Former Canadian Ambassador Andrew Bennett has joined the Religious Freedom Institute as a Senior Fellow with RFI’s International Religious Freedom Policy Action Team and North America Action Team. From 2013 to 2016, Ambassador Bennett served as Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and head of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.
We asked Dr. Bennett a few questions, including about his vision for his work with the Religious Freedom Institute and his passion for advancing religious freedom for all people.
What made you decide to join the Religious Freedom Institute and apply your experience and passion to RFI’s vision and mission?
I see the Religious Freedom Institute emerging as the leading institute in the Western world to engage the question of religious freedom at both a theoretical and practical level. RFI has the vision and intellectual heft to take what is being done in the academic world and in the world of advocacy and push that out much more broadly into institutions and civil society, reaffirming the vital importance of religious freedom.
With the quality of its vision and leadership, the Religious Freedom Institute is the best vehicle for speaking about international religious freedom policy and religious freedom as a domestic question in North America. We must ensure we are championing robust religious freedom in our own countries, while at the same time defending and upholding religious freedom overseas.
Where do you see yourself and RFI having the greatest impact for good over the next two to three years?
There is great need for new and different tools and mechanisms to correct the amnesia that is prevalent in Western liberal democracies today about why religious freedom is important. Over the next few years, the Religious Freedom Institute will create robust training tools and modules for diplomats, members of NGOs and advocacy groups, and faith communities.
Our training tools will focus on what religious freedom is, how and why we advance religious freedom, and how religious freedom links to other fundamental political and socioeconomic questions. Accomplishing this is important work.
I am also excited about the work that is being done by the Religious Freedom Institute on the persecution of Christians. For various reasons, most governments do not want to talk about the questions of the persecution of Christians.
The Under Caesar’s Sword research project—which is co‑sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture—and the work of RFI’s Middle East Action Team and South and Southeast Asia Action Team represent valuable contributions to clarifying challenging questions about Christian persecution.
What has driven you to devote yourself to protecting and promoting religious freedom for all people?
I would have to start with my own Catholic faith, for it defines who I am, how I view the world, and how I understand my relationship to God and to others. There is this inherent desire within me to have a greater understanding of that which is greater than I am.
This desire is so foundational to who we are as human beings that I believe it is present in those of other faiths and in those without religious faith. In my experience advancing religious freedom for people around the world, all want the freedom to contemplate what gives meaning to their lives.
Incredibly, there are forces in the world who work to restrict the ability of others to explore and reflect on the questions of who they are and how they relate to others, our world, and to God. The idea that this freedom for people to live out their faith publicly would be taken away is incomprehensible to me.
Why should we spend time worrying about and working on religious freedom in the United States and Canada?
Religious freedom is a foundational freedom. If you don’t have the ability to think and act upon your thoughts about your own religious faith, how can you possibly express yourself or freely engage in associations with others?
Thought is necessarily linked to action. This is why I think freedom of religion and conscience is first among the inalienable rights in the U.S. Constitution and first among the fundamental freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Without being able to fully and publicly exercise this freedom, it is very hard to exercise other related freedoms such as freedom of speech and assembly.
Additionally, we cannot promote and defend religious freedom overseas if we do not have religious freedom at home. If we have robust religious freedom, then we can give a clear and objective articulation of what religious freedom is and how we seek to live it out in a democratic fashion. It we cannot demonstrate that, then our efforts internationally are tinged with hypocrisy.
What should friends of the Religious Freedom Institute be looking for over the next year?
While a number of countries are now promoting the defense of religious freedom as a part of their foreign policy, to date there has been no evaluation of the effectiveness of these new advocacy and programming efforts. In general, we have a lot of good work being done by groups that study and promote religious freedom.
But there has been little work to evaluate whether government efforts to advance religious freedom abroad are successful, where there are gaps, and who is doing and accomplishing what. RFI has taken note of this deficiency and will be addressing it. So watch this space in 2018.