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How is Religion shaping our national identity?

posted May 5, 2011, 1:13 PM by Esther Matharu

About thirty or twenty years ago, being a Christian meant following the principles and ethics of the inspirer of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, a person who lived and died over 2000 years ago in a small middle eastern area known as Judea in Palestine. Since then, things have changed. Now, in the early 21st century, Christians have become a force in shaping not just our personal identity, but in taking over the public spaces where our faith affiliation is worn on our shirt sleeves or our car bumpers, in addition to, hopefully, in our hearts and actions.

This shift from the private to a public field, from the discrete to the visible, has affected the way people see each another. Do Canadians still see themselves as tolerant, open-minded, accepting of different views and faiths, peace-loving? Not so sure anymore! More than that, though, is the perception that politics and right-wing Christianity have joined to push for specific objectives using a secretive, closed-door style that has raised suspicion and distress among the majority of Canadians, as expressed in a recent letter by a number of prominent Canadian journalists[1].

Do others see us in that light? Certainly the recent intensification of an aggressive militarization of Canada, its corporatization and its openly pro-Israel stance causes us to see ourselves as having a different image than the one that made immigration to a neutral and peace-loving Canada an enviable choice. The flaunting of this new religious identity by the government has generated confusion. Suddenly the rules of the game have changed. From multicultural openness and tolerance, Canada is becoming a war zone for our minds, bodies and souls.

In the recent past, Christian religious ideologies were kept out of politics, and when they did come to the fore, it was mainly in questions of combating and exposing injustices, as with Kairos and other faith based NGOs and denominational groups such as the Mennonites. The focus then was mainly on New Testament teachings that followed their leader’s command as related by the Gospel writers to ‘love thy neighbor’, ‘forgive those who harm you’, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘blessed are the meek’ among other injunctions taken from scripture. It was easy to understand the core dogmatic values of the followers of Christ, because they blended well with the ideals of social justice and equality, in theory at least. For example, churches were actively involved with the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa (remember, though, that the concept of racial segregation was sanctioned by the Dutch Reformed Church[2]).  We had a very different kind of religious approach and praxis to the one we now see dominating most of our public spaces.

What happened and how and when did things change?

The shift has its roots in the US Bible belt. Starting in the late 1960’s to the 1990’s[3] when an increasing number of established televangelists (Jerry Falwell, for example), reaping big bucks through their highly emotional 24/24 advertisements and programs, the opportunities of marketing products and ideas increased so much that these TV empires started attracting politicians. The trade off was for politicians to openly support the evangelists ‘Christian values’. In the beginning it was a gradual and subtle swing, but as mainstream politicians joined in, the Christian right became more bold and pushed for reform of prayer at school, teaching creationism, pro-life and anti-abortion, anti-gay/lesbian movements, pro-Israel and anti-Islamic or any other non-evangelist  religious affiliations, to name the most obvious ones.

Surprisingly, when this group gained political leverage, its middle-right simply started slipping towards the extreme position and became what we now see as an extremist or fundamentalist Christian movement.

Another consequence of this shift was that the advances on the political scene of influential national groups, such as Focus on The Family and other well-known Christian apologists and authors, aided the Christian right to become powerful enough to be worth approaching by Christian Zionist groups. These groups believe that that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the State of Israel are in accordance with Biblical prophecy. Subsequently, and by affiliation, they began to openly support Jewish Zionism and to oppose any idea of a Palestinian state and a divided Jerusalem, including setting up funds and plans to rebuild Jehovah’s temple on the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in old Jerusalem[4]. Through vast country-wide networks, they were able to contribute financially and through prayer group support. Christian ‘fraternity houses’ in Washington[5] played a big role in the unyielding lobbying of politicians state-wide. The defeat of the Middle East peace process[6] can be largely attributed as a result of these groups’ actions.

To illustrate the extent of the alliance, in 1978, Israel’s Likud party leader, Mr. Begin, invited Mr. Jerry Falwell for his first official visit to Israel, and the following year, 1979, his government gave Falwell a Lear Jet[7]. Begin's timing was perfect. He began working seriously with Christian Zionists at the precise moment that Christian fundamentalists in America were discovering their political voice. The same year that Falwell received his Lear Jet, he formed the Moral Majority, an organization that changed the political landscape in the United States.

