The Harper government and evangelical capitalism

| February 6, 2015
Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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We think of right-wing evangelical religion as an influence in American politics, but, unrecognized by the public and mostly unreported, it is a powerful influence on the Conservative caucus. That would explain the destruction of environmental policies and those omnibus bills.

When it comes to religion, most 21st century Canadians are a tolerant lot, with a "live and let live" mentality. We tend to not particularly care about other Canadians' religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, and we expect a similar tolerance in return.

But when the supposed separation of Church and State starts to erode, we take notice. As Stephen Harper gears up for the next election, some of us wonder if the massive changes to Canada that have already been perpetrated by the Harper government are connected to his religious beliefs.

In her 2010 book, The Armageddon Factor, Marci McDonald warned about the "theo-cons" (Stephen Harper's word), who view "science and environmentalism as hostile to the Bible."

Regarding the church that Harper has belonged to for nearly three decades -- the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church -- McDonald noted that its "adherents believe that the Bible is ‘inerrant' and the Second Coming is 'imminent'."

That would place Harper's church squarely in the Evangelical tradition called dominionism, those who believe in the so-called "dominion mandate" spelled out in Genesis 1:28: "And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth."

Many (although not all) dominionists take that passage as a divine trump card against any thoughts about environmental protection or regulation.

In taking the Bible literally and as "inerrant" (rather than as metaphorical or symbolic truth), most dominionists also believe that the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and that the "end times" are not only "imminent" but welcome, because the Faithful will be "raptured" to Heaven before the Battle of Armageddon takes place in the Middle East. The handy Rapture Index at helps them determine just how "imminent" those end times are.

Now some Canadians are wondering: Does the Prime Minister's Office check the Rapture Index regularly? Does Harper?

In other words, just how much has the separation of Church and State been blurred in Canada?
Church and state

McDonald first raised such questions in an October 2006 feature article for The Walrus, "Stephen Harper & the Theo-Cons," surprising readers by stating that there were "an estimated seventy Evangelicals in [Harper's] Conservative caucus." McDonald identified as Evangelicals Cabinet stalwarts such as Deborah Grey, Vic Toews ("one of the most conservative Evangelicals in his cabinet"), and Jason Kenney (a Catholic, but nonetheless "a regular on the evangelical circuit").

McDonald's article also mentioned one of the very few times that Harper has talked about his religious views. In February 2005, he told Evangelical talk-show host Drew Marshall, "I won't say I always keep my faith and my politics separate, but I don't mix my advocacy of a political position with my advocacy of faith." The statement begs the question whether his political positions come from his Evangelical faith.
In a 2003 essay posted on the Christian Coalition International (Canada) site, Harper accused the Left of "moral nihilism -- the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality" and he targeted a "social agenda" that causes "damage" to "our most important institutions, particularly the family."

A 2007 article in the Vancouver Sun (August 18, 2007) noted that Harper's cancellation of a proposed national daycare program coincided with the beliefs of Evangelical Christians, who "don't want the state meddling in the sacred duty of raising children." The piece also informed readers that Harper's (and Preston Manning's) Christian and Missionary Alliance Church "has about 2.5 million members and 14,000 congregations worldwide. One fifth of its members live in North America, with Alberta a Canadian hotbed."

The article noted: "Aware that many Canadians are suspicious of Evangelicals, [Preston] Manning last year [2006] organized a series of conferences to urge conservative Christian leaders to tone down their Biblical ‘peel-the-paint-off-the-walls' rhetoric."

Soon after the 2006 election, Harper cancelled the position of National Science Advisor, dismissing Arthur Carty, whose mandate was to provide the PM with "sound, unbiased and non-partisan advice on science and technology." Environment Canada also removed all references on its website to the scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN-sanctioned group of scientists.
In 2009, Gary Goodyear, Harper's Minister of State for Science & Technology (2008 -- July 2013), oversaw $147.9 million in funding cuts for science programs, leading the Globe & Mail's science reporter to note (March 17, 2009) that some scientists wonder if Goodyear "is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist."  When asked his views on evolution, Goodyear told the reporter, "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

The incident caused a brief media flurry, with the National Post calling it a "pseudo-scandal" targeting "white, male, English Christians." By that point, the Harper government's muzzling of scientists was underway.

