Like some half-legendary sea monster that spends the preponderance of its time cruising the lightless depths, the topic of Stephen Harper’s religious beliefs has recently broken the surface and made a rare appearance in mainstream Canadian newspapers. The first tentacle shot out of the water in the form of a Globe and Mail piece by Lawrence Martin, which picked up (somewhat oddly) on an article that had appeared in the Tyee back in March.
Apparently Stephen Harper belongs to something called the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CM Alliance), an evangelical Protestant movement that was founded in the United States in the late 19th century and has since crystallized into a denomination. Taking his cues from Andrew Nikiforuk of the Tyee, Martin expresses concern that Harper’s religiosity might be partly responsible for some of his government’s more unsavoury characteristics:
Much has been made of the government’s muzzling of the science community, its low regard for statistics, its hard line against environmentalists.
Because Stephen Harper otherwise appears to be a clear-headed rationalist, there is some wonder about the motivation for these impulses, including the question of whether they are triggered by his evangelical beliefs. The Prime Minister is a member of the Alliance Church, more specifically the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The church believes the free market is divinely inspired and views science and environmentalism with what might be called scorn.
Naturally, Harper has his defenders on this front, including CM Alliance member Lorna Dueck in the Globe and former Evangelical Fellowship of Canada president Brian Stiller in the National Post. Stiller is the more coherent of the two. He solemnly reassures us that evangelicals actually value science (“a great gift of our creator”) and the environment (“God’s good world”), with the upshot apparently being that any influence of Harper’s religious beliefs on his political behaviour is bound to be positive. Take it from a man whose “life mission comes from the time King David was rebuilding Israel”, whatever that might mean in practice.
Dueck, on the other hand, just babbles:
If Jesus is the cornerstone that Mrs. Obama, Mr. Harper or any other person of political influence have in their economy of how the system of life functions, it will affect the way they approach their job. History is full of good and bad examples of how Christian faith was applied by people of political power, but in the case of our current concerns, I would predict this means an endless array of applications, both in personal disciplines and public worldview.
What are some of these “endless array of applications”? Will any of them be good for us? Dueck doesn’t say. However, she blithely remarks that “the fact that the divine name shows up in political life from time to time is simply evidence we are not dealing with a wisp of imaginative hope, but a persistent fact of human existence.” The two are not, alas, mutually exclusive.
So, is there any cause for concern here? I don’t think we know enough to be sure. The CM Alliance is undoubtedly pretty hardcore, and hidebound by Protestant standards: Dueck mentions that, just a few weeks ago, the church joined the 14th century (BC, that is) and voted to begin ordaining women. But as Martin acknowledges, Harper’s membership in the CM Alliance does not necessarily mean he adheres to its entire laundry list of beliefs.
However, the issue is certainly worthy of discussion. I read my share of Canadian news – in fact, I read too much of it when I should probably be doing something more productive – and until coming across Martin’s piece I had no idea that Harper belonged to a denomination as seemingly radical as the CM Alliance. I knew that he was an evangelical Protestant of some description, but that category covers a lot of ground. This suggests to me that the Canadian media are being far too circumspect about discussing and inquiring into Harper’s beliefs, just as they tend to be too circumspect about other touchy subjects such as race and sexuality.
If Harper is genuinely biased against science and environmental concerns for religious reasons, the public needs to know. Journalists should be relentlessly asking those tough, uncomfortable questions, and voters should be punishing Harper if he follows his typical practice (implicitly endorsed by Dueck, on the weaselly grounds that “Canadian literacy on faith application is low”) of simply refusing to discuss the subject. The sea monster may turn out to be harmless enough, but we need to sink our hooks into it and drag it into the light to be sure.