Review of Marci McDonald’s, The Armeggedon Factor:The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010)

I am not exactly a fan of the Christian right. I was therefore surprised at my growing negative reaction as I read McDonald’s well-researched and engaging description of the rise of the Christian right in Canada.

Christian nationalism is generally seen as a unique feature of United States politics.  McDonald gained first hand knowledge of the Christian right in the U.S. during her journalistic forays in the United States. After returning to Canada, McDonald was surprised to discover that Christian nationalism is also growing here.  The Armageddon Factor seeks to document the phenomenon of evangelical Christians who are convinced that Canada has a special role to play in the world, before the final conflagration, the Armageddon, when God will claim ultimate victory in history.

McDonald makes a convincing case for a U.S.-like Christian right emerging and flourishing in Canada. Chapter 1 begins with a description of a day-long fast and prayerfest called TheCRY on parliament hill in the summer of 2008, patterned directly after a U.S. pro-life rally that drew fifty thousand Christian youth to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., only a week earlier. The agenda of TheCRY is “much broader and far more radical: nothing less than restructuring Canada as a devoutly Christian nation governed by biblical literalists according to principles selectively plucked from the Old and New Testaments” (p.15).  In this first chapter, McDonald also draws attention to Stephen Harper’s election as prime minister in January of 2006.  She argues that Harper provided Canadians with the first clue that they had a born-again prime minister when he capped off his victory speech with a three-word closing, “God bless Canada,” the equivalent of a televised thank-you to evangelical Christians who played a key role in electing him to office (pp. 17, 19). Chapter 1 also highlights the political careers of Preston Manning and Stockwell Day, the evangelical forerunners to Harper.  McDonald concludes the chapter with a suggestion that the religious right is here to stay as a political force, its presence being guaranteed “by a four-year spree that saw conservative Christians establish half-dozen new organizations in the capital” (p.49). 

The chapters that follow provide a careful description of these new organizations of the Christian right.  Chapter 2 describes the work of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and its role in trying to get Bill C-43 through parliament, a compromise bill on abortion, which was eventually defeated by a Senate vote in January, 1991. Brian Stiller, the first head of the EFC, orchestrated legal interventions on behalf of a handful of cases headed to the Supreme Court after Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982 (p.55).  Also described in this chapter is Charles McVety’s Canada Family Action Coalition, a grassroots Christian lobby devoted particularly to fighting against pornography, homosexuality and same-sex marriage (pp.65ff). Three blocks from the Parliament Buildings, another key player in the capital’s evangelical infrastructure is ensconced in a penthouse suite of an office tower that is home to Conservative Party headquarters – the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) (p.85).  This think tank is part of the Colorado-based empire of James Dobson, who has supported its Canadian branch to the tune of $1.6 million over four years (p.86).  Here it should be noted that many of the Canadian organizations of the Christian right have American connections and American financial backing, a point carefully documented by McDonald.

Chapter 3 is devoted to describing the work of Preston Manning’s Centre for Building Democracy, launched in Ottawa in the spring of 2006.  The aim of this center is to help train politicians, using a strategy advocated by Jesus, “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” – in other words, be “shrewd” (p. 108).  Then there is the work of Rob and Fran Parker’s National House of Prayer (ch. 4). Chapter 5 begins with a description of Ron Luce’s Texas Ministry, Teen Mania, a multi-million dollar operation, devoted to mobilizing teens to get politically active (ch. 5).  For nearly a decade he has filled stadiums across the continent with more than twelve million teens for “Acquire the Fire,” and its new, more militant sister show, “BattleCry.  He is expanding his $1.4 million Canadian operation, recruiting Faytene Kryskow who sees herself as a modern-day Joan of Arc, a fiery crusader with an ability to get the younger generation fired up for conservative causes (p. 149).

While these chapters make for a fascinating read, the language is often strident and McDonald’s strong antipathy for evangelicals and for Stephen Harper sometimes skews her analysis.  These chapters carry the feel of conspiracy theorizing, and often appeal to guilt by association. Motivations of people are constantly called into question.  Some of the examples used to illustrate the evils of the Christian right are obviously selectively chosen and can be easily undermined by providing counter-examples. Another important question needs to be brought to the fore.  Why shouldn’t the Christian right lobby the government?  More on that later.

Two additional chapters are devoted to education, another key contributor to the growth of the Christian right in Canada, according to McDonald.  Christian schools, home-schooling, Christian colleges and universities, and specialized schools training future government workers all come under critical scrutiny.  Chapter 6 is entitled, “In the Beginning,” and is devoted to proving that evangelicals are anti-science, even rejecting the well-established theory of evolution. The chapter begins by raising a question as to whether the Harper government’s lack of support for basic research funding in Canada might be related to Secretary of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear’s personal belief in creationism.  But this is to engage in speculative causal analysis.  Indeed, this reader wondered how a chapter devoted to creationism even relates to the central topic of this book.  But McDonald uses any weapon available in order to highlight the dangers of the rise of the Christian political right in Canada – these people are ignorant, bigoted, and anti-science. No matter if many evangelicals reject the idea of a 6-day creation, and accept instead theistic evolution, a stance quite prepared to accept the findings of science.  But such nuanced distinctions don’t serve McDonald’s objective, and so all Christians who believe in creation are lumped into one category – naïve and narrow-minded 6-day creationists.

