Right at the moment I am reading a very interesting book, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, by a colleague, Amanda Porterfield. She is tackling a problem that has long puzzled me, how was it that a nation founded by deists (even those ostensibly Christian tended to avoid taking communion and that sort of thing) could become so fervently evangelical by, let us say, about 1840 (although in fact it happened earlier than that).
I will talk about the book itself at a later date, but now I want to puzzle about the hold that this idiosyncratic form of Protestantism still has on so many Americans. I am tempted to say simply that religion ruins everything. I know that that is not true. My Quaker childhood was surrounded by people who sincerely tried to do good because of their Christian faith. But when I see the nastiness – hostility to women, to gays and transsexuals, to anyone whose skin is not lily white, to folks without jobs and on welfare – first I cry and then I realize I just don’t understand it.
The contrast has been brought home very vividly this week by an election held in the Canadian province of Alberta. Even Americans know that this province, out West just this side of the Rockies, has various mineral and energy holdings that equal the Middle East. They are rich and traditionally politically to the right of center. The so-called “Progressive Conservatives” have been in power for about forty years now. I would put them somewhere around the position of Mitt Romney in Massachusetts years, although they are perhaps a bit more cautious than that.
This year an upstart party, the “Wildrose Party,” very much further right – a kind of Canadian echo of the Tea Party – mounted a ferocious challenge and poll after poll suggested that they would get in with a majority of about 60 seats from the total of about 90. Came the election on Monday, and the PC’s were returned to power. It was they who had 60 seats and the Wildrose about 20. Egg all over the faces of the pundits, which in itself is rather gratifying!
Why did this happen? Well, it wasn’t that the Wildrose was led by a woman. The PC’s are led by a woman too! It was just that when it came down to it, the Wildrose had a stench of evangelical Christianity that the good people of Alberta found, well, frankly, offensive. The leader refused to agree that global warming is a problem and human-caused. She and her crew were also into conscience stuff about letting people deny others access to and information about abortion. And then two of her candidates – pastors both, wouldn’t you know – really put in the boot. One was found to have blogged about homosexuals spending eternity in hell fire and the other suggested that people would vote for him because he was white and others are not.
For all of their conservatism, and whatever their religious beliefs, people just found that sickening. Albertans have moved on from that. After all, as they pointed out, this is a province where the mayor of one big city (Edmonton) is a Jew and the mayor of the other big city (Calgary) is a Muslim! Belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ is no longer a reason to hate your fellow human beings and those who do think and speak this way are properly considered pariahs.
As one person said, somewhat strikingly: “It’s not that I have a h--- o- for the Conservatives, but I’d sooner have my face gnawed off by rodents than have Wildrose win.”
Now, I expect that by now some of my faithful critics are at the keyboard pounding out their responses, most of which will begin: “If you feel this way about Canada, why don’t you go back there?” I am not saying or implying at all something that merits this response. As I have said many times, I became an American citizen so that I would have the moral right to criticize. I don’t want to be one of those people on the outside doing a job on America. Canada conversely is not Simon Pure. The PC’s may have been elected again in Alberta, but previous behavior does not inspire confidence about what they will do with respect to the tar sands. And don’t get me going on the treatment of native people.
I am just saying that America has a moral and political cancer and this is a function of much that passes today for the Christian religion. I am not a New Atheist, wanting to cut out all religion. I don’t want to cut out all evangelical religion. I know about the love and concern that has been shown to AIDS victims in Africa. But I do want to say that you can be a conservative without saddling yourself with so many prejudices against your fellow human beings.
I never thought I would say this, but Alberta leads the way.