Book Review: Fighting Over God by Janet Epp Buckingham

Fighting Over God From the Catalyst, Summer 2015

Fighting Over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada
By Janet Epp Buckingham
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Kathryn Teeluck

​In Fighting Over God, Janet Epp Buckingham offers a fascinating exploration of the historical role of religion in Canadian political life.

She begins her analysis by examining the status of religion before Confederation when religion, particularly Christianity, held a prominent role in every aspect of society.

The mid-20th century, however, saw a rise in secularism, and religion was increasingly removed from the public sphere. The implementation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms brought the issue of minority rights to the forefront as the increase in religious plurality in Canada necessitated safeguards against the “tyranny of the majority.”

Buckingham’s review gives the reader a clear understanding of how the role of religion has developed in the political realm. Christianity has given way to the protection of minority rights, which helps us contextualize the controversial issues we see today.

Throughout the book, Buckingham references legal cases to underscore how changes in societal attitudes toward religion have required courts to establish a delicate balance between competing rights. Freedom of religion, she says, has become freedom from religion in the public sphere.

The most important point Buckingham emphasizes, however, is that dialogue between dissenting parties is far more productive than legal action when working towards the common good. She quotes Ole Riis who said, “A court verdict may answer the grievance, but it hardly paves the way for coexistence.”

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Comments

Submitted by Jim Dekker on
Thank you, Kathryn, for this concise, clear review--which I hadn't read in the hard copy of Catalyst yet. Janet's points, as you summarize them, seem cogent and significant. I'm reading a biography of Richard John Neuhaus now, b/c I remember him as a Lutheran Liberal/Radical and later Catholic priest Conservative--always provocative, articulate, formidable, intelligent and regularly maddening; he just always had to win and sometimes beat people up until he did. Of course, he argued for decades for "religion in the public sphere," but that advocacy and action are so often misused, abused two-edged swords, b/c religion (Christianity in the West) can and often has become the slave of partisanship on just about any side, depending when one observes and studies the phenomenon. Neuhaus, for example, in later years was one of the most effective (though often lamentable) conservative Christian advocates for the GOP. He and his organizations lent some gravitas and intellectual respectability to the organization, whether one liked it or not--so unlike the bigoted fundamentalist blather from Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others. Secularism, though, as Marilynne Robinson has brilliantly written recently in Christian Century, "has no meaning," b/c it denies any outside Authority, whom she calls God. Only God gives meaning to words, discourse--private or public. Where Robinson differs from Neuhaus and others is that her broader, more mysterious definition of religion (though she herself is a powerful Christian) and her non-anxious characterization of God do no, it seems to me, fall prey so easily to co-optation as happened to Neuhaus. Now I have to get Epp Buckingham's book, though, to see if and how she advocates religion fitting in the public square. Or does she only analyze and not advocate specifically? More: So far in Canada, I believe that both CPJ and EFC are pretty careful about being as non-partisan as organizations can be, though both have their perspectives that don't always mesh, but are fairly well articulated and sometimes fairly prophetic. Thanks again, Kathryn.

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