This alliance between Israel and the Christian far-right fundamentalist groups has taken a life of its own, and today we see it as a major ideology that supports Zionist Israel, especially in massive funding of the settler movement in occupied territories.

Christian Zionism, aided by Jewish Zionism, has led to a major shift away from the teachings of love, forgiveness and peace of the New Testament, to the belligerent, ‘chosen people’ genocidal narratives of the Old Testament. The current culture of fear- discourses, cleverly engineered and fed to a receptive population by the dominant media and most pulpits, identifies Islam and Muslims as ‘satanic’ and has been perversely used to further the ‘war on terror’ at the expense of diplomacy and negotiation. But there are other reasons, among them the following.

According to The Christian Humanist[8], “the growth of these Fundamentalist groups is counter-intuitive, but may be an unfortunate consequence of a serious decline in general literacy and in the quality, breadth and scope of liberal arts education in the United States”. This, coupled to the vast majority of Christians living in a closed world and being literally brain-washed by their media and leaders, has led to the growth of fundamentalism with its simplified Manichean views and provided comfort and stability to countless people. The US’s failed educational system has systematically ill-prepared its citizenry to deal with a fast-changing and complex world. In the fundamentalist mindset, it is either ‘right or wrong’, or, as Mr. Bush junior said:  “They are either ‘for us’ or ‘against us’”.

What happened to the more benign and spiritual side of Christianity, or a more pacific and personalized approach to exercising one’s Christian faith? The views of fundamentalist Lighthouse Trails Research Project writes this: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate. In the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm—six months later we published our first release, A Time of Departing by Ray Yungen”[9]. So Christians who chose to remain out of the belligerent discourse and actions of the empiric approach in order to follow the spiritual or mystical teachings of the Church fathers and the leader of their faith himself are considered both dangerous and their ideas anathema to the basic tenants of the faith.

To what extent do religious groups influence Canadian politics?

In Canada, we see the same South-North movement of Christian fundamentalism and extremism permeating our democratic and neutral political spaces. This is essentially because the Christian right does not see itself as national but as an international ‘empirical’ movement. One of their stated goals is world evangelism and is one of the fundamental motivations for Christian hegemony[10]. The extent of this recently invigorated doctrine has taken a relatively short time to sink in the North America’s mainstream populations. One reason is because the more publicized international white supremacist movements cross-fertilized many of the more radical elements of the Christian right, making it difficult to distinguish the links in purpose and strategy between a radicalized extremist group and a politicized interest group.

Most recently, we can see the ties between the Canadian government, the Zionists (through the Israel government) and the Christian right combining their efforts to host a number of events in Canada, such as the ones that took place during the current election campaign in April, the goal if which is, “in cooperation with the Christian and Jewish Communities, to celebrate and proclaim support for the State of Israel and Canada’s unwavering stand in the midst of international pressure. For these unique events, a delegation of Members of the Knesset (Parliament) of Israel (MKs) will be travelling to each of these selected cities to stand in solidarity with Christian and Jewish leaders. The historic nature of this trip is unmistakable, especially in light of international hostility and growing anti-Semitism that is increasing worldwide. This is an opportunity to declare to the State of Israel that Canadian Christians and Jews are united in their love for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Land of promise given to the Jewish people.[11]

But what about Mr. Harper?

When a politician enters politics with a blurred sense of the necessity to separate the Church from the State, we can expect that many of our policies and institutions will be eroded by an interest group that has tiptoed in the heart of our government and Senate, to the detriment of the very liberties we fought so hard to achieve.

“The new government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced high expectations from the Christian community when it took office on February 6, 2006. There were expectations that the Conservatives would govern differently and would have different priorities. One of the high priority items for Harper is the child-care tax credit which passed in the June budget. Many Christians supported the more inclusive tax credit over Martin's proposed support for institutional day-care centers because they prefer home care or church alternatives that would not have benefited from the Liberal plan[12].

It is an accepted fact that Mr. Harper, previous PM of Canada whose minority Conservative government was suspended for being in contempt of Parliament in March, 2011, is a ‘born-again Christian and attends the East Gate Alliance Church, in Ottawa. The beliefs of the Church are no different than most Evangelical Churches[13]. This includes a fundamental belief that Jesus Christ will return to Earth in an apocalypse, won't ordain women, strongly opposes abortion and divorce, condemns homosexuality as the most base of sins and believes those who aren't born-again are "lost." One of the consequences of this is that militant faith-missionary organizations have a very loose understanding of national sovereignty. This is a global war against evil and the ultimate victory of the Christian right is that Jesus Christ, the true leader of all nations, the world and the universe, will subjugate all peoples through his law (word), and any person or institution that stands in the way is ‘against us’.

