Read part one of this interview, featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Comment.
In part two, Andrew Bennett and Brian Dijkema continue discussing how political life in North America might be improved if all of us were free to fully express who we are, and how far that expression can go before it all unravels.
Brian Dijkema: The social vision you’ve outlined sounds very beautiful, but it also sounds particularly Christian to me, rooted as it is in your view of men and women made in the image of God. Isn’t this just a takeover project on the sly? Are you trying to get your religion to define the rules of order that in turn defines the limits of our polis? If this isn’t a takeover project, why not?
Andrew Bennett: Very rarely will you ever hear me quote Martin Luther, but I’ll quote Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” My understanding of the world is necessarily Christian. But just because I hold that does not meant that I want to use the state to convert people. Christians obviously want people to come to Christ. But my explicit project is to speak about how we build a flourishing society, period. It is not to say we can only build a flourishing society if we are all Catholics. But if I don’t seek to advance what I believe to be true then I’m being dishonest with people, and most importantly I’m being dishonest with myself, and that is no basis for building a society.
But instead of demanding that people change their religious beliefs to conform to a particular understanding of society and human flourishing, or that atheists should become theists, I’m advancing an invitation to work together to build a particular society and to invite people of different traditions to add to what I bring. But I can only present what I believe to be true and that I want to hear from others who have something to contribute. And then hopefully as a result of that we can build a society together that is founded on the common good.
The issue for a secular liberal is that many have forgotten what liberalism is. Liberalism is supposed to accept difference. Liberalism embraces dialogue. Liberalism calls for the encounter that I was speaking of. And that is something we need to emphasize. What we have now are not liberal democrats. This is not liberalism that says, “You must accept this understanding of gender. You must accept this understanding of end-of-life issues. You must accept this understanding of marriage.” That is not liberal democracy. That’s a type of illiberal authoritarianism.
The fact we live in a free and democratic society should call us to cultivate the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and above all love of truth. And part of that is a lot of shared inquiry and dialogue. This dialogue should not aim to some sort of lowest-common-denominator relativism, but rather in dialogue we must profess truth and be authentic to our faith in so doing. And so I think we need to challenge, in many ways, the society that we have today in North America in particular and to say, “If we lose dialogue, if we lose the ability to encounter one another in difference, then we can’t have a society.”
BD: What you’re describing is a type of personalism—politics based on a certain conception of the person. I think this is rich and attractive, but if I were trying to probe deeper I would say, “That’s all well and good. You are a good man, and citizen of Canada, with a particular heritage, but you are Andrew Bennett. You are not the Crown. You are not the state. And there seems to me that there is a difference between Andrew Bennett, citizen of Canada, and the Crown. Or in the case of our neighbours to the south, the Republic.”
How do you see that line between a personalist type of politics that you’re describing, the living with difference, and the way in which that is manifest institutionally in the state?
If we lose dialogue, if we lose the ability to encounter one another in difference, then we can’t have a society.
AB: I think such personalism and our institutions are necessarily and fundamentally linked. When you speak about the Crown, or “the people,” as the font of sovereignty in our constitution—you have the sovereign, you have our parliamentary and legislative institutions, the executive, the judiciary, and so on—what is common to all of those institutions is that they’re made up of people. The sovereign is a person. Justices in the courts are people. Parliament is made up of people. You could say the same thing about economic markets.
The fact we live in a free and democratic society should call us to cultivate the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and above all love of truth.
We have adopted a type of thinking that sees economic markets as disembodied entities that have no relationship to human beings. And often we speak about the state or the Crown in the same light. But what you find in markets and what you find in the Crown are humans constantly interacting. Our markets and our politics are a series of thousands of daily human interactions.