"Domestic extremism"

After McDonald's book was reviewed in the press, little was mentioned in Canada about the issue of Church and State separation, even while Harper doled out $26 million to 14 private Christian colleges. The silence continued in March 2011 when dominionist Evangelical Stockwell Day, acting as Treasury Board president, announced $1.6 billion in cuts to environmental services across several departments, including a 20 per cent cut to Environment Canada.

The silence continued in February 2012, when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that environmentalism had been listed among "issue-based domestic extremism" targeted for increased security surveillance. (Fellow Evangelical Deb Grey is now interim chair of Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog that oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.)

Then, in an article for The Tyee (March 26, 2012) Andrew Nikiforuk broke the silence, writing of Harper's church that it "believes that the free market is divinely inspired and that non-believers are 'lost'."

Nikiforuk further noted:

"Given his government's pointed attacks on environmentalists and science of any kind, Harper would seem to take his advice from the Cornwall Alliance, a coalition of rightwing scholars, economists and Evangelicals. The Alliance questions mainstream science, doubts climate change, views environmentalists as a 'native evil', champions fossil fuels, and supports libertarian economics."

The Cornwall Alliance also "describes environmental regulation as an impediment to God's will: ‘We aspire to a world in which liberty as a condition of moral action is preferred over government-initiated management of the environment as a means to common goals'."

Just weeks after Nikiforuk's article, in June 2012 the Harper government passed omnibus budget Bill C-38, eliminating at least 70 pieces of federal environmental legislation, and then in October passed bill C-45, gutting the federal Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, while undermining First Nations' land and treaty rights. Then came the deluge of Harper's War On Science, with hundreds of millions in funding and thousands of positions cut from DFO, Environment Canada, and other scientific departments.

At the same time, the then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews cancelled the part-time contracts for all non-Christian prison chaplains, meaning that the federal prison system is now mostly served by Christian chaplains.

The Cornwall Alliance

The Cornwall Alliance is an American Evangelical lobby group founded in 2006 by Calvin Beisner, recently described by (August 15, 2014) as "the most influential evangelical anti-environmentalist in the United States." Beisner is a dominionist vehemently against any government regulation of the environment. He is also dismissive of climate science.

That's because Beisner and the Cornwall Alliance believe that "Earth and its ecosystems -- created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence -- are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth's climate system is no exception."

In 2010, at a special function hosted by the (oil industry-backed) Heritage Foundation, the Cornwall Alliance launched a book and accompanying video called "Resisting the Green Dragon," which labelled the environmental movement "one of the greatest threats to society and the church today."

Fully in the free-market, neo-liberal economic camp, the Cornwall Alliance is apparently opposed to collective ownership of parks and wilderness areas, collective ownership of natural resources and utilities, and the collective ownership by First Nations of reserve land and traditional territories. (The Harper government has long been attempting to impose "private property rights" onto First Nations' reserves and governing structures.)

The website investigated the Cornwall Alliance in 2010 and found "deep ties to the oil industry," especially ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as direct connections to "longtime right-wing operatives orchestrating the climate science denial machine."

When asked about such ties by the UK's The Guardian (May 5, 2011), Beisner said, "There have been no corporate donations and certainly no oil money," although he did not deny connections to the "climate science denial machine."

Beisner's rhetoric has been heating up lately. In 2013, he called the environmental movement "the greatest threat to Western civilization" because it combines "the utopian vision of Marxism, the scientific facade of secular humanism, and the religious fanaticism of jihad."

Beisner is now also roundly attacking other Evangelical Christian churches which don't take the same hardline stance against environmentalism that he does.

A well-oiled machine

The Cornwall Alliance is a key member of the Council for National Policy (CNP) -- a secretive organization that is considered one of the pillars of the New Right in the US, which recently gained control of Congress in midterm elections through Tea Party Republican wins. Many of the winning politicians (including state governors) are climate skeptics whose campaigns were heavily funded by fossil-fuel interests. They are looking to stop the creation of new wilderness areas, rollback environmental regulation, force through the Keystone XL pipeline, and open the Pacific Coast to energy exploration.

