In early May, Cardus hosted launch events in Ottawa for its Religious Freedom Institute. Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, CRFI’s director, spoke with Convivium's Peter Stockland about the kickoff and what’s to come for the new institute.
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Peter Stockland: The Cardus Religious Freedom Institute was launched last week with some impressive crowds in the Ottawa office. What was your take-away from those hectic events?
Andrew Bennett: From the first event, the inaugural meeting of our advisory council, it was clear we achieved our goal of bringing together a collection of people from academic, advocacy, faith leader backgrounds to really serve, not only as a sounding board for the work that we're doing, but also to give us wise counsel on how to engage the ever-present challenge of defending religious freedom.
We had a great discussion about how we could act: How we could make the biggest impact in trying to recover awareness of the importance of public faith and religious freedom. We had maybe 30 minutes for that conversation. It could have gone on for another hour or two.
All the people we brought together were so engaged in the need to do good work to address the amnesia that we have around religious freedom in our country. To have people who have great depth of background on these issues, it just gelled immediately. It was heartwarming because from the very beginning I wanted us to have that as part of the Institute, and so I'm very excited about it.
Peter Stockland: Were you surprised at the numbers that came out for the launch events, and their enthusiasm? They were very engaged it seemed to me. They didn’t just drop in, turn around, take back their hats and coats, and leave. They were enthusiastic about both the events in front of them, and the prospects for CRFI. Had you a sense that things would go like that?
Andrew Bennett: I wasn't surprised. I was delighted. From the engagement I've done across the country over the past year and a half, specifically on the need for this type of institute, meeting with a variety of different faith communities, different advocacy organizations, different academics, this has never been a tough sell. I think there's a genuine realization that the time for this type of institute is now. And many of the people who came together had been involved in our Faith in Canada 150 initiative. So, it was kind of like old home week. People were coming together again, and remarking on the success of the FC150 initiative last year.
The Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, while not specifically a legacy of Faith in Canada 150, does build upon the relationships we developed over the course of FC150. What I saw here in Ottawa was just a tremendous sense of excitement, of hopefulness, and a celebration that there was a desire to come together with the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute to continue to advance the cause of religious freedom, and to reemphasize why public faith is so essential for our flourishing democracy.
I'm very grateful for all the people that came, and for the support we've been getting. It has come from a lot of traditional quarters for Cardus, but it has also created some new and delightful new friendships.
PS: A theme you struck was that the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute is part of a broad spectrum of groups and organizations; that it will do some things differently than other organizations do, and occupy a different space from them, but that the “new” will certainly respect what’s already being done. Do you feel that message was received?
AB: I think it was. From the very beginning we've said the role of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute is to fill a gap in what is already outstanding work being done by others. Whether we're talking about work by academics, or whether it's by faith-based advocacy organizations who are really on the front line, we want to engage with those doing the very difficult work of trying to uphold religious freedom in the country. The CRFI is a part of that broader initiative and we're here, first and foremost, to serve those organizations that are looking for the educational approach, that are looking for the research, the data, and different ways of engaging so as to be more effective in defending this fundamental freedom.
I feel positive about the interactions I had with the variety of organizations that were at the launch. I'd underscore that the CRFI is not about culture war. It's not about being defensive. It's fundamentally about reaching out to all people of faith, and people who don't have any particular religious belief, to get across the message as to why freedom of religion is so essential for deep pluralism.
Whether you're religious or not, the ability to pursue what the human heart seeks, what the human mind seeks to know in terms of what is beyond us, what is existential, what is metaphysical, that should be something that all people can appreciate. Perhaps we've been a bit limited in our language that we've used. I think we need to develop a new, more persuasive language that talks about freedom of religion in the context of citizenship and in the context of democracy.
That's what we're going to do, and we hope to bring on lots of other partners who, maybe at this point, we haven't even foreseen. People who see the importance of this. They may not be religious, but they want to have a thriving, deeply pluralist democracy where difference can be embraced.
PS: During the launch events, a key message seemed to be that CRFI will be both research oriented and educative, more than activist. The purpose is to find data, find information, disseminate it, but also, as you said, get it out to the people that just really need to hear it the most. Is that a fair summary of how you see the mission?
AB: Absolutely. I think that fits in very nicely with Cardus’ broader mission as an educational organization. We want to be able to speak to elites engaged in shaping our culture in this country, but this is not simply a very high-level academic focus or a high-level public policy focus. We want to be able to speak to people sitting in the pews to ensure they have the information, the language, and the arguments they need to defend freedom of religion, and to live a vibrant public faith.
We need to obviously speak out about religious freedom in elite circles, whether that's the media, whether that's in government, whether it's in the public service, within the leadership of our faith institutions.
