Think tanks are in the business of influencing culture. It was when a few of my friends and I realized that trying to work for cultural change only within our personal spheres of influence was too limiting that we decided to try and develop the Work Research Foundation into the think tank it is today. Some of us were involved in trying to do labour relations differently. Others were working as social entrepreneurs in the academic, political and business worlds. We were trying to grow different kinds of cultural plants, but came to the shared realization that our success was limited by the poverty of the soil in which we were working.
I have had some experience in public life, mostly gained by running for public office and working in a labour union. So has Michael Van Pelt (the best man at my wedding and the President of the WRF), by serving as a municipal counselor and leading a chamber of commerce. Based on this experience, both of us became convinced that individuals on their own can accomplish good things, but that the good things achieved by individuals do not go far in changing the culture in which they operate. And there really is a serious need for Christian engagement in public life, and for public efforts to change our culture. Admittedly, few of our fellow Christians seemed to see that need. Many Christians equate a faithful public presence with the correct stance of the latest hot-button issue. And of course seeking the transformation of all aspects of our culture was too massive a project to take on. So we narrowed the scope of our efforts to the spheres of “work and public life,” in part because that was where we had some expertise, and in part because we already knew that some of the cultural nutrients required for political and economic plants to grow in a healthy way were not being composted into the cultural soil mix by anyone else.
While the nutrient ideas we were proposing aren’t really that revolutionary, neither do they neatly fit into conventional right-wing/left-wing political boxes. The ideas that inspire us include the notion that belief systems and character are not merely private, but that these forces significantly influence leadership and institutional life, and therefore need to be talked about publicly. They include the notion that institutions other than government matter, and deserve their own space to operate—without government interference. They include the notion that there are standards in addition to human rights that should govern our mutual relationships, so that not every bad cultural outcome is a problem for a Human Rights Commission to solve or for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to govern. We believe that work is a good thing, that workers are not economic commodities, and that while economic markets must be celebrated, a market society is taking a good idea too far. We believe that wisdom, beauty, and truth are real and not simply in the eye of the beholder.
In developing a strategy for the Work Research Foundation to advance these ideas, there were three basic biases that guided our thinking. We were intent on forging a strategy that was public, credible, and Christian.
Our public bias implied that our target audience was not limited to those who shared our perspective or whom we already knew. We wanted to engage those who disagreed with us, to point out their cultural assumptions and to debate with them the merits of our proposed alternatives. This meant translating our ideas out of the jargon with which it usually is discussed by those who share them, and pointing out the implications of these ideas in everyday life. For example, what you believe about work and family determines how we structure work schedules for construction workers on remote jobsites. What you believe about communities influences trade policies. What you believe about family and responsibility shapes education, daycare, and how we structure social benefits.
With our credible bias, we intended a willingness to put our ideas to the test. Through responsible research on the issues of the day, we would present industry leaders, politicians, the academic community and the broader public with valid data, and then engage them in a discussion as to what this data meant and how the issues raised could best be addressed. We would seek out the best experts we could find and have the courage to honestly confront the issues they raised, even when that might make us feel uncomfortable or challenge our initial preconceptions. Credibility requires having the courage of your convictions and being willing to test and expose them to whatever evidence might be raised. It also means having the humility to admit that not all of the world’s problems are given to simple answers, and that many of the challenges facing society involve sorting through the messy world of competing claims and conflicting data.
With our Christian bias, we recognized that there is a public squeamishness about anything that sounds religious. But we cannot hide the obvious source of our ideas, nor are we inclined to do so. In fact, that squeamishness about publicly discussing our most deeply held convictions is a part of the culture we hope to change. If we peel back any idea to its core, it rests on a belief system. For many, that belief system is based on their perception of logic and reason, and when we ask them why they should trust logic and reason, the only answer is “just because.” While we readily argue using laws of logic and reason (because, after all, we believe that God created them too), we do peel the onion back a bit further. Our final answer is that God created the world with an order to it. We believe that in the Bible we have God’s reliable revelation as to what His purposes were for the world and how we should live in it.
Most everyday discussions don’t dig to that depth, nor do they need to. Changing people’s hearts at the deepest level is probably not within the responsibility or capacity of a think tank. Still, first principles do matter and we believed it important to work openly from a solid foundation as the basis for our thinking.
An early test of the WRF’s three-fold strategy came in the production and publication of a public opinion survey on Canadians attitudes towards unions, in particular towards unions as democratic organizations. In terms of fulfilling the requirements to be public and credible, the questions to be covered in the survey was important in the public square and the survey itself was to be overseen by Dr. Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, a well-respected and established academic researcher. We hoped that the WRF as a Christian think tank could articulate a perspective on labour unions that avoided the pitfalls of the standard right-left political spectrum. In the world of unions, working out of a Christian framework allowed us to move beyond seeing unions simply in terms of a struggle between the individual’s rights and collective bargaining rights. We believed that we had found a better way of talking about the proper role and responsibilities of unions in the economic sphere. The final survey product got WRF staff an interview on CTV’s Canada AM and with radio talk shows across Canada.
The mission of a think tank is to inject fresh ideas into the public discussion. We try to deepen and broaden that discussion. We are in the business of creating intellectual tools for business and union leaders, political strategists and bureaucratic policy wonks, and all those whose calling in one way or the other involves dealing with the cultural realities that shape our political and economic life. Our ideas are as varied as the people we manage to involve, and some of our ideas are better than others. However, by putting them out there for people to consider, debate, and hopefully incorporate into their own thinking and practice, we fulfill our think tank task.
A question still remains, “Why through an institution and not simply as inventive lone rangers?” One simple answer is efficiency. Obviously more can be accomplished when we build on the strengths of a team and work together than each one could do on their own. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But there’s more. We hope to promote ideas that stretch far beyond the reach of any one individual. Working through an institution, we create an identity and platform for an approach and set of ideas to an extent that none of us could dream of doing on our own. We create a forum for involving and networking people through our events, the distribution of our magazines, website and e-mail circulations (like this one) that transcend our personal networks.
Of course, institution-building is hard work. It requires constant research, ideas that are of a caliber to warrant the attention of others, the active cultivation of social networks through which we can make people aware of what we are doing, the recruitment of staff with a diverse set of skills who can accomplish the public intellectual task effectively, and last but not least the raising of enough money to pay for it all.
Five years into our attempt at turning the WRF into a public, credible and Christian think tank, it is too early to make any definitive pronouncements regarding our success. Replacing the nutrients in the cultural soil can only be measured in the long-term by the health of the plants it produces, and the growing season for cultural plants are measured by decades, not years. Still, we take some satisfaction from knowing that our feeding of the cultural soil may well help grow healthy plants that will bear fruit and earn the attention of others who may come over to investigate our growing methods.