Chapter 7 begins with a recurring theme of the book – the Christian right’s opposition to same-sex marriage.  The opening scenario is Murray and Peter Corren’s 1999 human rights complaint against B.C’s Ministry of Education for “systemic gender discrimination.”  After describing the opposition of various evangelical groups to the ministry’s introduction of the controversial new curriculum to combat discrimination in British Columbia schools, the chapter broadens to a critique of all Christian schools, home-schooling, Christian colleges and universities, as well as a specialized school training “The Joshua Generation,” patterned after Patrick Henry College in the United States which is devoted to “raising men and women of faith who, because they love God, refuse to sit silently by while their nation hates what He loves and loves what He hates” (p. 233).  Trinity Western University opened its Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa in 2002, where political internships on Parliament Hill are part of the training program.  Of course, this is described as an evangelical conspiracy to shape Canadian politics.  Strangely, the work of Murray and Peter Corren, part of a well-heeled gay lobby, are spared any critical scrutiny by McDonald. 

And what is the alternative?  State-run schools and universities with their own political agenda, grooming the next generation of leaders?  Every public college and university that I know of includes in its mission statement something to the effect of training the next generation of leaders.  Why then are Christian colleges and universities singled out as part of a right wing conspiracy?  And how good a job are public colleges and universities doing in educating future leaders?  McDonald herself cites a senior policy adviser in the External Affairs department being appalled when some of the country’s most promising young diplomats were caught smuggling contraband and accepting bribes (p. 238).  No wonder MPs welcome interns from Trinity’s Laurentian Leadership Centre because they know they are going to get students who are not going to show up for work nursing hangovers (p.240).

McDonald isn’t finished yet!  Chapter 8 focuses on the rise of Christian media in Canada, sometimes resorting to in-your-face challenges to government bodies regulating the media.  Chapter 9 documents Harper’s attempts to redress many years of Liberals “stacking the bench with left-wing ideologues” (p. 278).  Changes were made to the makeup of judicial advisory committees that vet nominees for the 1,100 federal court posts (p.282).  Vic Toews, newly appointed justice minister, appointed people to these committees, many of whom were long-time Conservative loyalists who made no attempt to hide their party ties (p.283).  And the result was a flurry of appointments of lawyers to the bench with clear right-wing leanings.  The Christian Legal Society also has become more active in fighting right-wing battles (pp.285ff).

 Chapter 10 focuses specifically on “The Armageddon Factor,” and shows how the dispensational theology of the Christian right has led to unqualified support for the state of Israel.  The final chapter documents yet more Christian right organizations (the Canadian Constitution Foundation and the Association for Reformed Political Action), providing further evidence that the Christian right is “Here to Stay.”  Indeed, even the Liberal party is courting the evangelical vote, though perhaps appealing more to the evangelical left which does indeed exist as McDonald notes (p. 351).  However, overall, the center of gravity of politics in Canada has shifted noticeably to the right (p.353).

 I have already stated that I am not that sympathetic with the Christian right.  And yet, as should be apparent, I am also not entirely sympathetic with McDonald’s critique of the Christian right.  What such ambivalence suggests is that there is a need to spell out more carefully exactly what is right and what is wrong about the Christian right. I believe this is basic weakness of McDonald’s book.  She assumes that the Christian right is terribly, terribly wrongheaded and dangerous, but she doesn’t really justify this assumption.

 There are some aspects of the Christian right that I support, as I believe every Christian and indeed everyone should. Morality matters.  There are some moral standards that need to be upheld within a society. Moral relativism is wrongheaded, and when it becomes too widespread, will lead to the decline of the health and stability of a society. The dignity of all persons, the sacredness of all human life, integrity, truthfulness, marital faithfulness and sobriety are key to the well being of a society.  Murder, theft, dishonesty, unfaithfulness in marriage, and excessive alcohol and drug use are morally wrong, and again if these become widespread within a society, this will eventually lead to the decline and fall of that society.  There is abundant historical evidence to prove these generalizations.

 And what about the more controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage?  I will focus on the last two items, because these are in fact an overriding theme in McDonald’s book and clearly one reason she is so strongly opposed to the Christian right.  I concur with the Christian right that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, and contrary to biblical teaching. I would hasten to add, though, that homosexuals still need to be treated with dignity and that their basic rights need to be protected in the same way that any person’s rights should be protected. 

