Cardus at Twenty and Beyond

Twenty years marks an important milestone for Cardus

We have so much to celebrate. Twenty years marks an important milestone for Cardus. I so look forward to meeting many of you reading this—thinking about the future of our country, arguing over how we might play a role, sharing stories of our lives together, and wondering at our Lord’s abiding care for each of us. For now, I welcome you into these pages.

It is a good practice and discipline to look back on where we’ve come from and how we’ve grown as an organization, count the generosity and blessings we’ve received, and see the impact we have made.

We set out in the year 2000 to found a think tank in Canada that did not exist at the time. Canada needed a think tank that would be public, Christian, and credible.

It wasn’t easy then. And it’s much harder now. The polarization and the fighting and fragmentation in the culture has only grown sharper. Our own Comment magazine has been tracking this—more on that in a minute.

It has become all the clearer that there are deep differences in society over what we hold to be true, good, and beautiful.

But after twenty years, Cardus is still here.

We’re growing, and are larger today than ever before. But most of all, Cardus is still here.

And now I want to try to explain why and for what purpose.

I want to invite us to think together about how we’ve arrived here, and then about what the next twenty years might require of Cardus.

Let’s start with three recent images, all from the last few months.

  1. Headlines from the summer: Dozens of churches in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia burned to the ground by arsonists or vandalized, in response to media reports about unmarked graves and abuses at residential schools.
  2. Canada Day 2021: Statues at the Manitoba legislature defaced and toppled as part of anti-racism demonstrations.
  3. And just two months ago: Protesters throw gravel at the prime minister on a campaign stop in London, Ontario.

How do we interpret these signs of our times? And what do they have to do with Cardus?

Sometimes it feels like we are living in an age of outrage. That’s what Jonathan Haidt, a leadership professor in New York, calls it. He asks, “Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to?”

Well, we know that social media can play a major role, but is there something deeper at work?

Here in Canada, there can be deep divisions and resentments that lie just below conventional Canadian politeness. Do we meet one another in the public square in good faith, with reasoned argument, or do we find ourselves more often in defense or attack mode, with grievances and deep distrust? We heard some of this in our recent Angus Reid poll about emerging leaders under forty. There is a growing impatience and a demand for change that can incline toward “Let’s burn it all down and start over.” Our latest issue of Comment explores some of this, with exceptional writers and articles on the theme of moving “Beyond Ideologies,” and I invite you to take a look there for some starters for navigating these tensions.

The threads that bind our civic fabric are growing thinner. Even before Covid, research was showing that social isolation was a growing problem, and many Canadians are lonelier and more disconnected now than ever, while others struggle to maintain ties to the communities they have belonged to in the past.

And so . . . Cardus. If the space around us is toxic and the bonds between us are fraying, what’s a person to do? What’s Cardus to do?

We can’t retreat behind our own walls. We have to stay public—committed to common good, not our own good.

We can’t get hysterical. We have to stay credible—which for millennials and Next Gen usually starts with being authentic and transparent.

And we cannot, ever, become “of the world.” We have to stay Christian—committed to clinging desperately to God’s true story for this world, even while navigating major tensions internally and when doors get shut in our faces externally.

What’s Cardus to do in a fragmented, antagonistic public square that’s not often open or friendly?

The Apostle Paul knew quite a lot about persuasion, the conversion of hearts, and the power of God in his life. He started out as a chief opponent and persecutor of the faithful, before proclaiming so powerfully at great personal cost the very faith he once tried to extinguish.

Paul invited followers of Jesus to be ambassadors of reconciliation. That was how the believers were to be a faithful presence entrusted with good news in the Greek city of Corinth, with all its cultural hostilities, diversity, and challenges.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my attempt to explain why Cardus is still here. Try this out with me.

Ambassadors of Reconciliation

What does it mean to be ambassadors with a message and posture of reconciliation in angry times?

Ottawa, of course, is a town filled with embassies and ambassadors. On our own Cardus staff is Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, who served as Canada’s first and only Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Andrew has taught me a lot about the skills and responsibilities of ambassadors over the years. Let me try to explain.

First, ambassadors understand the context to which they are sent (or at least they are supposed to). They work in a land that can often feel very foreign to them. There are new languages and different customs to learn. They study and get to know the culture they are serving inside and out. There is usually a learning curve. And it takes hitting the ground—and streets and corridors of influence—with open eyes and open ears.

What does this mean as a mode of engagement?

It means Cardus must be good listeners. It means we all must be good listeners.

Understanding context means modelling respect for those with whom we disagree. Seeking to be rooted in both truth and love, we can welcome vigorous criticism and difference of opinion.

Understanding context means having courage to open up difficult, even painful, conversations and not trying to close them down. We will seek to create a generous space for dialogue, seeking out the best arguments and representatives of those with different positions.

