Stephen Harper Isn’t Evangelical ENOUGH

Opponents of the Prime Minister sometimes link him with a spooky, sinister Religious Right that is quietly scheming to turn secular, broad-minded, and inclusive Canada into a pinched, heavy-handed theocracy. “He is, after all, an evangelical,” such people tend to say, as if invoking the very term “evangelical” settles the issue decidedly against Mr. Harper.

As a scholar of evangelicalism in Canada, however, I retort that it might be well for Canada, and for the Prime Minister, if he were manifestly more evangelical than he appears to be.

Yes, evangelicals typically are suspicious of governmental power. But any sensible person shares that suspicion. And evangelicals throughout Canadian history have concluded that some large problems can be tackled adequately only by government, whether the exploitation of the economy by certain big players at the expense of the common person, or the dominance of one region or class of the country at the expense of everyone else.

As different as they have been from each other, the Social Credit movement and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the NDP) were both founded by evangelical clergymen. And lots of evangelicals have supported more moderate versions of government leadership since then, whether in government agencies caring for single mothers, employment programs for those victimized by economic changes, welcoming of refugees, and significant aid to other countries suffering under famine or war.

“Small government” is not, therefore, an evangelical slogan. “Just government,” “helpful government,” “compassionate government,” “government for everyone”—those slogans would be much more in keeping with Canada’s evangelical heritage.

Yes, evangelicals typically prioritize spiritual matters over secular ones. But that very concern to prepare for the world to come tends to motivate evangelicals to self-sacrifice in this one. Most of the largest relief-and-development charities in the world were founded by evangelicals, from World Vision to Compassion to Food for the Hungry to the Salvation Army itself. The YMCA and YWCA were originally evangelical organizations designed to help uprooted rural young people find safety, companionship, and wholesome entertainment in Canada’s burgeoning cities. And many of our universities, including some of our most prominent, were founded by evangelicals in order to train not only pastors, but a wide range of professionals, scientists, and scholars.

Yes, what about science and scholarship? Evangelicals have a bad reputation for anti-intellectualism, and the Prime Minister’s apparent distaste for “sociology” versus a more manly “action,” for natural science (that comes to inconvenient conclusions), and even for just basic information (whether about our waterways or even ourselves, via the long-form census) seems of a piece with “know-nothing” fundamentalism.

Yet Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, is an evangelical, and he is typical of leading evangelical scientists in North American universities from coast to coast. Evangelical scholars publish with the top university presses while (and this is important) enjoying high regard among evangelical pastors and laypeople.

Yes, evangelicals typically worry that universities can harbour enemies of the faith who unscrupulously abuse the professorial lectern to tear down the faith of vulnerable students, and as a veteran of such universities myself, I can testify that such professorial malpractice certainly happens here and there. The typical evangelical confidence, nonetheless, is that the truth is on the evangelical side of things. So bring on the science and the scholarship! Mr. Harper would be more evangelical if he invested more, rather than less, in the pursuit of the truth.

Finally, what about the end of the world? Aren’t evangelicals disaster-mongers who revel with Schadenfreude about the imminent collapse of civilization and the triumph of their cause? And isn’t this a terrible worldview for someone leading Canada today?

There are television preachers, to be sure, who trade in such extremes…although most of them are beamed up from south of our border, and their viewership in Canada is very low. I have visited churches from coast to coast and almost never hear, or hear of, fire-and-brimstone preaching anymore.

Ironically, it might be well for the Prime Minister to be a little more afraid than he seems to be about the end of the world: whether brought on by global climate change, the proliferation of war, or the pent-up fury of oppressed peoples.

If he were more evangelical, he would care more and better for the creation (as does the evangelical A Rocha society, recently endorsed by Margaret Atwood—who is not widely noted as a comrade of the Religious Right). If he were more evangelical, he would return our armed forces to Canada’s peacekeeping role in international war zones. If he were more evangelical, he would extend more help to the world’s needy, and especially those understandably outraged by our adventurist meddling in their politics.

Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau seem not only uninterested in, but even repelled by, evangelicalism and evangelical support for their parties. The Conservatives would do well, then, to do what their enemies think would be terrible, but might actually be just the ticket: become decidedly more evangelical.

10 Responses to “Stephen Harper Isn’t Evangelical ENOUGH”

  1. Dennis Bruce

    A very good article. Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the contribution that evangelicals have made to this country. It’s a pity it will not be more widely read.

  2. Paul

    Appreciate much of what you present here, but the reference to returning “our armed forces to Canada’s peacekeeping role in international war zones” is more than a little offensive to those with whom I work who actually have to do the work of “peacekeeping.” Those I know find the popular notion of “Canadian peacekeeping” naive at best and extremely destructive to all concerned. The mission to Rwanda is a case in point. Other than that, greatly appreciated.

    • John

      No one in the armed forces ought to take offence at what I’m saying, Paul. And none of the soldiers, sailors, or air force personnel I’ve talked with do take offence. We’re talking about Canada’s geostrategic role in the world as mediated by, among other important influences, our armed forces. And I’m suggesting that Canada has played a crucial and special role in peacekeeping that contributed something special to the world quite different from the way, for example, American forces typically have been involved. I mean no disrespect to our American cousins, either: Different roles can and should be played by different actors.

      I don’t understand your reference to Rwanda. General Dallaire was right to request more forces from NATO to subdue the slaughter he foresaw. If you’re going to do something, do it right. What does that have to do with my general point about peacekeeping?

  3. Paul

    Because “peacekeeping” has historically meant totally unrealistic public expectations and absolutely absurd rules of engagement. The damage done to the peacekeepers I know by the people you are apparently talking to has been pretty profound. Kosovo is another case in point.

    • John

      No need for the “apparently,” Paul. I do take your point about the expectations and rules of engagement in some theatres. But those can and ought to be made appropriate, rather than abandoning the ideal, I think. Otherwise, one could be charged with dishonouring the people who did engage in that work and did it well in several instances. But neither of us want to do that, either. I am not convinced that peacekeeping isn’t a mode to which we should return, and the Rwanda case, as I’ve suggested in response to you, is a pretty clear instance of how we did it badly…rather than a situation in which the ideal should not have been pursued. (Thanks, as always, for looking out for the interests of those who actually have to do this difficult work.)

  4. Paul

    John, Historically, those who have called the loudest for Canada to “return to it’s Peacekeeping role” have been those who have made sure that there are not enough personnel or material or rules of engagement to “do it right.” In most of the cases I know, and hopefully you are an exception, the motivation comes from a place of sanctimonious moral superiority. While the feeling of moral superiority can be very gratifying to those who indulge in it I don’t need to explain to you how evil it can be, and how insulting it is to those who have to do the real dirty work.

    Again, thanks for a very important piece, with this one minor caveat.

    • John

      Thanks, Paul. I’m with you: There is no excuse for Canadians to send Canadians into harm’s way without doing everything we can to train and equip them properly–indeed, as well as we possibly can. This goes for our coast guard and other rescuers as well, of course. I am simply disgusted that we do not give our troops and our rescuers state-of-the-art training and cutting-edge equipment. So I’m one of those odd people who believe that we ought to try to avoid violence as much as we can…but when we feel we must engage in it, as the least bad of the available options, we engage in it properly, and that means with maximal strength so that we can not only complete the job but (and here’s the paradox of strength) with the minimum harm done. You can be careful, even gentle, with strength–as was and is our Lord–but under-manning, under-equipping, and under-training troops is a recipe for desperation and disaster. No more.

  5. DJ Brown

    Very well said, John. I wish the Post or the Globe would publish this piece.

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