Syncretism and Stephen Harper’s Religious Politics

by Ray Grigg

Syncretism, the mixing of religions, has occurred naturally and easily during the formation of many different theologies. This notion is explored with considerable insight by the Anglican scholar and teacher, William Harrison, in his recent book, In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World. The problems with syncretism begin, however, when the range of mixing extends from the religious and spiritual to the secular and material. Some Christian evangelicals, for example, have borrowed from capitalist aspirations to devise a “prosperity gospel”, which is based on the notion that God wants His believers to be wealthy, and with the implication that those who not wealthy are not Christian enough. And this mixing of religion with money brings Harrison to an unexplored region of Canadian politics.

Harrison describes Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, as an evangelical Christian who is one of these syncretists. “Harper declares an allegiance to a kind of synthesis of Christianity with individualist liberalism and free-market capitalism,” writes Harrison. “That is his religion, defining his ultimate values, including his relationship with God, his notion of the human situation and his understanding of salvation. We cannot separate Harper’s Christianity from this mixture, as if it were merely about what he does on Sundays or believes about death.”

Harrison suggests that Harper’s religious attitudes, formed by the Prime Minister’s own kind of syncretism, are deep and fundamental, extending beyond the Sabbath and the afterlife to everything secular. The most obvious evidence is available in a political style that has less the feeling of policies and campaigns than decrees and commandments. His policies are presented with a dogmatic certainty that feel more like the pronouncements of doctrine than the illumination of ideas. He conducts politics as if he were engaged in a battle to restore Canada to its ordained place in the firmament of the righteous, pursuing his political policies with the zealous conviction of a Christian believer who is wrestling against the heathen practices of a country gone astray. Like a crusader at war with sin and error, he is inclined to place ideology above evidence. His rights and wrongs are as clearly defined as blacks and whites. His universe and ethics are as polarized as good and evil. Greys are not part of his theology or politics. And his seamless merging of the religious with the secular makes him the ultimate syncretist.

This syncretism of Christianity with “individualist liberalism and free-market capitalism” is bewildering to traditional theological thinking. Didn’t Jesus throw the money lenders out of the temple? Didn’t he declare that the rich were as likely to go to heaven as a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? And doesn’t the Bible record the response of Jesus to a devout and wealthy man who came to ask the way to deeper spiritual life? “Jesus, looking at the man, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:21-22).

Capitalism, particularly free-market capitalism with its competitive, materialistic and self-centred character, is based on philosophical notions that are difficult to reconcile with the loving precepts that are the foundations of Christianity. A survival-of-the-fittest economic system seems wholly incompatible with the teachings of the biblical Jesus who eschewed outer riches in favour of inner wealth, and whose sympathies seemed to invariably rest with the poor, the weak, the meek, the sick, the exploited and the defeated. The guiding elements of charity, caring, compassion, generosity and forgiveness have infused Christianity with its most commendable spiritual and social qualities. The political thinking and actions of Canada’s current Prime Minister don’t concur with this gospel of unconditional love.

We have a Canadian Prime Minister who leads a fiscally conservative government, whose position on crime is to punish “those who trespass against us”, and whose environmental policies are hastening the destruction of a Creation that Yahweh judged as “good”. As the leader of a government, Harper devises tax policies that are disproportionately beneficial to the wealthy, is typically ungenerous with health care spending, shows little compassion for his nation’s poor, systematically celebrates the accomplishments of war, and is quick with the use of military power. He exudes little of Christianity’s commendable warmth, compassion and caring.

His theological and evangelical inclinations are reflected in his muzzling of scientists, in his closing of research libraries, in his conflict with the authority of the Supreme Court, in his tight control of information, in his centralizing of power, in his resistance to dialogue, and in his contempt for parliamentary processes and traditions. His political position on prostitution, drug addiction and assisted suicide is guided more by an implicit moralizing than an obvious social pragmatism. Does his apparent indifference to the multitudinous complications of global warming stem from a distain for climate science, from a crass political loyalty to his fossil-fuelled roots in Alberta, or from a belief that God will not allow such a process to proceed to its catastrophic conclusion? Do his fundamentalist attitudes infuse this political style with a kind of blind certainty that, like the Old Testament Yahweh, will countenance no debate, disagreement or doubt? Are his essential political arguments founded on the strength of his faith rather than the persuasiveness of his evidence? His particular brand of politics seems to be moving Canada away from the fluidity of an open democracy toward the rigidity of a closed theocracy.

Canadians have been particularly careful to separate the religion from the politics of their elected officials. But we have a Prime Minister — perhaps more than anyone in this country’s recent political history — who is attempting to stamp his personality, ideology and attitudes on the character of Canada. If his political and economic policies are being infused with his religious beliefs and principles, shouldn’t this aspect of his personal life be privy to the Canadian public? If he is imparting an indelible influence on this country, shouldn’t the religious thinking of one of Canada’s most private Prime Ministers be fully explored so we can better understand what is happening to this country’s environment, economics, politics, values and identity?