Stephen Harper and religion
There's been a lot of talk this week about the influence of the Christian right on Stephen Harper's government. Primarily, this is the result of Marci McDonald's newly released book, The Armageddon Factor. Exquisitely timed, as Antonia Zerbisias pointed out in the Star this week, this comes on the heels of Harper's decision to ban support for abortion in overseas aids projects and at the same time as the National Prayer Breakfast and the huge March for Life Rally on Parliament Hill.
Paul Wells, in Macleans, has weighed in with some skepticism about McDonald's arguments, saying more or less that she's overstating the whole thing.
Here's what I know. Back before he became prime minister, Harper and I used to talk quite a bit. No surprise. We're contemporaries on the Hill; the same age and (believe it or not) we were of similar views on things like Meech Lake, democratic reform and political cynicism in general. He helped me a lot with my book on the Charlottetown accord and gave me a lot of good advice/insights through the years. I think he's changed, but that's a topic for another day.
In all my conversations with Harper, the subject of religion never came up. Except once. I asked him why he was inserting the God-bless stuff into his speeches when he became the leader of the Canadian Alliance. He said, cryptically: "You'd understand if you had children." Fair enough. We left it at that.
The only other insight I had into Harper and his religion was shortly after he won the 2006 election and a then-new book, the Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, by Lloyd Mackey, implied that Harper and his wife, Laureen, were deeply religious. She was keen to correct that record and got in touch with me to help do that among the media. She wanted folks to know that Harper was only an occasional church-goer (maybe a half-dozen times a year?) and that she and her alleged Christian-temperance family celebrated the election win with cases of beer. I duly passed the word around.
Does this mean that all this talk of Christian influence is wrong-headed? As mentioned above, I don't claim to have any special understanding of the Harper I see as prime minister and have a hard time connecting the dots from the guy I used to know with the one I see in power. That's not unusual, though. Many folks change when they come to office; some for the worse, some for the better.
What is clear is that he now sees no downside in giving some air time to the Christian right among his supporters. As I noted in the story of the pro-life rally this week, no one is telling these folks to shut the f--- up. They're not being punished, as Diane Ablonczy was last year, for being overly visible with controversial folks. Is that a tactical or theological development? I'd lean toward this being a political calculation by Harper and his advisers; political calculating being the the closest thing I've seen to a religious crusade in this regime. McDonald, as far as I've seen in interviews, seems to be making the same point: whether or not Stephen Harper agrees with the organized Christian right, he's sending some important signals to them in recent weeks. They seem to be happy about that, and so they should be.