I would also argue that understanding context begins with gaining a much better understanding of the differences that divide us. It means rejecting any attempt to silence those who differ from us. Ambassadors of reconciliation can model a compelling alternative to cancel culture.

This deeper listening has important implications for us at Cardus, and for our broader community.

It shapes how we gather intelligence to inform our research and strategic direction.

We talk to Angus Reid. We invest a lot of time and a lot of money to survey the attitudes and opinions of Canadians, including those who will be leading Canada in the next generation.

And we do our own proprietary intelligence surveying. Ray Pennings leads a major listening exercise twice a year, asking our growing Senior Fellows network, our NextGen Fellows, and our staff to tell us what emerging issues and flashpoints they are encountering in their spheres of influence. These people are in education, business and industry, law, family policy, and more, and we can’t be Cardus unless we’re listening widely and well.

And then, armed with these insights, we set out on the core of Cardus’s ambassador work: we research. We hammer on fifty different projects ever year, always looking for angles and vectors to understand our world from a posture of truth first . . . not narrative first.

Cardus’s ambassador game is not the easy game of us versus them. The common good we are seeking, in this land to which we’ve been sent, makes room for everyone at the table, even including those who would seek to exclude us. That’s central to our call to be Christian, credible, and public.

But understanding is only the first part of ambassadorship. A silent ambassador is not completing her or his whole duty.

No, good ambassadors not only understand the context of the land to which they are sent, they also embody and carry with them the concerns and spirit of the particular society they have the authority to represent in their temporary home.

That’s their mission as ambassadors. Building the bridge. Standing in the middle. In between the powers, yet standing one’s ground, and remaining loyal and accountable to the land they call home. At Cardus, that means we remain rooted in and seek to learn from a tradition of thought much older than either conservatism or liberalism. Although the fact is often overlooked today, Christian social thought has contributed much over its 2000-year history to the growth and development of democracy and western civilization.

The Christian tradition orients and directs our public-policy work and research at Cardus. We founded Cardus in part for that tradition to play a greater role in our national and local conversations. Where you find amnesia, or antagonism, or vitriol . . . there Cardus should be also, carrying with us the concerns and spirit of our tradition.

So, an ambassador knows how to listen. A good ambassador knows when to be silent, and when to speak.

I’ve tried to explain why Cardus is still here after twenty years. Now I will try to predict for what purpose, or to what end Cardus is.

Ambassadors know when to speak, because good ambassadors have agendas. Cardus has an agenda. Cardus actually has a very, very ambitious agenda.

First, as ambassadors, we want to bring a very different view of the human person to today’s burning debates.

Human beings are not just big brains on sticks. That’s the materialist view, and it’s surprisingly common and out of touch with everyday life.

We are not just machines that we can manipulate and change according to our desires.

And perhaps this is the biggest idol of all in contemporary liberal societies: we are not autonomous individuals who are subject to no law other than that which we create for ourselves. There are higher laws and deeper loves that we ignore at our peril. If we get the human person wrong, we can do great damage in our public policy and lawmaking.

Against false and distorted views, Cardus holds out in this land a very high view of the human person. We are created by God, and each person bears the image of the God who fashioned us in love for a purpose. There is a profound mystery here that we should not ignore in public policy or common life together. When we speak of human dignity, the idea has deep roots in Christian tradition.

As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote in his critiques of a Marxist view of the human person: “It is difficult to define what human dignity is. It is not an organ to be discovered in our body, it is not an empirical notion, but without it we would be unable to answer the simple question: what is wrong with slavery?”

Our view of the human person has profound implications for how we live and die, for our debate over doctor-assisted suicide (MAiD), and much more.

Secondly, as ambassadors, we want to bring a different view of power to our national discussions.

As Peter Menzies noted recently in the pages of our online magazine Convivium, the purpose of power is not only power. The purpose of power is not simply to get more of it.

The Christian tradition holds that power is to be put in the service of justice. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions have much to say about what justice requires, not as some kind of legal abstraction but as a guide for the right ordering of our life together to promote human flourishing in the midst of all the conflicts we encounter.

Our rights come not from the generosity of the state. They come to us as gifts from God, with certain responsibilities attached. Justice requires giving to each what is due them.

Moreover, we want to connect first principles to our policymaking. Truth is not just about “what works” or what means are useful to get what we want. Perhaps more so than any other think tank, we at Cardus aim to be more explicit about our first principles—and act with coherence from that foundation.

Thirdly, as ambassadors, we advocate for a different view of the social order.

Institutions matter. They always have. And the right ordering of our institutions in society matters. We call upon our leaders to understand how our institutions relate to one another and how governments, businesses, schools, families, and more have distinct purposes and limits to their authority that need to be respected in law and practice. One measure of our success at Cardus will be when we play a role in animating a whole community of thinkers and actors to recognize this in law, business, church, medicine, and institutions across society.

