Many wonder how an exclusive faith can be reconciled with a pluralist politics. In this interview, senior editor Brian Dijkema sits down with Canada’s first (and only) ambassador for religious freedom (and director of Cardus Law), Andrew Bennett, to talk about why Christian mission does not preclude religious freedom, but requires it.
BRIAN DIJKEMA: You opened an interfaith event recently with a very clear, very short, very simple statement that said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, and I believe that to be universally true.” This is not the place that most people would expect somebody who is defending the broader concept of religion in public life to start. Why did you start there?
ANDREW BENNETT: I started there because that is who I am first and foremost, and everything that is part of my vocation in this world derives from that statement. I cannot understand myself apart from that statement. It is an answer to a question we all ask: What is my identity? The world is so much about identity politics these days, for good and ill. But Christians also have to reflect on that question: What is our identity? Our identity is very simple. It’s Christ. We have joined ourselves to Christ. We have joined ourselves to him through the incarnation, and we have joined ourselves to him through our baptism and, therefore, partaken in his passion and ultimately his resurrection.
That reality, the incarnational reality, is profoundly radical because it calls for a transformation of the person. It calls for us to see in Christ not only the perfect God, who showed us what it means to be God by rising from the dead and conquering sin and death, but what it means to be perfect man as well, and thereby pointing us to who we truly are. So, as a Christian, if I don’t see that as my primary identity, then I’m off centre.
Having said that, what then does that primary identity mean for the rest of my life? My primary identity is necessarily infused into every other aspect of my life, and if, as a faithful Christian, I recognize that I have a vocation in the world, to bring Christ to people implicitly and explicitly, then when I engage in all the different aspects of my life, whether as an academic, as a son, as a friend, in my church—if I don’t see that ultimate incarnational reality informing all of that, then, like I said, I’m off centre.
So I started that way to be sort of radical. We Christians need to do this more often in public, because when we do, thoughtful people are going to say, “What do you mean? You’ve just said something that assumes a lot about me, and you’ve made a pretty radical statement. What do you mean by that, and is that threatening to me? Are you trying to dispute what I believe?” Then that provides you with a tremendous opening to have a thoughtful conversation about what faith means. What does it mean to have faith in the public square? What does it mean to embrace a completely different theology from someone else, but be able to say, “Here’s what I confess. Here’s what you confess. Now, let’s talk and let’s build a common life out of that encounter.”
BD: It is a fascinating opening and in many ways runs contrary to the way liberalism assumes religion works in the public square. In some sense, you’re acting evangelically. And yet, in so doing you’re making the case that out of that evangelical commitment, you make room for other religious communities and other people to act out of the same type of integral commitment that you have.
Talk a little bit more about how that works. Because for those of us who have been swimming in waters that have habituated us to put our deepest commitments to the side before entering the common space, it seems contradictory. Saying that your identity is in Christ, that the Incarnation is real, and that we all, not just Andrew, find our true reality through him jars the ears of many in our liberal democracy. But when you immediately say that we should therefore protect the rights of Muslim women to wear a hijab, or of our Hindu neighbours to do this, or our Jewish compatriots to do that, I expect some will be utterly confused.
Explain how your identity jibes with your very deep commitment to religious freedom and to your support for other people acting from their core identities, which are very different from yours, in that same public square.
AB: Let me start this way: To have a flourishing society where people feel that they can be fully themselves and can embrace the fullness of their citizenship, you cannot separate out a secularized civic or public life from a spiritual private life. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. We’re tripartite human beings, but we cannot be chopped into pieces. I, as a Catholic living in Canada, am called as a Christian to participate in the life of this country. I’m not called to separate myself off and live completely apart from society. Even hermits are involved in the life of the church, and they have an awareness of what is happening in society. As a Christian, I’m not called to completely separate myself from the society in which I live.
I’m called to be part of the polis. The polity that involves the institutions of our country, the rule of law, championing of human rights, all of that must necessarily allow me, as a Catholic, to be fully myself publicly and privately.
If I can’t be fully myself, then first of all, I won’t be able to fully contribute to the civic life of the country that we all share. Second, and connected to that first point, I will feel frustrated, and one reaction would be to retreat into a purely private life and not engage, because I would feel that the civic space didn’t allow me to be present there. That’s one response. A more radical response would be to seek to undermine the civic space because it doesn’t allow me to be fully myself as a Catholic.
Freedom of religion necessarily and very deliberately interacts with other fundamental freedoms: freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. This freedom is so important because, if it’s robustly defended and protections are afforded for religious
practice publicly and privately, then you provide the space in the public square for people to live out their religious beliefs publicly, and therefore to be fully themselves. They don’t have to chop themselves into bits: the person I am when I’m at work, when I vote, when I serve in the military, when I’m praying. It’s all one person, and to try and force people to divorce their deeply held religious beliefs and their faith from how they live the rest of their life is nonsensical. So religious freedom is there not simply to protect people’s right to worship in peace and security, their right to practice their faith publicly and privately, their right to change their religion, their right to not have any religious belief, but it’s there I think even more fundamentally to provide that space in which people can be fully themselves where they don’t have to separate their religious life from the rest of their life.
