Last year, journalist Marci McDonald published her book, The Armageddon Factor. She has recently made presentations promoting the book’s controversial portrayal of conservative evangelicals. The following are two contrasting views of the author’s thesis.
Be afraid… be very afraid… of evangelical Christians!
By Steve Wetherbe
Canada is in dire danger of following the United States down the path toward a demagoguery led by right wing Christians. At least, that’s what journalist and author Marci McDonald told a receptive audience at the University of Victoria last month.
McDonald’s talk, sponsored by the university’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, was a précis of her controversial book, The Armageddon Factor. Subtitled ‘the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada,’ it’s an expose of the growing influence of conservative Christian groups over the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
She told a group of around 80 grey-haired academics that, though she herself is a Christian, she is not the “right kind” of Christian to the many evangelical Christian leaders she interviewed for the book.
“I was baptized Anglican — horrors! — and raised United Church — double horrors.” And she was, moreover, on the wrong side of such issues as same-sex marriage, abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
And while she presented herself as the very model of tolerance, she claimed that the conservative Christians she describes in her book are anything but. Once her book came out, she was constantly accused of being “an anti-Christian bigot” — to the extent she wants to pass on the torch of crusading journalist (at least on this story) to others.
McDonald also presented herself as a Cassandra-like figure who had warned her fellow Ottawa journalists of a Christian-right takeover, only to be laughed at by those who said “It can’t happen here.”
As proof of this takeover, McDonald breathlessly listed many new conservative Christian organizations that have set up offices in Ottawa since the Conservatives took office (alongside, she didn’t mention, dozens of other lobby groups of every hue and description, with the same goal: to influence public policy).
But it gets worse, she contended. The Conservative government has given these conservative Christian groups, which threw their support behind Harper in the last two elections, unprecedented access to federal politicians and cabinet ministers.
Students from Trinity Western University, she revealed, are given internships with MPs, training them to bring their presumably right-wing values to the political arena as MPs and political activists when they graduate. She didn’t mention that internships with MPs of all stripes are common as dirt.
Other evangelical Christians have paying jobs with the federal government (triple horrors!) — and some are actually in the Conservative cabinet.
McDonald didn’t rest her case there. She tapped into that reliable font of Canadian outrage: anti-Americanism. As she described it, Canadians are taking their marching orders from the American ‘Christian nationalists’ exemplified by the George W. Bush White House — who have taken over the Republican Party, and brought the world close to war with their pro-Israel policies.
Christian nationalists, McDonald told her audience, want Canada and the U.S. to be placed under Christian rulers and Christian law — turning the continent into a kind of Iraq, with Jesus in charge. But she admitted that “only a tiny fraction” of the groups and organizations she listed belonged to this extreme group.
In the meantime, the only evidence she could find that they were making headway in Canada was the Conservative government’s strong pro- Israel stand, and its refusal to include abortion services in its maternal and child health foreign aid plan.
To make her scenario more alarming, she had to look across the border to the Tea Party movement, which just helped send many more Republicans to Congress in the recent U.S. midterm elections.
There, she warned, “public debate has taken a toxic turn. The threat of demagoguery lurks just beneath the surface.”
In fact, few neutral U.S. observers see much religious content in the Tea Party movement at all — and leaders of the Christian right see it as a rival for influence in the Republican party.
Steve Weatherbe is a freelance journalist based in Victoria.
Armageddon Factor was misunderstood and caricatured
By Ron Dart
The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada has had many a booster and knocker. CC.com’s report on the furor, ‘Much ado about Armageddon in the news,’ tended to doff the cap to the knockers and marginalize the boosters.
Many evangelicals have suggested that author Marci McDonald was rather thin in her understanding of the more complex and nuanced Canadian evangelical tradition in her tome. This is a fair criticism, if McDonald was doing an analysis of the Canadian evangelical way. But was this the purpose of The Armageddon Factor?
I arranged for McDonald to give a public lecture on the book at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford November 1, and I asked John Redekop (well known within the Canadian evangelical family) to respond to McDonald.
The lecture hall was packed to hear the author. Needless to say, a lecture of 40 minutes was but a stone skimming the surface of the water of the 420 page book. Redekop did enthusiastically urge one and all, though, to purchase the book and read it in a thoughtful, informed and critical manner.
Sadly, there has been much misunderstanding and caricaturing of The Armageddon Factor by those who both differ with McDonald’s conclusions and the way she reached such conclusions. There is much room for legitimate and healthy dialogue about these issues, but there can be no doubt that McDonald has canvassed significant aspects of the more political wing of the Canadian evangelical tradition and connected many important dots.
It is essential to be clear what McDonald is doing, and not doing, in The Armageddon Factor. She is not, and this must be stated in the very clearest terms, writing a book on the distinctive Canadian evangelical tribe. She is, and this must be carefully noted, describing a form of the right-of-centre evangelical clan in Canada — and she does make distinctions within the centre and right of centre. Let me quote from her guiding thesis:
“In the book, I have chosen to focus on those political activists whose goal is to attain the same political power that their counterparts have enjoyed in the United States. But while chronicling the forces shaping Canada’s religious right, I have highlighted one faction I refer to as ‘Christian nationalists’ — a militant charismatic fringe with ties to Harper’s Conservatives, that has gained influence out of all proportion to its numerical heft.”
So, let it be clear that McDonald is tracking and tracing, for the most part, a right of centre ‘faction’ of Christian nationalism; she touches on others in the book that are right of centre, but only to make broader connections. Many an organization, lobby group and publication (and the networks that bind them) are brought together in describing this ‘faction’ and ‘fringe’ — and, more importantly for a political journalist, their influence on Harper’s Conservatives.
The title of the book is appropriate for the simple reason that many within the conservative evangelical heritage (not all, of course) have both apocalyptic end times leanings and Zionist tendencies.
The more worrisome aspect of this is that there are MPs within Harper’s Conservative Party who share this worldview. The implications for the Palestinians (many of whom are Christian) are obvious and tragic. The Armageddon Factor delves into this dilemma.
I still recommend The Armageddon Factor as an A++ keeper, if the reader understands McDonald’s thesis properly. She should not be blamed for what she is not doing; but she should be applauded for what she has done, and done well. Those who think the author has erred seriously in her thesis should write a finer book, and then see how their own published ship sails across the waters of criticism.
Ron Dart is a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.