Reviewed by Tom Sandborn
The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy
Little Brown and Company 2010
The Armageddon Factor
The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada
Random House Canada 2010
A quick glance at the daily news these days brings to mind that resonant phrase from
Yeats “The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” From Kandahar to Washington DC and from Jerusalem to Vancouver the tides of religious fundamentalism seem to be on the rise ( with noxious variants that claim to speak for all three of the patriarchal monotheisms as well as a particularly unpleasant sect that purports to speak for the Hindu tradition.) As antagonistic as they are to each otherthe fundamentalist sects all share a number of pathological traits including misogynyhomophobia ersatz nostalgia for an imagined simpler past and an unsettling enthusiasm for violence in the name of the holy.
The United States of course is home to an alarming number of rabid Christian fundamentalists and is currently engaged in world wide military and para-military campaigns against fundamentalists of the Muslim persuasion who are often led by equally odious and hateful Wahhabi fanatics. Meanwhile Jewish fundamentalists fuel Israel’s territorial ambitions and intransigence in its relations with the Palestinians and Hindutva militants conduct armed struggle against Muslims in India. Rabid rabbis, mad mullahs, murderous Hindu fanatics and hate filled Christian clerics are all brothers under the skin alike in their antagonism toward pleasure rationality and freedom. The plaintive bumper sticker that adorns a car in my neighbourhood “Dear God Please Protect Me From Your Followers” seems more and more appropriate these days. .
Jeff Sharlet’s C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy is a fast paced well-written look at one of the powerful Christian fundamentalist groups that play such a guiding role in American political life. Sharlet the best-selling author of The Family his first study of the secretive group known as The Fellowship ( a.k.a The Family)turns his attention here again to the same group. Sharlet is the only American journalist to have penetrated The Family and based his first book about them on his time spent undercover as a member. In C Street, Sharlet who is a contributing editor at Harpers and Rolling Stone magazines sketches out the history of this shadowy group which has until a trio of politicians linked to its C Street residence in Washington all got caught out in sexual scandals recently remained almost entirely below the media radar. Known if at all as the sponsors of the anodyne National Prayer Breakfast the Family is in fact according to Sharlet a network of right wing Christians and powerful politicians around the world, a network that has smoothed the way for American support to dictators like the Duvaliers of Haiti, Indonesia’s Suharto and Somalia’s Siad. Barre supported vicious anti-gay legislation in Africa and promoted a fundamentalist take over of chaplain services within the American military.
Founded in Seattle during the Great Depression by Norwegian immigrant pastor Abraham Vareide the Family has consistently seen itself as holding a special commission from God to minister to the powerful and the rich. Sharlet details in his well written book the influence the Family has had on American foreign policy and on life within the American military as well as its extensive and malign influence in Africa where Family protégé’s in Uganda have been responsible for Draconian legislation that threatens gay Ugandans with the death penalty.
(If Sharlet’s portrait of one element of the Christian Right in America isn’t enough to cost you a few sleepless nights try a look at Chris Hedges’ 2006 polemic American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America which describes a broader spectrum of that movement albeit in a tone of sometimes over-heated denunciation but adds to the reader’s just sense of the scale of the problem nonetheless. )
But Canadian readers of Sharlet’s expose’ should not be tempted by that most Canadian of responses - complacent pleasure that at least we’re not as nuts as our neighbors to the south. A close read of McDonald’s recently published The Armageddon Factor reveals that the “dominionist” elements of fundamentalist Christianity are to be found in the corridors of Canadian power as well. McDonald details the many disturbing connections between the Harper Conservatives and right wing Christian formations here.
She paints the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa sponsored by BC’s Trinity Western University as a US style project designed to create a cadre of fundamentalist graduates with an explicit agenda to enter and influence government and she notes the existence in Canada of branch plant fundamentalist operations with head offices in the States like Focus on the Family. Although the influence of the radical fundamentalist strain of Christianity is clearly less powerful here than in the Excited States it is still enough of a haunting presence to disturb those of us who still cherish the idea of a secular state that protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
So our situation in Canada is not as dire as it is in the US but that is not for lack of trying by our resident fanatics. As McDonald’s book clearly illustrates Canada has its own crop of fundamentalists who would like the country to be a theocracy and never mind any silly secular ideas about freedom and civil liberties. Read both these books this long dark winter season and think hard about their implications both for the role the US is playing in the new century’s Wars of Religion and for the danger Canada could become even more complicit in that theocratic madness than we are already.