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Religion and Realism in Canadian Foreign PolicyReligion and Realism in Canadian Foreign Policy

Religion and Realism in Canadian Foreign Policy

That is not a quote about Stephen Harper. That is a quote from Denis Stairs referring to Canada's golden boy of foreign policy, Lester B. Pearson. Yes, that Lester Pearson; the same one that won a Nobel Peace prize back in '57. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair suggests that CIDA's partnering with religious organizations, specifically Christian ones, contributes to a Canadian foreign policy marked by "more religion, less nutrition." Today he went even further, suggesting that religious relief and development organizations were "completely against" Canadian values. He says: "We don't understand how the Conservatives can ... subsidize a group in Uganda whose views are identical to those of the Ugandan government."

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Topics: Religion, Cultural Renewal, Foreign Policy, Economics
Religion and Realism in Canadian Foreign Policy February 12, 2013  |  By Brian Dijkema
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"The manse, it seems, was a formative force in External Affairs as powerful as academia."

That is not a quote about Stephen Harper. That is a quote from Denis Stairs referring to Canada's golden boy of foreign policy, Lester B. Pearson. Yes, that Lester Pearson; the same one that won a Nobel Peace prize back in '57.

I bring this up, not because I'm particularly enamoured by either Stephen Harper or Lester Pearson, but because there is a bit of hubbub in our paper of record, and in the leader of the opposition's office about the role of religion in Canada' foreign policy.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair suggests that CIDA's partnering with religious organizations, specifically Christian ones, contributes to a Canadian foreign policy marked by "more religion, less nutrition." Today he went even further, suggesting that religious relief and development organizations were "completely against" Canadian values. He says: "We don't understand how the Conservatives can ... subsidize a group in Uganda whose views are identical to those of the Ugandan government."

Apart from the defamatory nature of his comparison of a Christian organization which has made clear that it does not support in any way the views of the Ugandan government when it comes to the issue at hand (i.e. making certain sexual activities punishable—severely punishable—by state law), Mulcair's castigation of religion forgets that religion has always played an important role in Canadian foreign policy from Laurier to Pearson to, maybe, Harper.

I say maybe, because it seems plausible that there might be a pragmatic, rather than ideological bent in Canada's partnership with religious groups overseas, particularly in Africa, and that even its ideological bent might be more pragmatic than Mulcair is willing to admit.

Why would partnering with religious groups in places like Uganda be pragmatic? Well, take a look at the country's demographic makeup. The Pew Forum report on Global Christianity suggests that Uganda has almost 30 million Christians. That is, Uganda's Christian population is almost equal to Canada's total population.

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Why does this matter? Because, if we're to believe scholars who have thoroughly studied the nature of Christianity in places such as Uganda, Christians in these areas are likely to think and act within different paradigms than the secular west. As Michael Brendan Dougherty notes with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, "In Africa the top issues aren't sexual politics and theological disputes, they are exorcism, animism, the growth of Islam, and condemnation of Western economic policy." At the risk of simplifying, African views of economics are more in line with the NDP's than Mulcair might imagine.

But, if we're to believe Jenkins and others, when it comes to sexual ethics, Christians in Africa are more likely to take conservative views. Sometimes these views get worked out in policies which are reprehensible (as I consider the Ugandan laws on homosexuality to be). But from a strictly pragmatic perspective, who is more likely to act as an influence for better policies—an aid organization that operates from principles which many consider decadent and potentially oppressive, or those who, while sharing basic suppositions about sexuality and faith, take a very different approach to how this should be understood in public life while sharing similar concerns about Western economic policy? I know where I'd put my money.

These religious organizations also tend to be highly effective at raising funds from their own community to do development work. Most reports on the case of Crossroads neglects to point out that, while they received a few million dollars from the government of Canada, they raised, from their own community, tens of millions of dollars.

While Mulcair might be upset at the government's partnership with religious groups, his condemnation of religious involvement in foreign aid—a condemnation which, on his grounds, would also exclude Jews, and Muslims—forgets that such groups, insofar as they abide by government guidelines, might be more effective on both the economic and the "values" front than strictly secularist groups.

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