 Now clearly not all people, including McDonald, agree with this assessment of homosexual behavior and gay marriage. What do we do about this? What should not be done is to label as fools, meddlers, or fanatics, anyone who does not hold a liberal position on these matters. Unfortunately, this is what McDonald does, at least implicitly.  Disagreements about such matters need to be treated with respect within a liberal democracy.  This is at the heart of liberalism.  Indeed, this is the genius of liberalism, a stance I believe McDonald would identify with. What she fails to realize is that liberalism can become illiberal, as Jeff Spinner-Halev, has pointed out in his Surviving Diversity:  Religion and Democratic Citizenship (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).  There is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, and McDonald’s book is a sad example of the same.  Liberal fundamentalism is as wrong-headed and dangerous as conservative fundamentalism. 

 What is needed instead is a more accommodating and generous attitude towards people with whom one differs.  We need to live together, despite our deep differences.  Here we need to read John Rawls, particularly his later writings, where he attempts to take more seriously the fact that there are deep moral and religious differences within a society.  Given these deep differences, we need to find a practical compromise with regard to controversial issues such as homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.  Christians need to put more emphasis on protecting the basic rights of homosexuals, and the gay lobby needs to be less demanding about having everyone agree that homosexuality is alright or about acquiring the status of “gay marriage.”  Surely the notion of a “civil union” should be adequate in recognizing gay rights.

 More generally, we need to dialogue and engage in careful deliberation when we encounter deep differences among the citizens of a democracy (See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, Harvard University Press, 1996). Unfortunately, McDonald’s critique of the Christian right fails in this regard. She simply assumes they are fundamentally wrong.  Indeed, her book sounds too much like a tirade against the Christian right.  Unfortunately, the Christian right also often fails in terms of engaging in careful deliberation and dialogue on these issues.  And here I am beginning to articulate my disagreement with the Christian right and my sympathies with McDonald.  While I agree with part of the moral agenda taken by the Christian right, I disagree with the way in which they often go about lobbying for their moral stance.  But, even here we need to be careful.

 After all, evangelical Christians are citizens of Canada.  Surely they have every right to vote, to be engaged in politics, and even to seek to influence politicians.  But how does one do this?  Unfortunately, politics is messy.  It involves power and power struggles.  It involves brokering between various networks lobbying government.  Here a question arises:  Should Christians be involved in such lobbying and power struggles?  If you really care about the moral fabric of a society, it seems irresponsible simply to do nothing.  This is the stance typically taken by Mennonites.  But is this purist mentality realistic, given the nature of politics and given what is at stake in society (cf. John Stackhouse’s, Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World, Oxford University Press, 2008)? It is here where I struggle with my Mennonite convictions.  If politics is messy, should Christians not do some compromising in order to bring about the greater good?  And if so, is the Christian right not justified in organizing in various ways, seeking to shape politics in the right direction?  And is not McDonald’s sharp critique of the Christian right again quite unjustified?

 But McDonald isn’t entirely even-handed with regard to her criticism of lobbying on the part of the Christian right.  As already pointed out, McDonald does not criticize the lobbying of the gay community. Nor does the extensive lobbying of industry or the business community come under critical scrutiny.  Interestingly, she compares the parliamentary gamesmanship and guile of Harper with that of William Wilberforce’s battle to abolish the slave trade in nineteenth century England (p.98).  Indeed, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada hosted a special screening of Amazing Grace, and Preston Manning urges evangelical activists to study Wilberforce’s strategy in order to get a Christian agenda passed in Canadian parliament.  Yes, Wilberforce knew the tricks of the political trade and used them to get his bill passed, but surely the larger question that needs to be faced is this – was not his cause a noble one?  Does McDonald really want to criticize what Wilberforce accomplished or even how he accomplished it?

 And yet, there is surely something wrong with the way in which the Christian right seeks to accomplish its goals.  Perhaps they care too much!  Perhaps they go too far in getting organized and lobbying for their cause!  Perhaps James Davidson-Hunter is right – Christians are not out to change the world.  They are simply committed to being a faithful presence in this world (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2010).  But, this error of the Christian right, if indeed it is an error, does not deserve the vitriol often displayed in McDonald’s book. 

 But, then again, maybe there is still something that deserves McDonald’s passionate critique.  Indeed, I want to suggest by way of conclusion that it is helpful to read this book as pointing to a deeper problem.  Perhaps McDonald’s critique is more a commentary on the degeneration of politics generally than a critique of the Christian right.  Politics in the U.S. and Canada has degenerated into theatrics, power intrigues, lobbying, and biased appointments.  The Christian right’s behavior is simply an example of this more general problem.  Republicans and Democrats stoop to these undemocratic tactics.  Canadian liberals do it. Why shouldn’t the conservatives do it too? 

 And yet, I expect more from politicians who claim to be evangelical Christians.  Indeed, I am embarrassed by the manipulative antics and the dishonesty of Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day. Perhaps it is this failure to live up to Christian moral ideals on the part of the evangelical Christian right that drives McDonald’s critique, and here I concur.

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