theories but the entire structure of modern Western thought.”[5] Talal Asad argues that laicism confines religious belief and practice “to a space where they cannot threaten political stability or the liberties of ‘free-thinking’ citizens.”[6]

This tradition has been powerfully influential in Canada, and opposition to the Office of Religious Freedom has largely revolved around this concept of the religious as it relates to the secular. Doug Saunders, international affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail, has been one of its most ardent enthusiasts, arguing that it is time “to speak out against religious freedom.” Saunders’s arguments are evocative of the logic of laïcité, the dangerous political risks that are associated with religious expression outside the bounds of private life. He writes:

When groups of people exercise their self-proclaimed religious freedoms, terrible things tend to happen. The phrase religious freedom is evoked by Hindu nationalist parties in India to justify killing rampages in Muslim neighbourhoods, by the Buddhist-majority government of Sri Lanka to imprison members of the country’s Hindu minority, by Jewish religious parties in Israel to call for the denial of Israeli Muslims’ full citizenship rights, and by crowds of Salafists and Islamists in Egypt bent on ruining the lives of Coptic Christians.

For the ardent religious believer, he argues, religious freedom often means the “right to restrict the freedoms of others, or to impose one’s religion on the larger world. That’s why the most important religious freedom is freedom from religion.” Contrary to Judeo-Christian secularism, Saunders says that “the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.” In his opinion, Canada should promote the “peaceful removal of faith from the state.”

Various versions of this argument have appeared in the CBC, Embassy magazine, iPolitics, and in public lectures. One of the most provocative was Tasha Kheiriddin’s late game lamentation on the launch of the Office, “Why an office of religious freedom? God only knows.” She argued that launching the Office, and in her opinion elevating religious freedom above other freedoms, “violates the principle of separation of church and state.” iPolitics ran a cartoon with the story from The Hamilton Spectator that basically sums up the feeling:


As Taylor warns, however, a political system that replaces the religious with a comprehensive secular philosophy as its foundation risks making religious members into second-class citizens, since these citizens cannot embrace the rationale that is officially recognized philosophy.[7] In such an instance, the political system may end up simply replacing established religion, substituting its own rival dogma for the core beliefs that preceded it. This is what Elizabeth Hurd means when she says, “Laicism, then is not the opposite of theological discourse. It enacts a particular kind of theological discourse in its own right.” Taylor recalls the experience of secularism versus Catholicism in France, or versus Islam in Turkey, both instances where laïcité emerged as a reaction against a formerly strong civil religious background. In these contexts secularism in its most radical form appealed to an independent morality founded on reason and on specific configurations of human nature. Taylor says, “That type of political system replaces established religion with secular moral philosophy.”[8] This, he says, is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had in mind in his expression of moral and political philosophy as “civil religion.” And this is essentially the antithesis of any kind of robust pluralism.

Judeo-Christian Secularism

Judeo-Christian secularism is the other major (and often default) cultural-historical position of Canadian society. Laicism defines and confines religion to the private sphere. Contrary to this, writes Hurd, “Judeo-Christian secularism connects contemporary Western secular formations to a legacy of ‘Western’ (Christian, later Judeo-Christian) values, cultural and religious belief, historical practices, legal traditions, governing institutions, and forms of identification.”[9] Interestingly, Hurd says that many Christians and Jews are not Judeo-Christian secularists, and that one does not need to be either Jewish or Christian to adopt the assumptions of Judeo-Christian secularism. The claim is as cultural and historical as it is religious. Says Hurd, “the common claim of Judeo-Christian secularism of all varieties . . . is that Western political order is grounded in a set of core values with their origins in (Judeo)-Christian tradition.”[10]

This is an especially powerful claim in the United States of America. Hurd cites Catholics Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and John Courtney Murray, and no less than evangelical President George W. Bush in her arguments for the prevalence of Judeo-Christian secularism in America. In Canada, Neuhaus’s legacy is most obviously felt in the person of Father Raymond De Souza, a Catholic priest, confidant and consultant of the Office of Religious Freedom,[11] regular columnist for The National Post, and editor of newly formed Convivium journal. De Souza gave the eulogy at Neuhaus’s funeral, entitling it, and later his new journal, after a favourite word and practice of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Great Convivium.”

Neuhaus argued that universally valid Catholic moral arguments should replace “secular” public godlessness and reclothe the naked public square as the basis of American identity, community, and foreign policy.[12] Fr. De Souza has taken up a similar argument, stating in Convivium, “We are convinced that religious faith is critical to our Canadian common life. That is a contested position today, as formidable forces seek to drive religion to the margins of public life. That’s not good for religion, but neither is it good for our common life.”

But the argument of De Souza and Judeo-Christian secularists in Canada is not necessarily exclusivist, though there is a stated preference for the morals and foundations of Catholic moral arguments. It is an argument for religion understood more broadly as “an important constitutive role in this form of secular politics.”[13] In the aftermath of the Office’s launch, de Souza wrote in The National Post:

The prime minister . . . explained why it is that religious liberty is the first liberty — in the Magna Carta, in the American Bill of Rights, and yes, in our Charter of Rights of Freedoms. If a person is not free before God, is not free in his conscience, then there is no basis for his freedom before the state, and his property and other rights are of little avail. The state that claims the right to interpose itself between man and God is by definition a totalitarian state, even if this should be a softer sort of totalitarianism, at least at first.