Lastly, as ambassadors, we counsel our people “back home.” We remind those we represent that their words and postures matter too. That means in some quarters resisting the temptation to see ourselves as victims. Too often Christians in public life oscillate between two unfortunate positions, consciously or unconsciously. Viewing politics as a culture war or as a short-term game of winners or losers, we assume that we are a silent majority and are entitled to privileges. Or today, some are more likely to flip that script and either withdraw or adopt the posture of an aggrieved cultural minority opposed to a completely hostile culture. Ambassadors of reconciliation adopt a different path for engagement.

Much like the Israelites in exile in the book of Jeremiah, we can hear the comforting promise of the covenant God’s longer-term perspective, reminding a sometimes-fearful people that everything will be all right in the end. But for now the plan is to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5–7).

That means that we, and you, may feel a bit homeless at times. But our posture never . . . stops . . . mattering.

Writing in the pages of Comment, Tim Keller diagnosed the distressing trend that I began with, pointing out what may be obvious to those reading the headlines. “Our culture,” Keller says, “is losing the resources for forgiveness and reconciliation.”

One of our Senior Fellows, Alan Jacobs from Baylor University, picks up on this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serves as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

And what is the answer to vindictiveness? We need ambassadors of reconciliation in public life. It is difficult to break the cycle any other way.

The Job for Cardus

Let me chart a future for Cardus. We have and are seeking to build a community to join us. This is an invitation, an open door into Cardus for you. And for those of us on staff, these are our marching orders.

First, hospitality is our fuel and strategy to accomplish our influence goals.

Hospitality is a posture that pours out from our Lord’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves. And hospitality reveals the character of those who practice it.

Historians tell us that the early Christian communities that Paul visited were known for their radical hospitality. People outside these communities would often ask, “Who are these people? Why do they live like this?” They demonstrated in their lives what is possible when people truly care, including showing a special concern for the vulnerable and the excluded in society. That too is an important part of Cardus’s work—the “preferential option” for the poor.

We at Cardus want to speak with radical hospitality.

Cardus produced a dozen Diakonia reports spotlighting the good and inspiring work of organizations such as Matthew House here in Ottawa, and Welcome Home in Winnipeg serving low-income families in the Point Douglas neighbourhood through their food bank, counselling, and recovery groups for those struggling with addictions. We have been studying the very real, concrete, even life-saving hospitality that such groups provide all across our land, starting in the 2000s with Toronto the Good, all the way through our major Halo Project and Halo Calculator in the 2010s and the Hidden Economy report from 2020 showing that faith-based organizations contribute $67 billion to Canada’s GDP every year—adding up to be Canada’s ninth-largest enterprise, bigger than the Bank of Montreal. That’s $67 billion’s worth of organizations living out what it means to be ambassadors of reconciliation and healing. These organizations are showing hospitality to the poor, the vulnerable, the desperate.

Embassies are usually very good—no, I would say stellar—at hospitality. That too has to be part of our call at Cardus in the days ahead. Hospitality can flip a switch on the anger and resentment that it confronts. It can build bridges to make possible new kinds of conversations and relationships.

Our vision for the newly renovated eighth floor at 45 Rideau is that it will become a kind of meeting place, a hub for all kinds of creative conversations and coffeehouses for people in this city and for those who are passing through. It’s another important step in our long-term vision for building community and offering radical, stellar hospitality. If you haven’t seen the space yet, I invite you to come visit 45 Rideau and take part in the events we are planning in the months ahead.

In twenty years, the Harvard Business Review will publish a paper on theories of influence of think tanks in North America. It will applaud the genius of hospitality over “polarization and power” to get things done in this world. The alternative is a brutal, raw, and ugly world.

I invite you into that genius. Our plans for the Cardus offices three doors down from Parliament represent an operational commitment to that important goal.

Second, we’re going to reshape our institutions.

Here we are deeply influenced by Yuval Levin, a public intellectual and founding editor of National Affairs.

Says Levin,

Institutions give shape to what we do together. They give us our roles and parts to play in relation to each other. . . . And they are formative. They shape our character, our behavior. They shape our souls.

And if we really ask ourselves what’s wrong now, I think our loss of confidence in our institutions is at the center of the story.

We have allowed our basic social institutions to weaken, giving way to troubling social costs now and in the future.

Rather than make the argument, let me practically illustrate:

We are in the middle of a debate in this county on child care that is completely economically and demographically driven. The demands to increase GDP and meet our demographic interests in workforce participation have completely monopolized a conversation and motivations that are supposed to be about the child and the care of the child.

