The Economist on the new wars of religion

By Dennis Gruending

economist_religious_wars.jpgThe Economist magazine in a recent edition published a special 18-page section called In God’s name: A special report on religion and public life. Editor John Micklethwait said in an accompanying interview, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” With the exception of Western Europe, the magazine says, “religion has forced itself dramatically into the public square.”

The article uses several examples to illustrate its point: a born again Christian sits in the White house; an Islamist party rules once secular Turkey; Hindu nationalists may return to power in India; in China, religion appears to be on the march, and Iran is a theocracy. All too often — from Northern Ireland through Lebanon, Iraq and Ceylon — these religious intrusions are violent and bloody. Canada, so far at least, is the peaceable kingdom but the culture wars so common south of the border are appearing in this country as well.

The Economist is secular and economically conservative – almost libertarian — in its outlook. It believes that church and state should be kept separate, and is thus alarmed about theocracies and even opposed to Western European countries subsidizing certain churches. On the other hand, the Economist is sanguine about what it describes as a growing “multiplicity of sects” — evangelical churches in the U.S., South Korea and elsewhere would fit this description. The magazine describes them as a “bottom up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalisation.”

American author Kevin Phillips is not nearly so positive about the Christian right. He argues in his 2006 book American Theocracy that the Republican Party has become captive to religious zealots who would propel the U.S. toward theocracy as well. That case is perhaps somewhat over-stated, but former president Jimmy Carter, in his book, Our Endangered Values, decries the embedding of right-wing Christianity in the Republican Party and administration. “Narrowly defined theological beliefs,” Carter writes, “have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.” Carter believes that most Americans do not support policies that are isolationist, pro-war, anti-environment and hostile to poor people and women.

The actions of the Christian right in the U.S. might well resemble a hostile corporate takeover more than they do a “bottom up marketing success”. Beginning in the 1970s, the Christian conservatives infiltrated the Republic Party and became its single most important constituency. That support held firm even in the 2006 mid-term elections that saw the Republicans lose both houses of Congress. Christian conservative leaders are now busily engaged as Republican power brokers in the 2008 presidential race.

Early in November Pat Robertson surprised his cohorts by endorsing Rudolph Giuliani, who has supported of gay and abortion rights, as ”an acceptable” Republican ”who can win the general election.” Other Christian conservative leaders have threatened to bolt the Republican Party if it nominates Giuliani or any other candidate who supports a woman’s right to choose. In explaining his endorsement, Mr. Robertson said he was confident that Giuliani would defend the country against ”the blood lust of Islamic terrorists.”

The Christian right first came to political prominence when it mobilized the vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The movement has consolidated and grown in its sophistication, and religious conservatives in Canada may well be poised to do that as well. Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have been courting conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Jews and others in an attempt to build an enduring political coalition and it has worked — at least in the short term.

An IPSOS-Reid poll reported, for example, that the vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in the election of a Conservative minority government in January 2006. The question is whether this was a blip, or a new and permanent fixture in Canadian public life.

Harper is an evangelical Christian although unlike Preston Manning and Stockwell Day he has been guarded about discussing his religious motivation. Harper is arguably more of a social than a religious conservative but he is determined to embed the religious right in a political coalition that will remake Canada into a leaner and meaner state. For its part the religious right must decide whether to stick with the Conservatives, or to adopt other strategies if the Conservatives let them down, as they perceived Harper to have done following a vote held on same sex marriage in December 2006.

Chances are that support will remain firm, but in any event there is little doubt that the religious right is growing in power and influence. Other political parties, including the NDP, are attempting to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf while progressive religious groups are struggling to be heard.

Conservative Christians have every right in a democratic society to become involved in the public debate, to organize around their issues and to attempt to elect their candidates. But in that contest they can claim no monopoly on truth, wisdom or the common good. By engaging in the public and political sphere, they are open to the same analysis and scrutiny of their motives as anyone else who engages in democratic competition.

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Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament