Wednesday July 11 concluded the Religious Freedom Institute’s 2018 Summer Speaker Series with “An Insider’s Look at Diplomacy and Religious Freedom.” Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, RFI Senior Fellow and former Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, drew from his experience and faith to lead the discussion.
Bennett believes that religious freedom is not a product or a tool of neo-colonialism, as some think, but is an objective good—and an important aspect of a thriving country and society. Bennett sees two ways to approach the protection of this objective good.
The first approach to protecting religious freedom focuses on international human rights covenants, namely through Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR upholds the right of every human being to privately and publicly manifest their religious beliefs, worship in peace and security, engage in missionary activity, and change religions. For Bennett, these are necessary declarations, but cannot be the sole source of religious freedom insomuch as fundamental freedoms are not the bequest of any government or state.
By contrast, what Bennett sees as a more appropriate approach to protecting religious freedom is understanding religious freedom as being rooted in the dignity of each and every human being regardless of faith. Before religious freedom can exist, one must first become a champion of human dignity. To emphasize the importance of human dignity, Bennett told stories of a Christian convert from Afghanistan who held no ill will towards his torturers and of Muslims in Myanmar who saw it as their duty to help rebuild a country that increasingly saw them as a threat. Through their faith these individuals saw human dignity in others even when others could not see it in them.
However, Bennett finds that many diplomats are often not trained to see religion as a factor to be considered when engaging in diplomacy, and many even put aside or hide their own faith. Understanding religion is essential to discover why people believe what they believe and do what they do. In Bennett’s experience as ambassador, he found that even when his faith was radically different from those he spoke with, truthfully expressing his Christian faith was essential to connecting and earning the trust of minority faith communities in Canada and abroad. True pluralism, Bennett noted, is one that embraces and recognizes differences. Bennett emphasized that if one is arguing for religious liberty, one must first get religious pluralism right in one’s own country—otherwise any and all efforts to promote it abroad will be ineffective.
Bennett closed with this: “The experience of religious faith is one of the most profound levels of shared experience. And so, in championing religious freedom, we need to get that. And if we don’t get that—if we don’t get religion—we’re sort of whistling in the wind.”
RFI’s NextGen Summer Speaker Series is a program that provides an opportunity for interns and young professionals in Washington, D.C. to network and to explore how religious freedom impacts their respective fields of interest. Father Deacon Andrew Bennett’s talk was the final of the series, but please look for more upcoming RFI events on our website, Twitter and Facebook.