23 January 2006

Pilgrim Harper brings the culture wars north.

By Kathryn Joyce

From Le Cornichon

A smart and serious fundamentalist runs for his nation’s top leadership position, and the paper of record, The New York Times, responds with a 100% religion-free story? Can it be? Well, it’s not without precedent. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 — presenting himself as a business conservative with a fondness for the philosophy of Jesus Christ, but a business conservative first and last — there was some media speculation about the Christian “code language” underlying his public speeches, rumored to broadcast special Jesus signals to the heartland that zipped right over the egg-shaped heads of the liberal, coastal elites. For the most part though, the press didn’t question his religious signaling, nor do much more than note it in the fashion that they are now noting the propensity of newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister, the Conservative Party’s Stephen Harper, to end all of his speeches American-style: God-blessing Canada and all of his new constituents.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that Americans know about the general elections that occurred in Canada yesterday, it’s that Harper likes to say, “God Bless Canada.” If they know another thing, it’s that Canadians shouldn’t be too alarmed that he does, and that any rumors they hear about Harper becoming an American lap-dog, intent on dragging Canada into U.S. wars on terrorism and U.S. conservative religiosity, is just pathetic fear-mongering from the flailing Liberal Party, the 13-year reign of which was undone this past fall by a corruption scandal over misused funds. In light of this scandal, ominous Liberal ads warning Canadians that a Harper victory would mean an end to legal abortion and gay marriage, and effectively the rise of Canadian theocracy, came across as over-the-top and hysterical.

Just as with Bush’s first campaign — which also rode in with the benefit of an incumbent party scandal — the media have largely overlooked the real significance of the religious conservatism hinted at by Harper’s religious language, and have effectively de-fanged Harper’s social conservatism — in Harper’s own terminology, the Burkean or theocratic conservatism — that Harper turned to in 2003 when building a coalition between economic and religious conservatives that would be strong enough to take on the Liberal majority. But while the media shapes Harper up as Bush-lite, and U.S. conservatives frightened of smothering their own pick with too much public support make embarrassing promises that Harper won’t be an “American toady,” few seem to realize that Harper is politically and religiously much further right than Bush himself, and his language suggests that he takes the conflict between left and right much more seriously.

For example:

• In a speech given to The Canadian Alliance in 2003, and subsequently published on the website of the Christian Coalition International Canada, Harper outlined a plan to unite Canada’s fractured conservative parties — factions he identified as “neo-con” and “theo-con” — into one coalition by focusing on issues of more concern to Burkean (or religious) conservatives, such as the effect of the welfare state on the family, the “spanking debates” over parents’ rights to discipline their children as they saw fit (then a hot-button issue in Canada, after a state child-welfare agency had taken seven children from parents in the Church of God over accusations of excessive spanking), and a wealth of other culture war issues familiar to Americans: raising the age of sexual consent; traditional marriage; school vouchers; and other “family issues.”

The issues, said Harper, should be chosen to be non-denominational ones that could “unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths,” by raising a banner of traditional political morality against the “moral neutrality” of the left that rejects “any tradition or convention of morality” and has slid from “moral relativism” to “moral nihilism” in its “post-Marxism with deep resentments.” This is coded language of its own sort, though not aimed at mobilizing the hoi polloi so much as fellow conservative policy makers, whom Harper exhorts to be more concerned with staying ideologically pure than with winning elections.

• In his personal religion, Harper is also more conservative, attending a church that participates in the programs of arch-conservative Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s much-more fundamentalist son, famed for denouncing all of Islam as “evil”), and following the spiritual path of his mentor, Preston Manning, the evangelical former leader of the most socially conservative Canadian faction, the Reform Party. His religious life has been profiled by Christian journalistLloyd Mackey, whose new book, The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, has painted the candidate as one of a new breed of “secretly”-Christian politicians bucking the secular Canadian status quo by doing Christian political works little recognized by the outside world.

• In 1997, Harper addressed the Council for National Policy, which was founded by Left Behind apocalypse novelist Tim LaHaye and has included as members a who’s who of the radical right, including James Dobson, Grover Norquist, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, Brent Bozell, Holland and Jeffrey Coors, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly and Oliver North.