I find the idea of the Religious Right in America fascinating—this apparently strongly influential group of conservatives who, depending on who you talk to, are trying to “take back America for Jesus.” Growing up in secular Canada, this seemed both somewhat amusing and just downright strange. We don’t have anything like this here—or so we think. But award-winning journalist Marci McDonald argues that looks can be–and indeed are—deceiving. In The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, she strives to show that there is indeed a strong, home-grown Religious Right emerging, determined to set Canada on the path to fulfilling its “divine destiny.”
When I first heard about this book, I was pretty sure it had to be a joke. After all, Canada is far more post- and even anti-Christian than our friends to the south (that is, most of the people reading this right now). Our evangelical Christian population weighs in at an impressive 3.3 million people. To give you some perspective, we have more families with dogs than we do individuals who are evangelicals. Our political conservatives look more like the Democrats than the Republicans. So the idea just didn’t fit with my understanding of the Canadian landscape. While they may not look like an impressive bunch, McDonald argues, Christian Nationalists—whom she derogatorily calls theo-cons—are on the move and have connections to the highest levels of government. Ultimately, though, her arguments are unconvincing for a number of reasons:
1. She is misleading in who she casts as the “voice” of evangelicalism in Canada. In the vast majority of the book, McDonald comes back to characters such as Charles McVety of Canada Christian College and Faytene Kryskow who leads “The Cry” (she holds prayer events and demonstrations at Parliament). Both are part of the extreme charismatic movement—which basically means that a lot of us are concerned about them, too (just for different reasons than McDonald). Yet, McDonald treats them as though they are the leading voices for evangelicals across Canada. She quotes John Stackhouse’s lament that, “Charles McVety is the nightmare that the Liberals want us to worry about,” as proof that he is indeed as influential as he wants us to believe. Indeed, I suspect that Stackhouse was more exasperated that anyone gives McVety even a little bit of airtime (which they haven’t for many years, incidentally).
2. She is dismissive of those with views contrary to her own. This is perhaps best displayed in her portrayal of Harry Nibourg, the founder of Alberta’s Big Valley Creation Science Museum. The reader is left with little doubt that McDonald believes that Darwinian evolution is Truth as she treats Nibourg not as someone who simply holds a view in opposition to her own, but as kind of a hick. Discussing his opinions as to why the public schools have never brought kids to the museum, she quotes Nibourg as saying, “There’s still a stigma attached. . . . The teachers don’t want their students comin’ in here, askin’ the questions because then they’d have to deal with it.” Perhaps this is nothing more than an attempt to capture his drawl, but given that Nibourg is the only person portrayed in this fashion in the entire book, it seems suspect.
Additionally, while she acknowledges that the test results of home-schooled children far exceed those of their private and publicly educated peers, she writes that for those among the “theo-cons,” “homeschooling is a political act with a profoundly subversive goal: to groom a new generation of fiercely motivated evangelical leaders capable of taking their place in society’s power centres and creating a form of Bible-based government.” Is it not also possible that Christians are choosing to homeschool simply because they want their kids to have the best education possible? Does everything have to have a sinister motive? It certainly seems to be the case.
3. She overstates American connections. Indeed, she seems almost desperate to find something to tie conservatives in Canada back to counterparts in America—but in doing so, she reveals that she’s done an inadequate job actually researching her subjects. Probably the best example is her portrayal of the Willow Creek Association. Located in British Columbia, Willow Creek Canada is a network intended to help develop church leaders. But member churches are not “franchises” of Willow Creek Community Church, based in the suburbs of Chicago. Yet this is how she appears to portray Centre Street Church in Calgary. What’s the point in misrepresenting the relationship? Is it merely a play on Canadian fears of being taken over by America?
4. She comes across a little like the boy who cried wolf. Is it possible that some evangelicals have a view that is somewhat consistent with what is portrayed in The Armageddon Factor? I’ve no doubt there are some (although I doubt their numbers are mighty). But does that mean that everyone who voices a desire to see Christians take a more active role in the public sphere is “driven by a fierce imperative to reconstruct Canada in a biblical mould”? Hardly—at least not in the way that McDonald seems to suggest. She casts Christians as having a sinister agenda, bent on destroying secularism and pluralism in all its forms. “Taken to its most extreme expression,” she writes, “the Christian nationalist blueprint is a dark and dangerous vision, one that brooks no dissent and has no regard for the democratic safeguards of pluralism.”
Waving their bright flags on the lawns of the Parliament Buildings, extolling the country’s Christian roots to a compelling soft-rock beat, they might seem to offer a refreshing recipe for morality and national pride, but their agenda—while outwardly inclusive and multi-racial—is ultimately exclusionary. In their idealized Christian nation, non-believers—aetheists, non-Christians and even Christian secularists—have no place, and those in violation of biblical law, notably homosexuals and adulterers, would merit severe punishment and the sort of shunning that once characterized a society where suspected witches were burned.
. . .
For the wave of Christian nationalists, united across the continent by the charismatic renewal movement, the signs and portents of the endtimes are unmistakable, apparent in each new earthquake report or tremor of the global financial system, and they feel they have no time to waste. Their mission is to prepare God’s dominion on earth, and they are unlikely to rest until they see their perceived scriptural prophecies fulfilled in Ottawa and Jerusalem alike. As Faytene Kryskow underlines in her book, Marked, she and her fellow revivalists are no longer content to agitate for policy crumbs. They have “a take-over mentality,” she writes: “They are convinced that God has called them to take over the world!”
. . .
As Canada has evolved from a relatively homogenous society to a religious and ethnic mosaic admired around the world, governments have chosen to move toward the inclusive and more level playing field of secularism as the best guarantee of freedom for all faiths. If that is to change, it should not be done by covert increments in a country that has no constitutional prohibition against mixing the considerations of church and state. The consequences are too far-reaching and potentially dire.
Reading this book, I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. McDonald’s alarmist writing seems less serious journalism than paranoid ranting. This is hardly befitting a journalist of her stature. That she could actually be serious about what she’s saying in this book is disturbing to say the least. The truth is, The Armageddon Factor is much ado about nothing—and unfortunately, I found my initial suspicions about it confirmed. As journalistic effort, it is a joke, but there’s little that’s funny about it.
Title: The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada
Author: Marci McDonald
Publisher: Vintage Canada (2010)