It is important to therefore remember that there are a variety of formations of Judeo-Christian secularism, some which doubt that other religious traditions – especially Islam – are capable of sustaining the kind of strong moral foundations needed for liberal democracies, and others, like that argued by de Souza here, that are more open to faiths of many kinds articulating those claims. The difference between these trajectories can be thought of as exclusive Judeo-Christian secularism and inclusive Judeo-Christian secularism. What is consistent, of course, is that the religious is vital for a democratic political order, and further that to this point, the Judeo-Christian tradition presents the best evidence for sustaining such an order.

Nonetheless, there is a persistent anxiety evidenced in these debates over the Office that an exclusivist Judeo-Christian, or American civil-religious, perspective is essentially using religious freedom as a pretext for “predatory Christian proselytization.” Some of the reporting that took place on the consultations for the Office, which somewhat naturally included Americans who have had such an office since 1998, sensationalized and exaggerated the role that Christian or Jewish groups played in the process. There is little evidence, however, of the specter of fundamentalist American-evangelicalism, however such a term might be defined, controlling or even being the primary target for the Office. In fact, as many pundits noted after the fact, the Office was most attractive to newcomers and Canadian immigrants, many of whom are highly and diversely religious and come from contexts which repress or persecute religious minorities. The punditry which proclaimed the Office as a sop for the so-called ‘ethnic vote’ might be a more accurate, if extremely offensive way of characterizing the Office. Canadians citizens who come by the treasure of religious freedom honestly, by way of knowing in personal terms its absence, deserve better.

Surviving ‘Religious’ Rivalry in Canadian Foreign Affairs

There is a great deal that could be said about defining the religious in political-theological terms, but from the perspective of foreign policy there is a somewhat limited role that can and should be played by the state in defining the religious in a society.

Queue the invocation of Charles Taylor, arguably one of Canada’s greatest public intellectuals.  He calls for a third way, a kind of resolution through a ‘radical redefinition of the secular.’ He says, “We think that secularism has to do with the relation of the state and religion; whereas in fact it has to do with the (correct) response of the democratic state to diversity.”[14] Understanding the essentially contested concept of the religious, the responsibility of post-secular states should be, must be, to defend the values and principles of their constitutions without monopolizing the logic or rationale (religious or otherwise) by which actors arrive at them.

This isn’t just a pragmatic hat tip to post-secular people, it’s a major moral aim for democratic politics: the state should never be in the business of exhaustively defining one or another practice  of the religious. What it should be in the business of is defending public rights and virtues, while releasing the powers of meaning and rationale behind them. The irony of the liberal democratic state is that it cannot legislate the rationale for the virtues it defends, because in so doing it corrupts and undermines those very things. The responsibility of the state is the protection of individuals, and especially their associative and declarative freedoms, specifically as it relates to the cultivation of those ‘deeper reasons’ for the state’s values. It can neither legislate, coerce, nor foreclose those deeper reasons, and states that do often run the risk of minority repression and sectarian violence.

This directly contradicts both laicist and exclusive Judeo-Christian approaches, though it is consistent, I think, with inclusive Judeo-Christian secularity. Such an approach is a model which leverages the internal content of a tradition to sustain a secular consensus, though calling simultaneously for deep pluralism, both religious and non-religious, to articulate rival rationales for similar ends. This, after all, is something like what Jacques Maritain meant regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “we all agree on these rights, provided nobody asks us why.”

The practical consequences of this for religious freedom and religious engagement in foreign policy are enormous.

First, it should make very plain that in promoting Canadian values abroad, religious freedom being such a pillar, that the boundary between the religious and the political will shift even more widely than it does in the debate here at home. If, for example, it is possible for major commentators like Doug Saunders and Fr. De Souza to disagree in profound, and politically important, ways about the meaning and role of the religious in a secular society within a few hours drive of each other, it is much more likely that new and perhaps surprising disagreements on this basis will follow Canadian foreign policy around the globe.

But this does not mean Canadian foreign policy should default on religious freedom and abandon it as a core value abroad. Quite the opposite: it means that Canadian foreign affairs and the Office are responsible to sustain the affirmation of how Canada has come to think about religious freedom. It means openly disclosing what we in Canada rightly find as one of the better global and historical models for practicing the religious and the political: engaging in the kind of humble conversations which are intrinsic to essentially contested concepts, while developing and sustaining real meanings and policies on the best basis we can muster.

Religion has not been, and in most of the world today is not, simply between our ears. It is in the hands, in the movement of bodies, its rituals and habits, its public and even political expression

Second, because the secular state has essentially made its success on the mythology that its organization of the religious and the secular is not contested, but rather neutral, rational, and universal, it often lacks the normative vocabulary to disclose the fundamental theo-political assumptions as it relates to its own political orderings. But ‘the secular’ is neither naturally nor entirely irreligious, and it is often religious actors especially who understand this because their practices and beliefs run up against this seemingly neutral façade.

