Harper promotes religious rightists

By Dennis Gruending

Lloyd Mackey, JournalistIt’s been a good month for the religious right in Ottawa. The Hill Times newspaper reports that Stephen Harper has promoted religious conservatives to two senior positions in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – the government’s political nerve centre. Darrel Reid, Harper’s former director of policy, becomes his deputy chief of staff. Harper also promoted Paul Wilson to replace Reid as PMO policy director. What has this to do with the religious right? Allow me to back into the story. Lloyd Mackey, a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, reports for print and online Christian publications and he has good contacts among both Christian and political conservatives. Mackey was a guest presenter in our Faith and Public life Class at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology early in March.

Mackey provided the class with a handout containing a list of religious organizations active in political Ottawa. Among them were the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), a conservative research and advocacy organization created by its parent organization, Focus on the Family Canada. Another organization on Mackey’s list is Trinity Western University, based in Langley, B.C. and one of the largest evangelical educational institutions in Canada. Trinity established an Ottawa “campus” in 2001 in an old mansion near Parliament Hill. It houses the Laurentian Leadership Centre, which places students as interns with Ottawa-based organizations, many of them with MPs.

Both Reid and Wilson have deep roots in both the religious right and in the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties. Reid was chief of staff to Reform Party leader Preston Manning while he was leader of the opposition. Reid later left to become the president of Focus on the Family Canada in its Vancouver head office for six years. Under his leadership, the group lobbied against public childcare, against legislation on same-sex marriage, and against adding sexual orientation to a list of minorities protected from hate crimes. Focus on the Family has also promoted conversion therapy for gays. Reid later made an unsuccessful attempt at a Conservative nomination for the 2006 election in Richmond, near Vancouver. When the Conservatives won that election, he returned to Ottawa as chief of staff to Rona Ambrose during her brief and tumultuous tenure as environment minister.

Focus on the Family in Canada is an offshoot of a powerful American organization of the same name created by psychologist James Dobson. It is a well-funded conservative lobby group that also trains activists and produces magazines, videos and books. Two hundred million people listen to Dobson’s radio broadcasts, making his the most extensive network in the world, religious or secular. Harper’s magazine has described Dobson as among the most powerful evangelical Christians in America and says that he was instrumental in getting the vote out for George Bush. Dobson believes that Christians are being persecuted in the U.S., and according to Harper’s he also holds toxic views about gays, lesbians, those who support same sex marriage, and even the public school system. Dobson’s daily broadcasts are available over the website of Focus on the Family Canada and the Canadian organization has received financial support from its American counterpart.

Dobson also created the Family Research Council in Washington D.C. as a conservative research and advocacy group. Focus on the Family Canada created the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) in Ottawa with the same intent. The Institute worked closely with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and other groups in opposing the Liberal government’s same sex marriage legislation. Dave Quist, now the IMFC’s executive director, spent six years working for a Reform-Alliance MP from British Columbia. Quist ran for the Conservatives there in the 2004 election and after losing he spent a year working in Stephen Harper’s office.

Paul Wilson, Darrel Reid’s successor in the PMO, worked for both Preston Manning and Stockwell Day in the Reform-Alliance and Conservative parties. Later he served with Trinity Western’s leadership centre. Among his tasks was coordination of the internship program for students, many of who served in the offices of opposition MPs when Reform, the Alliance and Conservatives occupied that role. When Stephen Harper won in 2006, Wilson left Trinity Western to become a senior policy advisor to Vic Toews, the justice minister. Wilson later served in a similar policy role for Diane Finley, the minister of human resources.

Trinity Western has close informal ties with many Reform-Alliance and Conservative politicians. The university hosts an annual lecture by a prominent public figure. The speaker in 2009 was former Reform–Alliance-Conservative MP Deborah Grey. Previous lecturers include: Preston Manning, Chuck Strahl, the federal Indian affairs minister and Ralph Klein, the former Conservative premier of Alberta.