Another example of the ideologies and strategies that are happening in the US which are creeping into Canada is the US Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which is a “legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation. We defend Our First Liberty – religious freedom – by empowering our allies, recognizing that together we can accomplish far more than we can alone”.[14] This includes a call for god-centered health care plan and education system. To illustrate this, in the US, increasingly state-run institutions are depicted as evil and believers are called to “Pay for your children’s education. Don’t ask me or your neighbors to pay for it. This is the first test to see if you value liberty over security. There are residual benefits. Your children won’t be turned into State-loving Socialists, and we may be able to shut down the government school system and the oppressive bureaucracy that goes with it”[15].

So is it all about syntax or about faith?

When in Canada, we started seeing new words and new meanings in public debates and the social media we knew something was afoot, and that the Christian Right was starting to blitz Canada. For example, when did we start hearing the term: ‘Traditional-valued families’, ‘Traditional American/Canadian values[16]’, ‘Traditional Principled People[17], which invariably place themselves in opposition to ‘leftist and liberals’ values?

Recently, in the US, the “Conservative Action Project”, in an eight-point letter, asked Republican lawmakers to restore traditional American values. Among these was that “Congress should immediately ban taxpayer funding of abortion providers, promote policies that uphold the sanctity of human life, and oppose policies and programs that are destructive toward traditional marriage and families.” Members of the project include Tim Goeglein, vice president for external affairs at Focus on the Family; former Attorney General Edwin Meese; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring [18].

As a result, cross-border religious movements have promoted family values which are best expressed in the conflict over sex-education curricula in the Province of Ontario[19]. An attempt to leave extremists at either end of the debate out is seen as a failure to include ‘principled’ parents and the faith community who are convinced that “there is an agenda to impose a value system, actually a state religion, upon everyone”. The Family Coalition Party, Ontario’s only ‘life-respecting, pro-traditional family, and fiscally conservative political party’, concludes that “The problem is that the parents of the children in public education are not able to keep up to date on all curriculum changes and what is being taught in school because they are forced to work fulltime, and often more than one job, to cover the high taxation rate of this province”. Idem.

In one sentence, we have a clear politicization of the issue:  a parent(s) having to work fulltime is linked directly to high taxation rates, and this is part of a plot to impose a state religion (?) on families who are the chosen guardians of family values.

The more obvious assumptions are that women must stay at home to follow the curriculum in order to avoid the agenda of a ‘state religion’ being forced upon them. This can only happen by reducing taxation rates. Principled families are Christian families implying that non-Christian families are not principled.

Can we blame them?

It is certain that many of our own Canadian institutions are failing. Public education and health, child care and elder care, law and order, are under attack, maybe not by ‘Satan’ but certainly by a self-centered ‘me first’ individualistic mentality. This paradigm, fed unceasingly by a militaristically run corporate and elitist system that sees people as nothing more than commodities and consumers, is what needs to change radically.

Church and State

Democracy cannot be had without the separation of Church and State. In a democracy, the concerns of all are considered to the best of that state’s ability. Religious beliefs can flourish in a democracy but a democracy cannot survive in a religious state”. In a democracy, men, women, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, atheists and agnostics, [all] can sit side by side with equality. This is the only way that a democracy can work the best”[20].

We all can agree that it's not good for rabbis, priests, pastors, Imams, bishops or popes to hold political offices.  Churches, (meaning here all religious organizations) do not appoint presidents / prime ministers, judges and governors.  Similarly, the government does not appoint bishops and pastors for the churches.  It has no role in defining beliefs relating to God and worship and permits citizens to engage or not engage in religious practices or belong to religious organizations. And the government does not distinguish between faith based groups for tax deductions/exemptions (i.e. Housing allowance tax deductions for ministers).  In this sense we are a secular nation[21].

We must remember, citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association often generates complications through the existence of a conflict of identity: which identity should the individual/group follow?.  Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and yes, it is appropriate for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political order.  The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not disqualify them from the political realm.  They must be argued for in appropriate social and political terms in harmony with national values. 