According to author/activist Chris Hedges, the CNP brought together dominionist Evangelicals and the "right-wing industrialists willing to fund them." The CNP meets in utmost secrecy three times per year and gives billions of dollars to right-wing Christian organizations. Its membership and donor lists are not disclosed, and its events are closed to the public and the press. The Council for National Policy is known, however, to have given an award to the billionaire Koch Brothers, who are heavily involved in the tar sands and in funding the Fraser Institute.

Over the years, a variety of rightwing speakers have addressed the CNP, including Ronald Reagan, free market economist Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and, in June 1997, Stephen Harper, then head of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC).

According to Michael Harris' new book, Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover, the membership of the CNP is "essentially a secret society of wealthy, hard-right Republicans … Their agenda was cleaving to Christian heritage, unqualified support of Israel, a strong military, gun rights, traditional values, and small government -- things Canada's NCC [and Harper] would not find objectionable."
Harris considers Harper's CNP speech to the mostly American audience remarkable in that "Harper was essentially describing the Canadian system of government as a dictatorship run by the Prime Minister of Canada." 

Since 2011, the Harper government has cut funding to at least 31 women's organizations and 10 Aboriginal groups across Canada. Since 2012, the Canada Revenue Agency has targeted at least 52 environmental and progressive NGOs for "political activity audits," and recently told Oxfam Canada that "relieving poverty is charitable but preventing it is not."

Reportedly, several of the CRA audits were prompted by complaints from Ethical Oil, which was founded by a former Jason Kenney-staffer and has had as its spokesperson Kenney's former executive assistant.

Foreign policy

In January 2014, a Vancouver Sun staff blog noted that on Harper's recent trip to Israel, "ten influential evangelical Protestant pastors and leaders" (including the president of Christian & Missionary Alliance Canada) flew with him, along with 21 rabbis, but "no mainline Protestant leaders" and only one Catholic clergyman (a columnist for the National Post) were invited. The piece explained that "more than 60 per cent of the Canadian population is either mainline Protestant or Catholic," while "evangelicals make up about 10 per cent of all Canadian voters." The piece connected the trip to the Evangelical belief that current conflicts involving Israel fulfill Biblical prophecy.

In February 2014, the Vancouver Observer's Warren Bell similarly questioned Harper's Israel trip. Regarding the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, Bell stated that such Evangelical authorities "pinpoint global warming and extreme weather events as an indication that the 'end times' are imminent (and attempting to mitigate climate change as even against God's will.)"

Could the Cornwall Alliance's clever mix of free-market capitalism and dominionist thinking be the impetus behind the Harper government's policy decisions? Bell thinks so: "This intimate intermixing of religion and politics is entirely new in Canada. The shaping of domestic and international policy by the federal government on the basis of a doctrinaire Christian ideology has really never been seen before."

As a further example, we might consider Harper's sudden about-face regarding Communist China. According to Marci McDonald, "for years, Harper and the Conservative Party had refused to consort with China," but in 2009 Harper sent seven ministerial trade missions to that country. "As it turns out, the religious right has played a role in justifying that about-face," McDonald wrote in The Armageddon Factor.
During a trip to China in 2008, Stockwell Day (a dominionist Evangelical and Harper's Minister of International Trade at the time) met Dr. Zhao Xiao, "a prominent economist and one of the country's rare influential Christians, who is best known for a research paper arguing that the secret to America's financial success is its churches," according to McDonald.

Dr. Zhao subsequently partnered with the Masters of Arts Leadership program at Trinity Western University (a private Christian college in Langley, BC) to train a new generation of Communist Party officials in ethics. The program was "set up by Don Page, the former external affairs mandarin who … specializes in teaching management techniques modeled on the example of Jesus Christ." 

Trinity Western (currently in the news because its law school discriminates against LGBTQ applicants) now oversees "the education of thousands of Chinese officials, even offering them degrees," McDonald wrote in 2010.

Harper allowed the controversial 2012 sale of tar sands company Nexen to Chinese company CNOOC, and he recently signed the FIPA investment deal, which locks Canada into a 31-year agreement by which Chinese companies can sue municipal, provincial and federal governments if they don't like our regulations.

That's especially worrying if those upcoming Trinity Western-educated Chinese officials have been taught that God doesn't like wilderness areas, environmental regulations, and restrictions on divinely-inspired free-market capitalism.

Good Lord, what would Jesus do?


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books. 

This piece originally appeared on Watershed Sentinel and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper




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