That freedom is essential if we’re going to build a truly pluralist society, especially for communities that are fleeing persecution, whether we’re speaking about Shia Ismaili Muslims coming from Afghanistan, or Yazidis in Iraq, or our Christian brothers and sisters coming from the various parts of the world. They should be able to come to a Canada where they have that freedom to be themselves fully, where they don’t have to fear for their lives because of the faith they profess. A pluralism that’s based on difference, but an encounter with others who are different: that’s crucial.
BD: Let’s talk more about this. An encounter requires looking into the face of somebody else who is necessarily different. Each of God’s creatures is unique; no one person is ever completely like another. I’m struck by how a political framework where encounter is central seems opposed to the dominant philosophical framework—a Rawlsian framework— which shapes a lot of the law in liberal democracies. It habituates many, including those of us who are religious, to think that in order to maintain stability in a pluralist society, they must in fact put on a veil that covers who they really are. This seems opposed to the sort of encounter you just described. If you want to look somebody full in the face you need to look them in the face; being behind a veil of ignorance in the Rawlsian sense prevents seeing the incarnate uniqueness of your fellow citizen. Yet the Rawlsian liberal might say, “You know, Andrew, what you’re saying about being integral people is all well and good, but ultimately because our understandings of ourselves are so different, we’re not actually going to be able to live together in peace. And therefore we do have to stand behind a veil, or hide certain parts of ourselves just so that we can get along.” What do you say to that? This seems to drive a lot of the discussions of how religion can be made civil, can be made safe for public life.
AB: The desire to ensure that we all can inhabit that public square peacefully is a good one. The mistaken notion is that in order for that to happen, difference needs to be pushed aside or benignly suppressed because otherwise people will feel threatened and react violently. If the maintenance of order is the driving force for building your society, you’re going about it in completely the wrong way. Rule of law is there because it affords a degree of order within society that ensures that our baser instincts don’t take over.
But our social and political telos is not order. It is the flourishing of humans who live together, and for that you need encounter. Our goal should be to live together in a way that is respectful, and in a way that ensures that we can recognize the humanity in one another. The faith traditions that exist in a wonderful sort of diverse patchwork in our country say very deep and profound things about what it means to be a human being. They might not all align, but they should be considered seriously. So if we focus on the championing and upholding of human dignity with all of its depths and diversity as our telos, then I think order flows out of that.
But one person might say, “Well humans are often crazy and inclined to do horrible things.” Well, okay.
BD: Would that person be a Calvinist?
AB: There are tulips in the office right now, actually. I’m very happy.
BD: Oh. Good. Very good. A gift from the Dutch. . . .
AB: A gift from the Dutch indeed, in so many ways.
BD: Let’s talk a bit about discomfort and comfort. If we buy what you’re selling, our lives together are not going to be as comfortable as expected, as legible as we might want them to be. Is this something to embrace rather than to shy away from?
AB: It’s absolutely something to embrace. And I’m going to disagree pretty vehemently with a Muslim, with a Hindu, with a Baha’i, on a whole range of points. And as a Christian I’m going to see what they believe to be flawed in some respects, as will they in encountering me as a Christian. It’s all too common right now for people to want to immunize themselves from particular opinions. They want to somehow shut themselves off from beliefs, opinions, words even, that they find to be a source of conflict.
Now when you do that, you’re not just cutting yourself off from opinions, you’re cutting yourself off from the people who hold them, and you’re saying to that person, “You don’t count, because your opinion is anathema to me and so I don’t even want to engage you.” So we have to draw a distinction, I think, between the beliefs that people hold that we might disagree with, and the fact that these beliefs are held by people. By human beings who, in the JudeoChristian understanding, are created in the image and likeness of God. And we should always be striving, as Christians in particular, to see God in these people—to see God in this person with whom I fundamentally disagree. And in some cases, I say many cases, as Christians we’re able to find much greater common ground with faithful Muslims, faithful Jews, faithful Buddhists, and faithful Baha’is because we share an understanding of faith and what faith means. It’s much harder these days to find that common ground with those who would advance a particular, highly secular, relativist sort of public reason.
And so it’s very easy for us to get pulled into culture wars where we begin to demonize one another. Where we suddenly don’t see the human in the person who is championing same‐sex marriage, or who’s defending the autonomy doctrine to the point of encouraging euthanasia as an option for end‐of‐life care. It’s too easy for us to demonize people who hold these opinions. We might disagree fundamentally with the opinions and find them, and the impact that they’re having on our society, absolutely abhorrent. But we can only seek to bring about the common good and to advance truth in our society if we communicate with one another. If we talk to one another. If we encounter one another in difference, and again focus on the identity of that person who you’re in front of at that moment.
This is a very difficult thing to do, but it is absolutely necessary.