• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Marci McDonald, "The Armageddon Factor": Part 3: Conclusions (UPDATED)

I have argued so far that Marci McDonald’s book has so many evident problems that it is hard to trust what she says in any areas one cannot check. And that’s too bad, because I don’t think she’s wrong about one crucial matter, the matter at the core of the book. There is a Religious Right in Canada and it has influence worth noticing.

Let’s clarify what we should not mean by that. Over the last several decades, evangelicals and Roman Catholics in Canada have engaged in Canadian public life more and differently than they had done in the previous generation. Since the innovations of the Pearson and Trudeau years, particularly having to do with a wide range of sex- and family-related matters, and in the light of the Quiet Revolution, evangelicals and Catholics have woken up to the fact that Canada isn’t automatically, generally, and perpetually Christian anymore. So these Christians have organized and entered political life both provincially and federally in new ways, in greater numbers, and with more noticeable results. (I have written about some of these developments here: “Bearing Witness: Christian Groups Engage Canadian Politics since the 1960s,” in Rethinking Church, State, and Modernity: Canada between Europe and America, ed. David Lyon and Marguerite Van Die [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000], 113-28.)

The mere fact, then, that theologically conservative Christians increasingly have involved themselves in Canadian public life is not news, and it isn’t fundamentally what Ms. McDonald is talking about. Thus no one needs to be alarmed about Catholic bishops or the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada speaking out about and advocating for their views on abortion, or euthanasia, or the nature of marriage, or Christian education–nor about them sometimes working together on these and other issues on which they share common concerns–as if this is a Scary New Thing. It isn’t. And Ms. McDonald’s book usually makes clear that she’s not alarmed about it, either. She distinguishes sometimes (not, alas, invariably) between such mainstream Christian groups simply playing their parts in the civic conversation, on the one hand, and the people that actually frighten her, on the other.

Who are those alarming people?

Ah: Those are the Christians in Canada who do believe in a weird and ominous amalgam of prosperity gospel, last-days eschatology, cultural imperialism, self-righteousness, anti-pluralism, anti-intellectualism, preposterous Biblical interpretation, radical mysticism, binary thinking, bellicose rhetoric, public dissembling, hardball (if also ham-fisted) politicking, and financial ambiguity (to put it kindly). There are such people and they frighten me, too.

Note: They don’t just bemuse me or annoy me. Yes, I’m disappointed that so many of my fellow evangelicals feel they must resist all forms of evolutionary theory because they believe the Bible requires it. They don’t have to do so, and many evangelical scientists, theologians, and other scholars are trying to help their evangelical comrades get past this unnecessary difficulty–as evangelicals did in the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth or twenty-first.

Yes, having grown up in dispensationalist circles I regret the amount of energy and ingenuity wasted on trying to figure out the identity of the Antichrist and the date of the Rapture. But I remember many such Christians also being generous donors to World Vision and other relief and development agencies. Belief in the imminent return of Christ does not, in fact, necessarily prompt frantic fanaticism. (In fact, one of the oddities of Ms. McDonald’s account is that she never even tries to explain why people who are putatively obsessed with the looming end of the world undertake long-term, incremental infiltration of government. Wouldn’t their belief that Jesus is about to return mean such investment is a waste of time when souls need to be saved right now?)

And yes, I don’t have much admiration for the Dick Dewerts and their Miracle Channel cohorts, the Faytene Kryskows and their militant mentors and followers, and the Charles McVetys and their American fundamentalist heroes. These folk trade in what seem to me to be shallow and simplistic theology and politics both. But the main organs of Canadian evangelicalism aren’t like them: not the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, not InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, not the major evangelical denominations, and not the major evangelical schools (from Crandall University to Tyndale College and Seminary to Briercrest College and Seminary to The King’s University College to, yes, Regent College).

These folk can bother me, but none of these people frighten me. What does disturb me in Marci McDonald’s purview is the fact that extreme forms of Canadian evangelicalism–the creation-science, hysterical-prophetic, health-and-wealth, visionary-charismatic, culturally-imperialistic, all-or-nothing forms–seem indeed to have purchase on significant figures in Canadian political life.

And here’s the odd thing. Marci McDonald rightly shines her journalistic spotlight on people such as Timothy Bloedow (aide to two MPs and founder of the truly scary website christiangovernment.ca) and Gary Goodyear (minister of state for science and technology who is trained in the dubious science of chiropractic and seems unable to affirm evolution in anything like its mainstream scientific form). But one name keeps popping up in almost every category of the Religious Right—creation science, Christian cultural imperialism, B’nai Brith, prosperity gospel, prolife, Christian private schools, you name it—and it’s the most powerful name on the list: Stockwell Day.

The fact that Mr. Day is involved in so very many such groups is perhaps surprising, but what’s ironically surprising is that Ms. McDonald doesn’t connect her own dots and train her fire on Stockwell Day as himself the most baleful feature of the Canadian Religious Right. What is someone like him doing in the Cabinet, with one important portfolio or another, and standing quietly by to take over as Conservative leader if Mr. Harper fails? How can someone like Stockwell Day be so powerful unless he does represent significant elements in the Canadian electorate?

