Understanding Harper's Evangelical Mission

This post originally appeared in The Tyee, and is re-published with permission.
Any Canadian listening to the news these days might well conclude that the Republican extremists or some associated evangelical group has occupied Ottawa.

And they'd be righter than Job, I believe.

Almost daily, more evidence surfaces that Canada's government is guided by tribalists averse to scientific reason in favour of Biblical fundamentalism – or what some call “evangelical religious skepticism.”

First came Canada's pull-out of the Kyoto agreement without any rational or achievable national plan to battle carbon pollution.

Next came the hysterical and unprecedented letter by Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver, an investment banker. It branded local environmentalists and First Nations as foreign radicals because they dared to question the economic and environmental impacts of a Chinese-funded pipeline.

At the same time federal security types declared Greenpeace, a civil organization originally started by Canadian journalists, to be a “multi-issue extremist group.”

After quietly gutting the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Harper government now proposes to dismantle the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act as well as the Fisheries Act, Canada's strongest and last remaining water safeguard.

While government and industry PR folk spin fabrications about Canada's environmental record, Scott Vaughan, Federal Environment Commissioner in the office of the Auditor General, reports that there are only 12 water quality stations for Canada's 3,000 First Nations communities and just one federal water monitoring station operating downstream from the oil sands. Until last year it was calibrated only to detect pulp mill pollution.

The data-antagonistic Harper government has so muzzled federal scientists that an editorial in the prestigious Nature magazine demanded that it was “time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.”

And now Tory senators are threatening to revoke the charitable status of any group that dares to criticize the government's environmental performance or its subsidies for fossil fuels.

From where does the government's extreme animus towards journalists, environmental groups, First Nations and science (and I've put together but a partial list of victims here) arise? The moment demands we take a close look at Stephen Harper's evangelical beliefs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Alliance Church holds to four foundational convictions based on the belief the Bible is without error, according to a 2007 Vancouver Sun article citing Indiana State Purdue University religious studies Prof. Philip Goff. The article says:

“The Alliance Church places an intense focus on the need for personal salvation, emphasizes the importance of leading a 'holy' life and encourages spiritual healing, says Goff.

“The denomination also stresses that Jesus Christ's return to Earth is imminent, says the evangelical specialist, who was raised in the Alliance Church.

“Alliance Church rules, like those of other evangelical denominations, strongly oppose homosexual relationships, describing them as the 'basest form of sinful conduct.'

“The Alliance Church is also tough on divorce and holds that Christians who have been adulterous do not have a right to remarry.

“The denomination's leaders, in addition, oppose abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, the use of marijuana and ordained female clergy…”

Harper's Creed
Unknown to most Canadians, the prime minister belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant church with two million members. Alberta, a petro state, is one of its great strongholds on the continent. The church believes that the free market is divinely inspired and that non-believers are “lost.”

Now let's be clear: I am a Christian and a social conservative and a long time advocate of rural landowners and an unabashed conservationist. I have spent many pleasant hours in a variety of evangelical churches and fundamentalist communities. Faith is not the concern here.

But transparency and full disclosure has become the issue of paramount importance. To date, Harper has refused to answer media questions about his beliefs or which groups inform them. If he answered media queries about his minority creed (and fewer than 10 per cent of Canadians would call themselves evangelicals) he'd have to admit that he openly sympathizes if not endorses what's known as “evangelical climate skepticism.” 

No one knows this fossil fuel friendly ideology better than Dr. David Gushee, a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and a Holocaust scholar. The evangelical Christian is also one of the drafters of the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative. It declared climate change a serious threat to Creation that demands an ethical Christian response.

But that's not the wing of the evangelical movement that Harper listens to. 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 right-wing scholars, economists and evangelicals. The Alliance questions mainstream science, doubts climate change, views environmentalist as a “native evil,” champions fossil fuels and supports libertarian economics.

'Resisting the Green Dragon'

A recent declaration on climate change by the Cornwall Alliance denies that carbon dioxide “is a pollutant” and adds that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.” Moreover any reduction in emissions would “greatly increase the price of energy and harm economies.”

A separate Cornwall declaration 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.”