To depersonalize something such as the state is a very dangerous thing to do, and I think quite a slippery slope. It leads to a very unhealthy sort of statism where we yield to the state more authority than it is due. We forget that the state, at least in the case of Canada, is a representative parliamentary democracy. We elect people to represent us. The courts are made up of justices who are selected based on our representative democracy. We have to remember that when we’re engaging with government we do not get into an “us versus them” type of mindset, which happens all too frequently. This also happens between faith communities and the state. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves reflected in the state, so we adopt a kind of oppositional approach to it. That is not the way people of faith should go about engaging with the state.
To depersonalize something such as the state is a very dangerous thing to do.
The state, in a sense, is us. We are the ones—human beings—who are involved in the governing of this country. We can embrace a very unhealthy, bureaucratic, mindset—including those who work within the public service—where we feel we have no power and the state is just this kind of Hobbesian leviathan that moves along unchecked and there’s very little that any of us can do. This is a very dangerous response to the challenge of finding the human or personalist reality within the state, especially for Christians, who see politics as a uniquely human endeavour.
BD: Let me switch directions a bit. William Galston, of the Brookings Institution, has a great line where he says “No free exercise for Aztecs.” It’s a short, clear recognition that there are limits to what you’re talking about. That, despite someone saying “To be fully myself I need to take you to the top of my pyramid and take your heart,” we would say, “No. No religious freedom.”
How does one go about determining those limits of religious freedom?
AB:That’s a very fair question. There are two aspects to it. First of all, I think we have to recover some understanding of the whole idea of deep conscience, where people know, ultimately—and I believe this very strongly—what it is right from wrong. I’m not calling for a utopian sort of state where everybody’s in constant dialogue with one another, and where everybody is always negotiating for the common good. That’s not always going to happen. And there are going to be those people within our society who are, frankly, not interested in the common good. They’re interested in themselves, and they will take actions that will undermine the common good, will undermine human dignity, and will challenge the state. We have criminals; we have people who take actions of their own volition that are destructive. So we necessarily have to have rule of law, and we necessarily have to have checks and reasonable limits on the exercising of our fundamental freedoms. We see this concept enshrined in section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and elsewhere.
There is a long-standing recognition that with rights come responsibilities and that certain rights, in a free and democratic society, can be limited. I think whenever there’s a group or individuals within society calling for violence against another individual or another community, then we can reasonably check that through the rule of law. But I think there has to be a very clear line around violence. Some people would say that if you as a faithful Christian today are opposed to same-sex marriage, then that’s hateful to LGBT individuals, and there are people who would argue that that should come under the enforcement of the law. I would disagree with them. Or take a different example: I am personally opposed to any decriminalization or legalization of cannabis use, but this doesn’t mean that I am hateful toward marijuana smokers. There has to be a reasonable measure of discernment around the role of the state in those instances and the role of the courts and of the law in terms of providing for and ensuring a diversity of beliefs within our common life. But I think at the same time when we are engaged in those discussions, there has to be a very broad reading of these freedoms. We should always seek to allow these freedoms to flourish in the broadest sense without undue limits on them.
That means that there are going to be people out there who say things with which we vehemently disagree or who associate with people we don’t like and to whom we object. But I think as long as there’s no violence, or calls for violence, involved, then that difference needs to be permitted. And I think for me that would certainly be one of the tests that you would have to look at. But again coming back to your question, I don’t think the answer is to turn first to using coercive power to enforce limits. I want to engage those people, and on their own terms. We do that because we recognize, as a Christian, the imago Dei within everyone—not just those like us.
BD: It seems to me that you’re taking some delight in the messiness of democratic life. I’m reminded of the back of a tapestry. A tapestry has one side that looks like a beautiful, orderly piece of work; but when you look at the back you notice the threads are everywhere, coming and going. You’re asking us not to try to force our society to look like the front, but to recognize that the back part is necessary for that picture.
AB: I think that’s accurate. All the knots and hanging threads and mistakes that are evident, that messiness, is what living together is all about. Down the road those are necessary for a beautiful tapestry based on innumerable encounters, debates, arguments, conflicts about those deepest religious commitments. And with that comes many opportunities to come together to pursue, and perhaps discover, the common good.