The Harper Index

Religious rightists get Harper promotions

Faith conservatives get two senior positions in the Prime Minister's Office.

Darrel Reid, new deputy chief of staff to Harper, has deep roots in the religious Dennis Gruending

OTTAWA, March 24, 2009, It has 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.

Reid and Wilson have deep roots in both the religious right and in the Reform-Alliance and Conservative parties. There is a growing network of religious organizations active in political Ottawa. Among them are the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), a conservative research and lobbying organization created by its parent organization Focus on the Family Canada. Another prominent organization 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 and members of Parliament.

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 to provide socially conservative research and advocacy. 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, who is 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, Reid's successor in the PMO, worked for both Preston Manning and Stockwell Day in the Alliance and Conservative parties. Later he served with Trinity Western's leadership centre. Among his tasks was coordination of an 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.

The month of March has been an unduly busy season for religious groups on or around Parliament Hill. Trinity Western hosted 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 on March 12 and Monte Solberg, a former Reform-Alliance-Conservative MP, gave a welcoming address. The Manning Centre for Building Democracy had an event in Ottawa that week as well, which was described on the centre's 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 used his Centre's website to promote Quist's family conference occurring on March 12 – for strategic reasons and perhaps as a favour to his former chief of staff.

One does not have to agree politically or theologically with any of these individuals and organizations to respect the networks that they have 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 on 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. They are in 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.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, a former member of Parliament, and author of the blog Pulpit and Politics.

Posted: March 24, 2009

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