What the state must never do is monopolize the logic of why the universal values and rights it protects should be sustained. For those for whom the devotion of religion is an all-encompassing, all of life foundation, political loyalties and secular values are not external of, but rather intrinsic to, and a result of, the religious. Engagement must encourage and sustain the kind of creative hermeneutics that make this possible. A top priority must therefore be unapologetically challenging contexts where that kind of hermeneutical and theological innovation is forbidden. Put another way, religious freedom, especially in contexts of repressive blasphemy and apostasy laws, must be a central (but never isolated) foreign policy in a post-secular world.

Third, and finally, when it comes to religious freedom in particular it should be understood that this cannot be merely a freedom of conscience, as though to export the laicist presumption that religion is primarily interior, only cerebral. The turbans of Sikhs in Quebec playing soccer are not ancillary affectations of an interior belief, but a fundamental ritual of the religious which forms and makes a kind of religious subject. Religion has not been, and in most of the world today is not, simply between our ears. It is in the hands, in the movement of bodies, its rituals and habits, its public and even political expression. No question, religious freedom is concomitant with the whole package of human rights, and the right of religious freedom cannot be abused into a subversive weapon of oppression against minorities. But neither should its expressions and manifestations be understood as mere outcomes of intellectual constructs. To do so would be to perpetuate the laicist mythology that religion can and should be effectively private and internal.


Religious freedom is the essential message for 'God’s Century'. If the Canadian state, and its Office of Religious Freedom internalize this, Canada is poised to make important and lasting contributions to the global practice of human rights. And it is by recognizing and engaging the debate at home, its rival and at times contradictory meanings of the religious and the secular, that a robust and dialogical approach to religious freedom can be made manifest in foreign affairs. It’s true, of course, as Maritain famously said, that we all agree on the rights on the condition that no one asks us why. But that quote needs finishing:

I am quite certain that my way of justifying belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity is the only way with a firm foundation in truth. This does not prevent me from being in agreement on these practical convictions with people who are certain that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine or opposed to mine in its theoretical dynamism, is equally the only way founded upon truth. . . . God forbid that should say it does not matter to know which of the two is right! It matters essentially. The fact remains that, on the practical expression of this charter, they are in agreement and can formulate together common principles of action.[15]

That’s the model of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and it’s a model that deserves attention and reproduction still today. Only in such an engagement on first principles can constructive disagreement produce the kind of overlapping consensus the world, and Canada, so badly needs on freedom of religion or belief.

1. John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 200.

2. John L. Esposito, “Islam and Secularism in the Twenty-First Century,” in John L. Esposito and Azzam Tamini (Eds.), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 9.

3. Hurd, 29.

4. Partha Chatterjee, “The Politics of Secularization in Contemporary India,” in Scott and Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern Talal Asad and His Interlocutors (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 60.

5. José Casanova, Public Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 ), 215.

6. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 191.

7. Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 13.

8. Ibid, 14.

9. Hurd, 38.

10. Hurd, 38.

11. Fr. De Souza was present at closed door consultations on the Office in October, 2011, one of six invited panellists. See Louise Elliott, “Religious freedoms panel drawn largely from western religions,” CBC News, December 7, 2011.  He was also one of the few visited by the Ambassador in the week of February 11, prior to Dr. Bennett’s appointment on February 19, 2013.

12. Hurd 38. See Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

13. Hurd, 39.

14. Charles Taylor, “Why we need a radical redefinition of the secular” in Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (eds.), The Power of Religious in the Public Sphere (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2011), 36.

15. Jacques Maritain (Ed.), Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations. A symposium edited by UNESCO (NY: Columbia University Press, 1949), 9-17.

Also in the series


Let's Talk about Religion

Dr. Chris Seiple on why religion needs to be treated as a real factor for analysis by foreign policymakers.

Freedom, Faith, and Foreign Policy

Daniel Cere on the state of the debate over the role of foreign policy in advancing religious freedom.

Religion & Diplomacy

Ian Linden reflects on critical responses to championing religious freedom.

Religious Freedom: The Diplomatic Dimension

Anne Leahy, Canada's representative to the Vatican, on how Canadian foreign policy can help protect religious freedom abroad.

What's Wrong With Promoting Religious Freedom?

The U.S. State Department's new office of religious engagement begs the question: What forms of religion should be protected? Elizabeth Shakman Hurd considers the consequences.

The Messy State of Religious Freedom

Despite the challenge of defining and enforcing the right to freedom of religion, it would be wrong for Canada to stop trying, argues Jon Waind.

Religion: Friend or Foe?

We need to ask a different question if we hope to truly understand the role of religion in international relations, argues Peter Denton.

Nation-building and Religion: A Q&A with Dr. Charles Keyes

Dr. Charles Keyes on how religion and religious differences can strengthen rather than undermine political order.

Russia's Political Orthodoxy

Alicja Curanović on how the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church became political bedmates.