I am just back from travelling for several weeks in the Middle East and that has disrupted my blog writing. I will write about that trip in weeks to come but I want now to talk about a book by veteran investigative reporter Marci McDonald about the religious right. McDonaldâ€™s book, The Armageddon Factor, has been four years in its gestation and had its origin in a long piece called Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons, which she wrote for The Walrus magazine in October 2006.
Itâ€™s high time that someone wrote such a book and in doing so MacDonald has performed a significant public service. Her thesis is that in recent years the religious right has moved, incrementally, from the margins to the centre of influence in Canadian political life, and has lent its best efforts to Stephen Harper and the Conservative government. Harper, in return, has courted a constituency of conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews in an attempt to embed them in his political coalition.
I have written about this many times on this blog and elsewhere but never as comprehensively and systematically as McDonald has done in her book. She recounts how, upon her return to Canada in 2002 following some years in the United States, she was surprised to find how successfully the religious right had been in establishing itself in this country. This is a development that mainstream journalists in Canada have missed almost entirely. In the U.S., there has been a good deal of writing and discussion about the influence of the religious right, which hitched its political wagon to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s presidential campaign and has remained a bulwark of support for the Republicans ever since. Journalists have a responsibility to probe these connections but in Canada they have been either reluctant or not competent to do so. They may be content to believe those Canadian academics that say there is no discernible religious right in Canada. They are wrong. Any Liberal or NDP candidate for election will tell you that the religious right is usually adept at lending a hand to the Conservatives.
A detailed narrativeÂ
McDonald covers the waterfront in a narrative that stitches together her reading, her interviews, and her attendance at the conferences, workshops, churches and classrooms of the people and organizations she has followed. She writes, although too briefly for my liking, about partisan politics â€“ for example, there were estimates back in 2006 that half of Harperâ€™s new caucus were conservative Christians. She writes about the growing web of religiously and politically conservative organizations that has come into being in Canada â€“ Preston Manningâ€™s Centre for Building Democracy; the Canada Family Action Coalition; the National House of Prayer; the group, Equipping Christians for the Public Square; Faytene Kyrskowâ€™s ultra-conservative youth group 4MYCanada â€“ to name just a few. She also writes about the television, radio and Internet media developed by the Christian right, including the beleaguered 100 Huntley Street, presided over by David Mainse. She writes about the schools, including Trinity Western University, which are placing their undergraduates into service in MP offices, most often the offices of Conservatives, and how these graduates are fanning out through the civil service.
One might ask, and some of McDonaldâ€™s critics have, what is wrong in having a group of people motivated by conservative religious principles engaging in public life? The answer is that there is nothing wrong with it, but it is also completely legitimate for a journalist to cover that phenomenon, as McDonald has done. If religious faith were simply a matter of personal piety or private devotion, it would demand far less scrutiny. But faith is inherently social, and, yes, political. Ultimately, the question to be answered is where these people want to move our nation. I believe that they want a leaner and meaner state where individuals and religiously based organizations take back much of the responsibility for education, adoptions, social welfare and many other services, and do it on their own terms. On these and other policies, whether it is their response to global warming, to crime, or to ourÂ government’s policy toward Israel, the religious right can be judged both on what it says and what it does.
Strengths and weaknesses
Many of the groups and individuals that McDonald writes about are what she describes as â€œChristian nationalistsâ€. They are people who want their country governed by Biblical principles, as they define them, and there is little room for diversity, tolerance, secularism or faiths other than their own fevered brand of Christianity. McDonaldâ€™s focus in the book is both a strength and a considerable weakness. A strength because it is important that we know just who is bankrolling the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, or Faytene Kryskowâ€™s youth group, or the openly theocratic group Equipping Christians for the Public Square. The weakness is that McDonald spends much of her time and energy focussing upon people, like the custodian of a creationist museum in Alberta, who appear to be on the fringe. McDonald may well argue that people who were once considered fringe are now accepted as mainstream, but I would have preferred that more attention be paid to groups such as the well-established Evangelical Fellowship of Canada or to members of the Conservative cabinet and caucus.
Still, McDonald is the first writer to have provided us with a baseline study of the religious right in Canada. Perhaps it is for that reason that she is being so roundly attacked in the National Post, that house organ of the right, religious and otherwise. This is a book that should be read by journalists, as well as academics, people in political parties â€“ and people in churches. We should use it as a resource to help us watch carefully what is happening in Parliament, on the airwaves, and in our schools and universities. The religious right is here and it is not going to go away. Further, it is not some alien force wholly transplanted from elsewhere, despite the significant American influence at work. There are members of my extended family that fit the religious right description, some who could even be called Christian nationalists. We must learn to understand these people from the inside out and to engage them. On that score, too, the book comes up a bit short. One has the feeling that McDonald is examining a species that she can describe but does not really understand.
Another story to tell
Finally, there is another story to tell, although I realize that it was largely beyond the focus of McDonaldâ€™s book. It is the story of religious progressives who have been marginalized as their churches, synagogues and faith-based organizations have become more conservative. These are people influenced by faith who have an agenda very different from that of the religious right. If we are our brotherâ€™s and our sisterâ€™s keeper, as candidate Barack Obama reminded us in his successful run for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then we have to care about child poverty, peace, the environment, and economic justice at home and abroad. This is a faith superior to anything that the religious right has on offer and one of these days it will make a comeback.