A book published by the Alliance called Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion not Death even portrays environmental groups as “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.”

One passage reads that, “The Green Dragon must die… [There] is no excuse to become befuddled by the noxious Green odors and doctrines emanating from the foul beast…”

The Cornwall Alliance also believes that renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar are only good enough for poor or rural peoples until nuclear and fossil fuel facilities “meet the needs of large, sustained economic development.”

Beware 'the new hypocrite'

In a 2010 interview, Gushee, a brilliant and passionate Christian, detailed the basic tenets of “evangelical climate skepticism.” He said there were seven main points and argued that they had poisoned the Republican Party. These tenets not only explain startling developments in Canada but should raise the hair on the neck of every thinking citizen regardless of their faith:

1. Disdain for the environmental movement

2. Distrust of mainstream science in general

3. Distrust of the mainstream media

4. Loyalty to the party

5. Libertarian economics as God's will (God is opposed to government regulation or taxation

6. Misunderstanding of divine sovereignty (God won't allow us to ruin creation)

7. Unreconstructed Dominion theology (God calls on humans to subdue and rule creation)

In the end of the interview, Gushee summarized the purpose of this new evangelical Republicanism: “God is sovereign over creation and therefore humans can do no permanent damage… God established government for limited purposes and government should not intervene much in the workings of a free market economy… The media is overplaying climate change worries… The environmental movement is secular/pagan and has always been a threat to American liberties…

“Nice worldview, huh? I disagree with just about every word of it.”

But that Republican religious tribalism is now Ottawa's worldview.

Readers looking for a thoughtful analysis on Harper and the rise of libertarian religious tribalism in Canada should pick up Marci McDonald's The Armageddon Factor.

Another touchstone might be G.K. Chesterton, a radical Catholic, who regularly questioned the wealth and power of big government and business decades ago.

He would have advised us to get to the bottom of whether our prime minister is pretending to be just a wonkish politician while pursuing an extreme Republican evangelical agenda.

“The old hypocrite was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious,” the radical Catholic once observed. “The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.”

Canada needs to have an open conversation about the virtues of democracy over theocracy.


[Moreover any reduction in emissions would “greatly increase the price of energy and harm economies.”]

Considering the informal business interests here are to increase profitability for the few at the expense of the many, this is an interesting statement. Even more so due to the fact that a reduction in emissions would either require a means of treating byproducts of fossil fuel use, which would alleviate the concerns of the so called green dragon (rendering use a non-issue, but not extraction and processing by in large), or a reduction in use and therefore demand, and thus profitability; the real concern. It never ceases to amaze me what duplicitous nonsense people are forced to believe or be duped into in order to serve as a ‘functional’ philosophical, religious or political backdrop to purely selfish interests.

This is sounding like the hijacking  of a religion for  instance as Osama Bin Ladendid with Islam. You make a religion to make sense of what doesn’t work in the world. Its the perfect Industrial faith. 

I’ve always thought the argument on divine sovereignty to be puzzling.

If there is one theme in the Bible that is clear, it is that man’s hubris at his own abilities is not to be tolerated by God.

Of note -

1) God threw Adam and Eve out of the garden not due to the fact that they disobeyed God’s commandment, but that they believed that through the eating of the apple that they’d have the knowledge and wisdom of God himself.

2) God scattered the people’s and created the myriad of languages when humankind thought that they had the power of God when building the Tower of Babel.

3) In the New Testament, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who fills his graineries and prides himself at his actions only to be taken into death on that very night.

And lastly, 

4) When Satan tempts Jesus at the top of the temple and urges him to throw himself down since God’s angels will protect him.  And at this point, Jesus declares his humanity by stating that one does not put God to the test.

So I ask, is not this belief in divine sovereignty exactly the same?  Is humankind putting God to the test?

I’ve been attempting to articulate, or argue, the connection between climate change denial and conservative, fundamentalist religion is much deeper than suspected for some time.

Coupled with an absolute “faith” in limited government and free markets we have what can only be called “neo-fundamentalism”.

Climate change denial – promoted by think tanks etc. – dropped into a culture in the US already hostile to science: the anti-evolution movement. The segue-way for this group to AGW denial was easy and painless.

