If you have ever heard the Christian end-timers (who welcome Armageddon and The Rapture that follows for them) defend Israel and hope for an all-out conflagration in the Middle East you could almost be forgiven if you dismissed them as marginal whack-jobs good only for a kind of black humour entertainment.
I said almost forgiven. Because as Marci McDonald points out in her new book, The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, if you don’t take these people seriously you may be quietly contributing to the demise of democracy and all the social democratic programs it has created in the past 50 years. (See her 2006 article on the subject here.)
Stephen Harper takes them very seriously, to the point where he has encouraged and facilitated the rapid buildup of a powerful Christian right political machine on Parliament Hill and beyond that is getting its way more and more with the Conservative government. The way McDonald explains it, Harper suffered a serious erosion of support from the neo-liberal crowd when in 2008 he buckled to NDP and Liberal pressure to spend billions to stave off a serious recession — and brought the country its worst deficit situation in decades.
To replace that part of his core vote Harper had to reinforce and activate the other half: the Christian right. Attacks on science; excluding abortion from his maternal health program overseas; an escalation of his assault on women’s equality; more attacks on human rights institutions; the continuing get-tough-on-crime agenda (including a new law eliminating the concept of a “pardon”); a bare-knuckled assault on the godless CBC; the most fierce pro-Israeli policy of any western country and his general contempt for the institutions of democracy, all play to this extremist Christian constituency. And so do Harper’s massive tax cuts because they effectively starve government.
As McDonald points out it doesn’t really matter if Harper believes any of this (I have always been suspicious that his born-again Christian status was just another of his strategic moves). What matters is that by pandering to this heretofore marginal element in Canadian society, he has in fact increased their self-confidence and their power. It’s a lot easier to fundraise when you can show you can deliver the goods. Whether we or he likes it or not, the Christian right is now a major player on the Canadian political scene. Once you have created such a power centre and relied upon it you become beholden to it — even after conditions change. And they will still be there if and when Harper is finally defeated.
Stockwell Day is seen by this crowd as their leader in the cabinet. His record in this regard is frighteningly impeccable. He once suggested that the prison population be encouraged to kill child-killer Clifford Olson given that the state was too cowardly to do so. He suggested that abortion would lead to child abuse with this charming statement: “The thinking is, if you can cut a child to pieces or burn them alive with salt solution while they’re still in the womb, what’s wrong with knocking them around a little when they’re outside the womb.”
But perhaps most important, especially when trying to imagine what a majority Harper government might look like, Day once ran a Christian school whose social studies curriculum succinctly summed up the Christian right’s attitude towards secular humanism, democracy and the separation of church and state. Democratic government, said one lesson, “…represent the ultimate deification of man, which is the very essence of humanism and totally alien to God’s word.”
Why would this committed born-again be part of government if he believes that democracy is the deification of man? For only one reason — to dismantle democracy, suppress secular humanism and place God back in His rightful place.
If people knew that Day, backed by his Christian army, got into government explicitly to sabotage it, dismantle it and render democracy meaningless, would they still vote for the Conservatives?
It is important to grasp that the Christian right is not simply culturally conservative in the obvious ways — anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, an obsession with punishment and a suspicion of science. As odious as this agenda is, it is only a warm up for born-again Christians who believe that we cannot achieve a state of grace with god if we are in any way assisted in our earthly struggles. So anything the state does that makes living in a capitalist society easier — Medicare, public education, welfare, legal aid, EI, childcare — is anathema. If Harper gets a majority it will not be pretty for this is where his famous (but now rarely referred to) secret agenda is rooted.
Denying the culture war
The army of god is winning the culture war and is likely to continue winning — especially given that, as Marci McDonald points out, the secular left refuses to acknowledge there is a war. The churches of the Christian right — in particular the Christian and Missionary Alliance where Preston Manning, Harper and Day all attend have huge churches across the country, many of them holding thousands. And they fill them. Members, if they are truly committed, give 10 per cent of the pre-tax income to their cause which is one of the reasons the Conservatives, in the last quarter, raised more money than all the other political parties combined.
Ironically, the rise of the born-again movement is in part a response to the alienation of consumer society. There are contradictions – many are wealthy or upper middle class — but it is the Christian right that is inviting people who find no meaning in their lives into their churches — a sort of spiritual commons.
On the left there is no such invitation forthcoming. The notion of the commons is long out of use — displaced by the reality of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ whereby no one wants to be the first to share their wealth with others. Consumerism is the essence of that tragedy. In its most abstract sense the very things that the Christian right attacks — Medicare and the rest — is the commons, but drained of any communal or spiritual meaning or personal connection. This is why when defending these things, and seeking to expand them, we cannot generate the same excitement or commitment that right manages in opposing them.
Excitement? Commitment? We can’t even get people to vote. Here’s the tragic irony: a high percentage of right-wing Christians vote — why? To ensure that democracy, the deification of man, is gradually diminished. But people who in surveys say they support activist government (strengthening the commons) stay away in droves.
The other public figure, in addition to McDonald, who sees the war for what it is, is Frank Graves, the President of Ekos associates, the polling firm. Graves was the target of ferocious attacks in the Conservative blogosphere recently after he was quoted in the Globe and Mail as having given casual advice to a Liberal about how to challenge the Harperites: “I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don’t like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin.”
There are some signs — on abortion and gun control — that Ignatieff may be listening.
In the meantime, I will know that socialists, progressives, humanists, unionists, social democrats, secularists and commies are serious when I hear that they are giving 10 per cent of their pre-tax income to fight for the commons. (Yes, I do.)