So the question citizens must ask of themselves is: “what are my (belief’s) values and how do they coexist with our national values?”  One area of deep divisions between some faith-groups and other groups is around the idea of family planning and family values. What we used to see as religious or moral choices of an individual/group has become a conflict of values that pits one against the other in the public sphere. This is exactly the strategy the Christian right has been using in the US to polarize the electorate into two distinct groups: the “for us” and the “against us” package. The package, not surprisingly, includes, an acceptance of guns, weapons, war and an erosion human rights, (including immigrant and women’s rights). This was not the case before the Christian right came into political power through its successful political maneuvers and lobbying.

With the likes of Mr. S. Day, Mr. S. Harper and others in the Senate, the chance of influencing political decisions has grown with leaps and bounds and taken a complacent and rather naïve population by surprise..  Are we content to have the same South-North movement of Christian fundamentalism and extremism pervade our democratic and neutral political spaces, and to what extent?

In her article “How Canada’s Christian right was built”, published On Fri May 07 2010 in thestar.com by Marci McDonald with excerpts from her book The Armageddon Factor (Copyright 2010 Marci McDonald, published by Random House Canada, Special to the Star), Marci McDonald concludes that: “For this new wave of Christian nationalists, united across the continent by the charismatic renewal movement, the signs and portents of the end-times are unmistakable, apparent in each new earthquake report or tremor of the global financial system, and they feel they have no time to waste. Their mission is to prepare God’s dominion on Earth, and they are unlikely to rest until they see their perceived scriptural prophecies fulfilled in Ottawa and Jerusalem alike. As Faytene Kryskow underlines in her book, Marked, she and her fellow revivalists are no longer content to agitate for policy crumbs. They have “a take-over mentality,” she writes: “They are convinced that God has called them to take over the world!”[22] 

A Christian’s duty is to introduce love into the interstices of the social network, to show mercy and compassion within the spaces of the institutional frameworks operating then and there.  As a Christian follower (and other faith-based philosophies; Muslims, Jews, Buddhists etc.) how active does one need to be to affect these changes in the political realm?  More importantly how active do we “non-believers” want them involved in our political realm.  These people have convictions and are powered by their faith; “non-believers” are also empowered by their faith in freedom.  Their convictions are just as strong and the only way to maintain a balance with the Right is to join in numbers and make our voices heard.  We welcome their ideas and some philosophies – we object to their dictations and quest for total control.

Whereas it appears to be democratic for Christians to start political parties that promote their ideas, such as the Christian Heritage Party[23]’ it’s 2011 election platform[24] is misleading because it appears to contradict their stated ideology “The purpose of civil government is to ensure freedom and justice for a nation’s citizens by upholding law and order in accordance with Biblical principles”, followed by: “Decision-making processes by civil government must not in any way contravene these Biblical ethics”.  This restricts somehow other citizen’s democratic rights. It restricts freedoms for which we have fought long and hard.  This should, rightfully, cause concern.

It comes as no surprise that Christians and, for that matter, new Canadians who come from more autocratic and patriarchal countries lean towards the right to find remedies to societal decreases in morals, civilities and a certain understanding of ‘liberation’, especially of women’s empowerment that can be seen as threatening the status quo. Christians traditionally see themselves as wards of morality and ambassadors of a ‘kingdom’ that is both just and righteous. But going to the other extreme, where politics and religion intermingle to the extent that we are now seeing in Canada is not wise. Just because the fears being expressed are often well-founded, does not mean that the solution they propose is good or serves the interest of the majority of Canadians. Experience and history repeatedly informs us that whenever the religious right takes over politics, what we end up with is fascism, or worse, a form of legalized, nationalistic terrorism that depends heavily on a strong policing apparatus to maintain its power and control over the masses. 

Not our Canada!

Esther Matharu with Susan Ward/ 12 April 2011/ 3686 words

Esther is leader of the Women’s Alliance Party (www.womensallianceparty.ca)



 



[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_right, for a good read-up on the US history of the politicization of the Christian right.

[8]  http://christianhumanist.net/Christian.aspx in the “Christian Fundamentalists and the Rise of the Radical Right”.

[20] Brian Mellor, as quoted in his letter published in the April 4, 2011’as Maclean’s Magazine.

[22] http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/806535--how-canada-s-christian-right-was-built

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