Forget making fun of the creation-science museum in Alberta. Forget trying to demonize Preston Manning. Forget Charles McVety and Faytene Kryskow, both of whose ministries (according to data furnished me by the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, among other sources) have experienced significant drops in funding and personnel over the last 24 months. Focus on Stockwell Day and his associates and the religious culture that spawned and supports them. How have such people become so powerful and stayed so prominent even under Prime Minister Harper, who is not like them (as Ms. McDonald frequently, if inconsistently, acknowledges) and whom no one accuses of ruling the Conservative caucus with a light touch?

Analysis, then, should not be devoted to some supposed cabal of right-wing organizations that seem to me instead to have little direct power (National House of Prayer, the Laurentian Institute, the Manning Institute…). Attention instead needs to be trained on the religious culture that has produced and sustained certain powerful individuals in the Conservative Party. Ms. McDonald’s researches into the Watchmen for the Nations-type of fellowship, into Christian schools and home schooling, into the Word-Faith charismatic churches, and into the growing power of certain forms of Christian television seem to me to be investigations well worth following up by people with better skills in the pertinent social sciences, even as we can be grateful for her explorations of them as first steps.

For where Ms. McDonald’s account fails most egregiously is just here: We never understand the people she profiles. She never even attempts to draw together the various themes of her subjects into a coherent worldview: what they believe and why, what they love and loathe and why, what they hope for and fear and why, how they engage in politics and why. In short, she fails to answer this fundamental question of journalism and history, “How could these people possibly think that?” And that failure leaves her subjects literally unintelligible to Ms. McDonald and her ilk.

The grave implication of such unintelligibility, furthermore, is that it leaves the Marci McDonalds of Canada unable to constructively deal with the Religious Right as fellow Canadians who have different opinions about some (not all) crucial matters and who ought to be accommodated somehow in a welcoming, multicultural society. Instead, the Religious Right remains merely bizarre. They are ignorant and insane, and therefore enemies worthy only of contempt, fear, and resistance—which is how we’re left at the end of The Armageddon Factor.

The next book on the Religious Right in Canada, therefore, needs to be written by someone with much better anthropological skills, who can sympathetically enter into the mindset of her subjects and communicate it to the rest of us. We might well disagree with them on this or that matter and politically resist them on this or that issue, but we will be able to do so on the ground of understanding them as fellow citizens and neighbours—the way we have been learning to do with aboriginal Canadians, Jewish Canadians, female Canadians, poor Canadians, socialist Canadians, homosexual Canadians, Muslim Canadians, and other Canadians whom the elites, as well as many of the rest of us, have had trouble immediately recognizing as full human beings worthy of respectful comprehension.

To conclude: I lived as a Canadian in actor Ronald Reagan’s America. I grew smug, as a Canadian, as I witnessed wrestler Jesse Ventura become governor of Minnesota and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor of California. I still feel astonished, as a Canadian, that former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is taken seriously by anyone serious. But after returning to Canada in 1990 and seeing my former Grade 7 and 8 science teacher, Mr. Harris, become premier of Canada’s mightiest province and then get re-elected—well, I’ve realized that things can happen that I never thought could happen in North American politics.

So I think Ms. McDonald is right to worry. I just hope that she, and lots of other Canadians, will worry in the right direction and in the right mode. Don’t worry about the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and World Vision and Trinity Western University. Don’t worry about the National House of Prayer and 4mycanada. And don’t worry even about folks like Charles McVety and Tristan Emmanuel, who seem very much to be opportunistic creatures of the mass media and who serve, at best, as occasional rallying points for disgruntled Canadians on particular issues while they otherwise have very little clout.

Worry instead about cabinet ministers and parliamentary aides who sound like theocrats, who sound anti-intellectual and anti-pluralist, and who gladly and openly consort with other people who clearly are so. That’s Marci McDonald’s main message, I daresay, and it’s a message worth heeding. But once we have received that message, let’s proceed to work hard to truly understand these other Canadians and only then decide how we’re going to respond.

UPDATE: In the paragraph above in which I speak of Minister Day as “baleful,” some readers have misinterpreted the voice I am using and therefore have misunderstood particularly the meaning of this graf and the final one. I am trying to say the following: If Ms. McDonald thinks the Religious Right is so important, then why doesn’t she focus her attention on the person who her own accounting would say is its most powerful figure, Cabinet minister Stockwell Day? And if she can show that the RR is as bad as she apparently feels it is, then that would make Minister Day especially bad (= “baleful”). But since I myself am not at all sure what she means by the Religious Right, therefore not sure what I think about it, and therefore not sure what I think about Minister Day in this respect–a man whom I have not met personally and about whose career I know only a little–I should not be understood as casting aspersions on him. Yes, I’m troubled about his apparent links to persons and organizations and ideas I don’t admire. But I don’t have enough to go on to be more than simply worried about what those links might mean. I also, not incidentally, know of links of his that I do admire. So I’m confused. And I’m simply saying that since Minister Day seems to be important in Marci McDonald’s account of the Religious Right, she ought to have subjected him and his associates in government to appropriately rigorous and illuminating journalistic examination, which she regrettably did not.