How did we get to this utilitarian view of the institution of family and our children? What about the deeper matter of forming our children toward good citizenship, allowing them to imagine and experience the beauty all around them? Allowing them to imagine new worlds, knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful?

This is just one deformed institution that we inhabit. There are more: whether it is a weakened Constitution and neglect for the rights therein, whether it is business seeking rents and special interests, whether it is civil-society organizations that have broken trust, whether it is government carrying more freight than it ought to . . . we become like them, and our expectations too often mold to their form. 

We need to rise above this and begin the work of repair and renovation as ambassadors of reconciliation.

Third, we will build ourselves sustainably. We will build to last.

In some ways, this is all about the mundane. This is all about keeping our promises, all about execution. This is all about resources.

Yet over these twenty years I have learned of the power of a healthy organization that is vibrant, nimble yet structured, a team of people working in common cause.

Many have helped us build Cardus. I do mean the financial resources that allow us to creatively tackle challenges with confidence and stewardship. I also mean the thousands of brainstorming and strategic conversations we have had.

In some rather intimate way we are an extension of many of you, giving you the blessing of careful thought and good judgment from your peers across the country. To me, I hold that relationship with a holy respect.  

Fourth, we will keep our focus on research and policy.

There is brilliance starting from truth, not narrative. Cardus already has a creative and intellectually robust research and policy program. We have taken deeply rooted ideas found in our Sacred Scripture and in the history of the Christian tradition. We have given them nuts-and-bolts application in today’s most intractable problems. Education, gambling, religious freedom, labour relations, the list goes on.

That is not an easy task. Too easily, we speak a language of our own tribe. Too easily, we fail to know how broken this world is or how beautiful this world is.

My colleagues Dr. Lisa Richmond and Brian Dijkema are building a team of young women and men that is fresh with energy and creativity. In some ways, our moment is now. We have gained respect and have found many innovative ways to project our voice. Increasingly, we know how and where our work and perspectives need audiences. We spend more and more time on the phone and in person, because we know that mass emails get you only part of the way. We know that people will care what we know only if they know that we care.

Even though identity politics pushes the culture away from reason and fact-based argumentation, we will not steer away from rigorous fact-based research, in the belief that it brings a momentum that will outlast the agenda of deconstructionism and tribalism.

We are good at the evidence, we know how to do the facts. We will leverage the data to good use. But more than that: after fact, we will build narrative. We will write the story. To aspire to the lofty heights of “being a good ambassador,” we will take the think tank from the research project to the policy to the poem and to the song and to the heart.

So test us as we do the bread and butter of think tanks. Watch us as we build the best and the brightest team. And join us as we seek a better and more hopeful way.

Some may argue that ideas, research, and examination are just afterthoughts of the actions already taken. You may be right. But what if you are wrong? Don’t we know that the greatest tragedies and triumphs of history are seeded by the minds and hearts of men and women for both good and for evil?

Fifth and finally: to get our job done, we will build a new generation of public intellectuals.

Right off, please don’t get taken by the stereotypes. What I mean by Cardus public intellectuals are construction players, CEOs of auto-parts companies, leaders of industry associations, directors general in the public service, mothers and fathers, teachers and principals. And yes, brilliant academics and wise politicians too.

Let me speak directly to the new generation. You who will form the future of Cardus and steward our voice to the world.

You will deeply understand what it means to love God and your neighbour. Probably more than my generation does.

Practice that love in your family and the local institutions you inhabit. The local work of a church board or a women’s shelter, a service club or a nature conservancy, is the stuff of greatness. Don’t burn them down. Make them better.

Yes, and also know the intellectual traditions and how to wisely place them in context.

Know that you are broken and wrong, and be generous when others teach you of that.

Know you are loved—giving you great confidence to do great things.

Great things are usually small things. Here and there, they are not.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the next five to ten years and beyond, Cardus will focus a tremendous amount of resources on building a new generation of leaders. I ask you to join me in this. It is a quiet and humble business. It is kind of messy—sin breaks even the young—but what a joy to be part of a hopeful future. What a joy to lift burdens off your shoulders and set them on gifted and visionary women and men, ambassadors, who know of your dreams and plans.

Let me conclude with the words of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation who was assassinated here in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 7, in 1868:

I look to the future of my adopted country with hope though not without anxiety; I see in the not remote distance, one great nationality bound, like the shield of Achilles, by the blue rim of ocean—I see it quartered into many communities—each disposing of its internal affairs—but all bound together by free institutions, free discourse, and free commerce; I see within the round of that shield, the peaks of the Western mountains and the crests of the Eastern waves—the winding Assiniboine, the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the St. John, and the Basin of Minas—by all these flowing waters, in all the valleys they fertilise, in all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented, moral citizens, free in name and in fact—citizens capable of maintaining, in peace and in war, a Constitution worthy of such a country.

Thank you all.