I do not dispute the role of vested interests or think tanks or backroom influence in government. But it would not have been so very successful without the right social conditions.

Neo-Fundies (hey there’s a meme for you guys!) combine extreme religiosity, conservative social values and a blind faith in free markets and limited government. It is a response, perhaps fear driven, to the enormous changes gripping the globe: climate change, economic hardship, the growing wealth divide and the decline of American power.

It is a primarily American phenomena, but washes over the globe.

Neo-Fundamentalism promises to fix these issues by waving them away (climate change denial), holding back change (gay and women’s reproductive rights) or fixing it with the right correctives (limited government, personal freedom/responsibility and unrestrained US unilateralism).

I’m very much aware with the problem with this arm-chair theorising, I may be very badly and drastically wrong in the ideas I’m putting forward. Perhaps it has already been discussed and studied and has a name I’m not aware of.

Thoughts on its emergence:

In the 1970s and Nixon pursued the Southern Strategy – to capture and hold the once Democratic base in the US south kicked it off. It was a campaign based on white fear of Afrian-Amercan enfranchisement. It was a valuable lesson in politics. How much of the “Birthers” and fear that Obama is the anti-Christ is the legacy of the Southern Strategy is an interesting question. Still…

In the 1980s Regan came to power playing to the “Moral Majority” base of conservative evangelicals that had felt marginalized and hostile to an increasingly progressive and secular US.

Regan managed to marry free market/libertarian ideas (“Government is not the solution, government is the problem”) with hostility to elites and scientific knowledge that ran counter to conservative values. On evolution Regan said “it was just a theory” and ignored the emergence of AIDS because of its(mis)association with homosexuality.

The second Bush presidency saw a man in the White House fully supportive to the idea of both free markets and that the “End Times” were near.

The current GOP and Tea Party, the Michelle Bachmann’s and Sarah Palin’s are the end result of 40 years of this not an aberration.

The neo-fundamentalist world view incorporates:

  • a conservative Christian world view (not just Evangelical)
  • motivated and with a large supporter base that straddles class/education divides
  • dismissive of science such as AGW, stem cells and evolution
  • dismissive of expertise and expert opinion in contradiction to core values
  • dismissive of government (small or big), equating it with socialism
  • free market advocates
  • socially conservative: hostile to the expanding ethical circle that includes gays, minorities, secularists
  • willingness to embrace aspects of the conspiracy culture to explain failures or limits to action

Run a checklist of these values and beliefs against the likes of Sen. Inhofoe, Bachmann, Palin, the average Tea Party member, Glenn Beck and yes even Lord Monckton and I think you would see a strongly shared world view.

Chris Mooney articulates some of this very well in “The Republican Brain” etc. which is a good attempt the underlying personal and social psychology of how this may have happened.

Since the 1970s, the GOP has created a platform and embraced a world view we could tentatively call Neo-Fundamentalism in which extreme religiosity is fused to a grab bag of ideas about governance, conspiracy theories and free markets.

We have *failed* to understand it because it is contradictory, comical and nonsensical. We thought was funny, or the product of uneducated and unsophisticated minds. We did not see the ferocity or single-mindedness of Neo-Fundamentalism.

Just because a belief system is idiotic, does not means its believers are idiots.

But I also suspect we had are own myopic view of events: we have fought small, limited “battles” such as climate change denial while not understanding or appreciate it enough to see it as part of a broader, fully developed and articulated world view that embraces the above criteria I’ve tried to capture.

Put it this way: do you think they accept climate change down at Oral Roberts University? Here’s a hint, they don’t.

Or Fox News?

Or in the mega-Churches?

We think its “crazy” when Republican state Senators put forward omnibus bills trying to ban/balance the teaching of evolution and climate change denial: “See these people are crazy!” we say.

Not to them, not in their epistemic bubble.

To them it makes sense, indeed it is axiomatic that both evolution and climate change are a “lie” pushed by (to quote Limbaugh) the trinity of liars: academics, scientists and the “liberal” media.

Had we paid more attention to the broader trends (memes perhaps) that have been circulating amongst evangelicals, the conspiracy culture etc. we would have been less surprised.