When journalist Lloyd Mackey spoke to the Faith and Public Life class in March he pointed to a range of events that week which involved religious groups on or around Parliament Hill. Trinity Western was hosting John Redekop, retired professor of political science, for a lecture called: What does God expect of governments and of citizens?  Cornelius Van Dam, a professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, was here to talk about: God and government: a biblical perspective on the role of the state.

Dave Quist’s Institute on Marriage and the Family Canada hosted a conference for about 120 people and Monte Solberg, a former Reform-Alliance-Conservative MP and cabinet minister, gave a welcoming address to the guests. (Mr. Quist also sent me a message inviting me to attend – and in doing so identified himself as a reader of this blog. I was not able to make it).

The Manning Centre for Building Democracy also had an event in Ottawa that week, which was described on its website as a “networking conference and exhibition”. Preston Manning and his wife Sandra created the centre in 2006 and it is focused on training conservatives to win in politics. Manning’s conference featured Rick Hillier, the retired chief of defence staff, as the speaker for a gala dinner, and included an array of researchers from the right-wing Fraser Institute and columnists from the National Post. The event also featured Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Proposition 8, a plebiscite in the November 2008 American election aimed at enshrining the traditional definition of marriage into California’s constitution. The proposition carried.

Manning also used his website to promote Quist’s IMFC conference occurring on March 12 — for obvious strategic reasons and perhaps as a favour to his former chief of staff.

One does not have to agree politically or theologically with these individuals and organizations to respect the networks that have been built and the growing influence that they appear to have with government.  Political and religious progressives, should they be aware of this activity, must be envious indeed.

George Lakoff, the well-known American linguist, describes in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant how political conservatives in the United States made a conscious decision in the 1970s to spend the money to build an intellectual culture for the right. Donors included the Coors family – famous for their breweries and their right wing politics. Lakoff says these wealthy people set up professorships and scholarships at many universities, including Harvard. “These institutions have done their job very well,” Lakoff writes. “The conservatives support their intellectuals. They create media opportunities . . . Eighty per cent of the talking heads on television are from conservative think tanks.” Lakoff adds, “Nothing like this happens in the progressive world, because there are so many people thinking that what each does is the right thing.”

There is little in progressive Ottawa to rival the networks that have been created by the religious and political right. The right is a minority in Canada but groups that are well organized can punch above their weight as the saying goes – particularly in an era of fractured parliaments and minority governments.

5 thoughts on “Harper promotes religious rightists

  1. Hi Dennis,

    You may have noticed a bit of extra traffic in the last couple of days as I have pointing a few people your way.

    I think that that the attacks by Focus on the Family on Obama are going to backfire on them. As a Liberal-Conservative or a Conservative-Liberal I have come to the point where I don’t want anything to do with Focus on the Family anymore.

    Keep up the good work with your blog, I like dropping by to read it from time to time.

    P.S. Congratulations on the award. You deserve it. Hope my endorsement helped. (Now if you would only nominate me for 2009… 🙂 )


  2. Pingback: Terrible Depths
  3. Hi Dennis

    I heard Marci McDonald speak at the U of S a couple of weeks ago, and since then, I’ve discovered your blog. I know Mr. Harper’s income splitting announcement today was received well by the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada and believe it was made partly to appease his evangelical supporters. So I’m trying my best to get some of these ideas out onto the internet, just who Harper is and what his agenda really is. Of course you know more than many that it’s a tough slog.

    Just wondering if you could refer me to any more recent material about the Right in Harper’s inner circle. Most of the references I’ve found are at least two years old, or more in some cases. I looked at the Harper Index but it doesn’t look very up to date.

    Thanks for what you do, keep it up.

    Stephanie Sydiaha, Saskatoon

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your note. I would welcome comments and information from other readers that might fill in the gaps about Mr. Harper’s current religious right connections. You might also take a look at a blog called Religious Right Alert.


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