But we also need to be able to speak about how to live a public faith, the importance of religious freedom within our families and within our workplaces, where often there are a lot of misconceptions. We really need to shine a light in those spaces. As Christians, we need to talk about what it means to be fully yourself, and to live your life fully as a person of faith wherever you may be called to serve. That's a very hopeful perspective. I think the CRFI must be always animated by that hope, otherwise we're not being very good Christians in what we're advocating
I said at the launch that human dignity, and the representing of human dignity to people, has to be the foundation for all of our work. How to live out a public faith as a whole person needs to be a constant touch stone for us.
PS: There are many organizations engaged at the legal level, at the parliamentary level, but you seem to also be talking about extending the work through a broader cultural message.
AB: We're seeing this amnesia, whether it's willful or not, about the voices of public faith, and the importance that people of faith play in this country in a whole series of different realms, whether we're talking about socioeconomic activity, cultural activity, political activity. These are our fellow citizens. These are our neighbours. At the political level, at the level of government, and the level of public service, it's important to govern for the whole country. And it's important to remember that people of deep faith make up about 20 per cent of this country's population: roughly seven million people.
According to the Angus Reid Institute data we have, there's also a significant percentage of people that are privately faithful in some way. So, we're not on the margins of society. We need to, as people of faith, gain a greater confidence, especially as Christians, to speak into those elite spaces, and not fear what might be the result. Fear cannot, especially for Christians, be in anyway involved in our engagement with the public square. We have to be prophetic. We have to be confident in what we're saying. But, we must always say what we have to say in charity and in truth. And if we're guided by charity and truth, then I think we have the potential to influence in a way that we might not have thought possible.
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PS: Do you have a specific audience in mind that might be most open to that influence?
AB: I think we have try to speak to everyone. We do need to be able to engage those people who feel either they can't speak about their religious beliefs, or people who feel it's just not appropriate to talk about these matters in public. That's why we really focused on the historical framework for religious freedom in Canada as the topic for our first policy paper. We wanted to demonstrate this is something that has been at the core of Canada's institutional life for the better part of 200 years.
We also have to ensure that those people that are faithful, that do want to speak, have the language to do so. A large part of our role is to provide them with that language and to get out, as best we can, to engage those folks, and to support them, to give them courage to engage. Maybe they don't know how to engage, they don't know what the opportunities are, or the venues might be for that. So, if we can help them in that regard, I think that's a very important service we can render.
PS: You mentioned the Christian nature of CRFI, but during the launch you stressed that the CRFI is about all religious freedom, not just Christian freedom.
AB: We're here to speak on behalf of, and to support in whatever way we can, all faith communities, and people of no particular religious faith who desire to speak in the public square about what they believe, to live out that public freedom. Because, again, freedom of religion is not specifically about your private life of faith, the inner life. You're always free there. It's specifically about a public life, how we live that faith that we profess, or the philosophical position to which we ascribe. It’s about how we live that in the public square.
As Christians, I would argue, we have a specific duty in this regard. Because we do believe in the incarnate Son of God, who through His Incarnation, gives us this great dignity in our human person, this Imago Dei, this image and likeness of God. As Christians we have not simply a responsibility, but a duty, to defend religious freedom for all human beings, for all people. If we truly want to call them to manifest their Imago Dei in the world, then we have to champion religious freedom.
PS: What is the relationship with the Religious Freedom Institute in the U.S.? How closely do you see CRFI working with our cousins south of the border?
AB: I have the role of Senior Fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. This is an institute that grew out of the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University. But, it's not connected with Georgetown. It's a private think tank. One focus is religious freedom in South and South East Asia, another is religious freedom in the Middle East, and within Islam. And they have two other action teams. One is on international religious freedom policy. That’s basically what I was involved in while I was Ambassador for Religious Freedom here in Canada, which is the whole question of how governments seek to advance religious freedom as part of their foreign policy.
So, we're doing a broader series of studies on that question and how effective it's been. And then the final action team is the North America action team, in which we're looking at a lot of the same issues we're looking at in the CFRI's work. What is the place of religious freedom within North America, in the U.S., Canada? I hope we'll be extending that Mexico and to Cuba, where you have very different dynamics at play.
PS: That’s consistent with the Cardus mission of renewing North American social architecture, primarily Canadian, but not exclusively Canadian.
AB: It gives us actually tremendous access to a wide network of advocates, of academics, of faith leaders in the U.S. that are very engaged on religious freedom. So, it puts Cardus in the big field of religious freedom engagement in North America. Strategically speaking, it's a very important relationship.
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Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom and now Cardus Senior Fellow, argues for the need to recognise the foundational nature of freedom of religion and conscience in our society and its link to our common life.
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