The wrath of the right

OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion/Citizen Special – Charting the uneasy minuet of religion and politics in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa has given me a level of notoriety I couldn’t have dreamed of, but at least people are talking about the issue
June 9, 2010.   By Marci McDonald

The voice on the line was uncharacteristically hushed. A week before the release of my book, The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, a journalist friend had been discreetly tasked by her editor to quiz me on whether it would break any news.

I knew exactly what he was after: an exposé that might reveal Stephen Harper was on the secret payroll of American televangelists or, as another editor termed it, the “smoking gun” that would prove the prime minister was some closet religious fanatic performing secret rituals in the bowels of 24 Sussex Drive.

Alas, I assured her, the book would deliver no such sensational headlines. On the contrary, it was a detailed effort to connect the dots between the chief characters and issues in a new faith-based political movement setting down roots in Ottawa at a time when Harper’s minority government had arrived in power with a concerted strategy of courting religious conservatives. That confluence of interests has produced an unprecedented phenomenon on the Canadian political landscape: a burgeoning religious right with access and growing clout on Parliament Hill — one that yearns to emulate the success of its noisy inspiration in the U.S.

At the time, my chief worry was that, in chronicling such a development, the book would be dismissed as a yawn, the mere update of an article I had written four years earlier for The Walrus magazine. As it turns out, I’ve had no need to dwell on that fear. Less than a month after its release, I’ve found myself in a firestorm of controversy, the object of distinctly un-Christian invective and the unbridled wrath of the right-wing blogosphere. Charting the uneasy minuet of religion and politics in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa appears to have given me a level of notoriety summed up in a current title on the best-seller list: I am, as one friend quipped, the girl who kicked the hornet’s nest.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine becoming an item of interest to a blogger named Blazingcatfur. Nor could I have foreseen that conservative gadfly Ezra Levant would feel obliged to unleash five hyperventilating denunciations, three of them duly reprinted, complete with errors and astonishing lapses of logic, in the National Post.

In one memorable appearance on the CBC’s Power & Politics, during which he branded me “a bigot and a freak,” he suggested the book was actually a veiled attack on what he termed “uncircumcised penises” — a comment that seemed to reveal far more about his preoccupations than mine. While he acknowledged in his first slam he had not actually read the book, he later went out of his way to prove he had combed through my prose, and for that my publisher and I are grateful: We clearly missed four errors among the litany he alleged and will correct them at the earliest chance.

But his zeal does raise an obvious question: Do four errors in 400 pages constitute what he calls an “error-riddled” book? Or is that slam merely part of an orchestrated effort to discredit a work that links the growing presence of the religious right in Ottawa to one particular cabinet minister, Levant’s former boss, Stockwell Day? As a former spinmeister for Day and a self-confessed “Stockaholic,” perhaps he is merely toiling in the service of old loyalties.

Not that Levant has been my only critic. David Frum, the star of a recent Parliament Hill reception thrown by his sister, Linda Frum Sokolowski, whom Harper appointed to the Senate last year, dismissed my entire book as an attack on Israel and therefore anti-Semitic. It is a curious conclusion considering that only one of my 12 chapters is devoted to exploring the political and spiritual influences that helped shape Harper’s shift to a pronounced pro-Israel stance in the Middle East.

That policy shift was once again being questioned in the wake of Israel’s deadly raid on an international flotilla attempting to deliver aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. But, as Frum demonstrates, it’s difficult to start a debate on one of the most significant changes in Canadian foreign policy without being smeared as an anti-Semite.

I’ve also been accused of a new sin: singling out Christians as objects of scorn who do not deserve a voice in the public square. In fact, my book suggests no such thing. For nearly five years, I listened to conservative Christians lament their lack of coverage in the mainstream media. Dismayed by their failure to halt same-sex marriage legislation, they set out to secure an institutional presence in Ottawa, founding a half-dozen lobbies, think tanks and youth groups that would ensure them a lasting voice in the national debate no matter which party was in power.

In the course of covering them, I became so friendly with some that I dashed at least one CTV interviewer’s scheme for on-camera fireworks. Introducing a segment meant to pit me against Joseph Ben-Ami, the former executive director of the Institute for Canadian Values, she voiced the hope that we didn’t come to fisticuffs. What her producer had neglected to tell her was that, upon catching sight of me in the corridor, Ben-Ami had greeted me with a massive bear hug.

As I’ve taken pains to point out, my book is in no way an attack on faith nor do I question the right of men and women of faith to voice their convictions in the public square. But I do raise a cautionary note about those activists I refer to as Christian nationalists, a small sliver of militants with organizational savvy and political connections out of all proportion to their numbers, who are determined to see Canada declared an officially Christian nation.

It is a prospect that does not bode well for citizens of other faiths in a country long hailed as a model of diversity and tolerance. But to report on the growth of such a political movement hardly seems like a provocative act. How can we have an informed democracy if we don’t know who has the ear of the government, above all a government that has honed secrecy to a fine art?

In fact, it is not my book that has focused the spotlight on the role of conservative Christians in today’s politics. It is a strategy that Stephen Harper spelled out in 2003 soon after he wrested the leadership of the Canadian Alliance from Stockwell Day. Setting out to broaden the party’s base by reaching out to social and religious conservatives, he unveiled an electoral approach that has turned the religious right into a key Conservative constituency.

Initially, that outreach effort was carried out with stealth. But, ever since the global economic meltdown, as Harper came under increasing attack from his former fiscal soulmates, his overtures to social conservatives have become increasingly overt. In the final weeks of editing the book, I could hardly keep up with the flurry of moves designed to mollify his restive religious-right base.

Not only had he defunded the apparently too-left-leaning ecumenical aid organization, KAIROS — which Jason Kenney mistakenly accused of participating in an anti-Israel boycott — but he single-handedly put abortion, the most explosive social issue, back on the national agenda with his G-20 maternal and child health care initiative.

Still, just as Harper patterned his strategy after the electoral successes of George W. Bush, so too might we glance south of the border for a glimpse of where such policies might lead. Looking at America today — a country deeply polarized by social issues, its politics poisoned by vitriol — most Canadians would not rush to duplicate the results. In The Armageddon Factor, I warn that once religion is brandished as an electoral tool, the same prospect could well lie ahead for us. I had no inkling that the rhetorical excess of Ezra Levant and his former unite-the-right comrades would turn that prediction into a disheartening reality so swiftly.

My only hope is that, out of this barrage of invective, there may emerge one glimmer of light: a reasoned and perhaps long-overdue debate over the level of religiosity Canadians want in this country’s political life. If so, it may well have been worth it to have kicked the hornet’s nest.

Marci McDonald is a former bureau chief for Maclean’s in Paris and Washington and was a senior writer for US News & World Report. The winner of eight gold National Magazine Awards, she is also the author of Yankee Doodle Dandy: Brian Mulroney and the America Agenda. Her most recent book is The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada.

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