Academics split on Canada's religious freedom ambassador

Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls Canada's new ambassador of religious freedom "a scholar, a man of principle and deep convictions," but the emphasis on Dr. Andrew Bennett's academic qualifications has some scholars of religion scratching their heads.

Harper introduced the government's choice to head up the new $5-million Office of Religious Freedom, which is housed within the department of Foreign Affairs, at a mosque north of Toronto on Tuesday before an audience of about 200 religious leaders and others.

Bennett has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, but it is in politics, not theology or religious studies.

Until earlier this month, Bennett was working full-time as a manager at Natural Resources Canada and has previously worked as a senior analyst in the privy council office and Export Development Canada.

In his spare time, he serves as dean of a small, privately funded Christian school that operates out of a church in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood.

Augustine College calls itself a liberal arts college. It does not grant degrees, offers only a one-year program, and has only six faculty members.

That's got some wondering whether the government is overselling Bennett's academic credentials.

Paul Bramadat is director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

"The problem is that the government hasn't really presented him to us just as a very competent civil servant, which would be enough in some respects," Bramadat said. "But they've presented him to us and the public as a scholar as an academic and as a dean."

In an email, officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs said little about the process by which Bennett was selected, saying only he was appointed by cabinet and he is qualified.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's staff were unable to provide a list of Bennett's writings, and an internet search turned up just one blog entry.

Appointment met with 'shock'

David Seljak, chair of religious studies at the University of Waterloo, says without that academic heft, Bennett may be unqualified to take strong stands on religious issues.

"That's why it's disappointing to have a person of this type named to this type of politically sensitive office, where you're going to need someone with some courage and some weight, quite frankly, some gravitas, so that when he does call the government to task and does alert the minister that he is going to make some unpopular pronouncements on religious freedoms, that he's going to stick to his guns."

Seljak says the reaction of other scholars in his field has been one of "shock."

"It seems to me Dr. Bennett just doesn't have the stature or the qualifications that one would hope to have in an ambassador who would be protecting religious freedom internationally," he said. "When I compare his CV to that of Thomas Farr (the first director of the office's U.S. counterpart), there is just no comparison."

Other academics are less concerned about Bennett's academic background, saying he has unique abilities.

"The ambassador is going to have to act as a bridge between many different interests — with the department and religious communities, with the academic community, with the minister's office, other political people who may have an interest in religious freedom — and I think Andrew Bennett really has the personality skills to bring to this," said Janet Epp Buckingham, an associate professor at Trinity Western University, a private Christian liberal arts university in Langley, B.C.

Still, she said Bennett will have a strong learning curve because of his inexperience on the ground — as an advocate for religious freedom with an NGO for example.

"The advantage of having somebody who has not engaged in advocacy already is that they're not already painted with a particular brush. Anyone who's done it at the UN has done it on behalf of a particular community," she said.

"The disadvantage to that is that it means he's going to really have to learn and meet all of the people who are engaged in this internationally — the UN, the special rapporteur on religious freedom and those in like-minded countries who are engaged with these issues."

Bennett has said the goal of his office will be to protect the rights of people practising all religions, and the rights of non-believers as well.

Foreign Affairs officials say Bennett will continue to teach part-time at Augustine College while he performs his role as Canada's international ambassador.