Today’s National Post (behind a pay wall) has an interesting article sent to me by one of my favourite sister-in-laws. The article is ‘We do not see a religious right in Canada’ Chris Hedges Vs. McVety by Joseph Brean.
I received a number of angry responses to my previous Hedges post (from some of my friends, no less) and might expect no less from this post. It would appear that Hedges was in Toronto this week (I must have missed the memo) at a University of Toronto Bookstore sponsored, Innis Town Hall debate between Hedges and Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College (and son of its founder, Elmer McVety.)
Mr. Hedges, with his wise-owl glasses and a chippy tone of voice that seems to suggest you should have thought of all this yourself, comes across as more Harvard don than Gonzo. (“You better quote from the book before you start trying to paraphrase it,” he snipped at John Oakley, a Toronto radio host and the debate’s moderator.)
But he is no ivory tower boffin. He has been ambushed in Central America, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard, and he was in Sarajevo during the siege. Now he teaches at Princeton and has just published a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.
Rev. McVety, by contrast, has a degree from the California State Christian University, which does not even have a Web page, and he publishes a magazine that has a full-page photo of him and his wife on the cover. He had lost the credentials battle before they even sat down. (link added – read the comments in the Benediction post and see the Note* at the end of this post.)
He is a blustery self-promoter who speaks simply and on cue, like a windup toy. He is a Biblical literalist who dislikes evolution because it is “focused on death, the killing of those that are not strong,” and defends creationism on the grounds of intellectual freedom. He even goes so far as to say that Darwinism is racist because the subtitle of The Origin of Species refers to “the preservation of the favoured races.”
But, loony as he sometimes sounded, he scored an unseemly draw in the debate because Mr. Hedges’ arguments –however forceful, well-researched and frankly terrifying for the American picture — in the Canadian case, amounted to little more than guilt by association.
…corporate America has “adopted and backed” this hijacking of Christianity, Mr. Hedges said, because it has proven profitable.
“If you believe that Jesus is going to take care of you, and that miracles happen, you don’t need health insurance. All of your jobs can be outsourced to Mexico or the Philippines or China, but God will take care of you if you just get right with Jesus,” Mr. Hedges said. “There has been a synergy between powerful right-wing corporate interest and foundations and the radical Christian right in the United States, and I think you’re beginning to see that synergy here [in Canada].”
Harsh as he is, Mr. Hedges is not part of the wider anti-religion movement as embodied in such writers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who ridicule faith itself as irrational. He is a faithful Christian, biblically literate, with a Masters degree from Harvard Divinity school, although he does not attend church.
“I come out of the Church. My father was a Presbyterian minister. I graduated from seminary and I am a believer, not in an orthodox way, but I certainly ultimately define myself as religious,” he said.
With such a dire warning coming from a believer, it ought to be a pressing question whether Canadian democracy faces this same danger, and whether there are substantial allegiances between the Canadian Christian right and the American. But neither man addressed this at the debate and nobody asked.
On the other hand, if such media hungry preachers as Rev. McVety are the worst danger posed by the Canadian Christian right, then Mr. Hedges is crying wolf, and he knows it.
“There’s a buffoonish quality to many of these people, and that’s something that I think McVety to a certain extent exhibits,” Mr. Hedges said in an interview. “Those of us who live in the rational, reality-based world have a hard time understanding how potent and dangerous these people are.”
Canadian evangelicals, however, seem to bear little resemblance to the men in Mr. Hedges crosshairs, those who travel the country in Lear jets paid for with the rent cheques of thousands of lost souls. (emphasis added)
“We do not see a religious right in Canada. We see a fear of a religious right in Canada,” said Stuart Macdonald, professor of Canadian Christian history at the University of Toronto’s Knox College. “We see a few people trying to create one, but they have not succeeded, and most evangelicals are not where the Republican right is in the United States, they’re far more moderate. On one or two issues, they might have some sympathy, but we have to really dig to find extremists, where in the United States, they’re all over the place.”
As for Rev. McVety, if he speaks for Canadian evangelicals at all, it seems he has been mostly unsuccessful in influencing the government on their behalf. Gay marriage is now off the agenda, for example, as is abortion. Prof. Macdonald says the minority government makes the likelihood of such religious influence all the more remote.
“It is so easy for people to get up and claim they speak for a broader constituency than they do,” he said.
In this week’s interview, however, he was more circumspect, and acknowledged he knows little about Canadian evangelicals.
“I think that Canada certainly is beginning to suffer from the same dislocations that have beset the United States, and that disenfranchisement of large segments of your population create political mutations that give rise to radical movements,” he said.
But Canada is not in the same state of crisis as the United States, with the “personal and economic despair” that is the engine of the U.S. Christian right: “You don’t have 47-million people who don’t have health insurance,” he said. “You still have a social state and that is your protection against this movement.”
“People in despair turn to demagogues who promise fantastic utopias, who promise miracles, who promise a world of magic, who promise that Jesus will walk with them every day and guide them in their life and has a divine plan for them. Demagogues are also very good at sanctifying rage,” he said.
With his religious bona fides, Mr. Hedges would seem the ideal Christian to call these American demagogues to task, and he does so ably in his book. But he never landed a knock-out punch against the Canadian.
Rev. McVety, for his part, scored points by pointing out that corporate America is “deeply secular,” not Christian, and he won a hearty ovation after Mr. Hedges described Christian media as a “hermetic” system of propaganda that promotes an unhealthy self-image, to which Rev. McVety quipped, “Are you talking about Hollywood?”
“What you just heard is the Gospel according to Chris Hedges, and because someone died and made him king, we need to walk in lockstep,” Rev. McVety said, his bottled rage building before the television cameras. “You come here from Hah-vahd, you call me a bigot. Prove it. Prove that I’m a bigot.”
Twiddling his eyeglasses, Mr. Hedges just ignored him.
Before the flames begin, let me say that I’m not a huge Hedges fan. I don’t buy his story of the incredibly scary Christian Right – writing that appears to have more in common with Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s fiction than it does with reality. But I do think that Hedges is correct in his “people of” and “theology of” despair assessment. And he does accurately portray the promises of what many supposed Christian leaders preach to a people starved for relationship and hope. That is something that those of us who profess Christ need to hear…and to respond to.
*Note that Dr. McVety’s undergraduate degrees are both from Canada Christian College – before it was a degree granting institution, and that his wife, listed as Dr. Jennifer McVety has an honorary D.P.C from Canadian Semimary – not to be confused with Canadian FullMary, I guess. I actually can’t find a listing for “Canadian Seminary” if that’s what Ms. McVety’s “doctorate” is supposed to be from – Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary – sometimes referred to as Canadian Seminary, do not grant Doctorate degrees. There does appear to be a interesting story in the degrees of many of the CCC faculty alone.