On the eve of the 2011 federal election, as the updated paperback edition of the book is being released, complete with a new afterword, it seemed an apt time to launch a blog on the leading issues and players who make up the complex and constantly-shifting kaleidoscope of the emerging Canadian religious right. Others are already working this beat and hopefully together we can help shed some light on one of the most intriguing and influential new movements on the political landscape. Stay tuned___…
Welcome to The Armageddon Factor Blog, based on the controversial best-seller, The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada.
The pronouncement first appeared on the front page of the National Post. “Social conservatives watch campaign from sidelines,” trumpeted the headline over a story by religion writer Charles Lewis, which must have sent the strategists at Conservative Party headquarters into a heady round of high-fives.
With that declaration, Lewis neatly dispensed with the charge that the religious right was stumping for Stephen Harper in the 2011 federal election. In more than a dozen paragraphs, he appeared to squelch the pesky notion that the prime minister harboured worrisome baggage, that perennially-rumoured hidden agenda, which would only be revealed once he got his hands on a majority government.
Unfortunately, the Post headline couldn’t have been further off the mark. As even a cursory survey of websites swiftly revealed, the foot-soldiers in this country’s burgeoning religious right have plunged into the electoral fray with single-minded determination, if not unbridled enthusiasm.
Clearly, many are not thrilled that Harper so blatantly disclaimed any intention to act on abortion legislation in the opening weeks of the campaign—a pre-emptive strike that appears to have inspired Lewis’ report. But he has made similar declarations before heading to the polls. Anyone who expected him to proclaim otherwise in this, his last best hope for a majority, must have been smoking something that is definitely not inclined to sharpen one’s electoral savvy.
Even if Harper has proved less of a torch-bearer than social and religious conservatives dreamed back in 2006 when they first helped boost him to power, he remains their main man—one who has dispensed incremental policy shifts and thousands of patronage plums with a mixture of caution and stealth that is gradually transforming some of the country’s leading institutions, including its public service and its courts.
Some may find the pace frustrating, but they’re secure in the knowledge that Harper needs them and never more so than when he’s angling for yet another term. The number of right-leaning Christians in Canada may not be as high as those who have commandeered the Republican party in the U.S., but they’re as vital to Conservative Party fortunes as those economic conservatives who make up the other half of Harper’s core constituency. Pollster Andrew Grenville of Angus Reid Public Opinion has already demonstrated how devout English-speaking Catholics and conservative Protestants (by which he largely means evangelicals) came together in a definitive new block of support for the Conservatives that helped get Harper elected in 2006. As I outlined in The Armageddon Factor, by the time the 2008 election rolled around, that block had solidified into a definable Canadian religious right.
Now, in a new pre-election poll first reported by the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd, Grenville has found that more than half of devout mass-going Catholics and two-thirds of church-going Protestants say they intend to cast their votes for the Conservative Party on May 2nd. The gelling of such conservative Christian support around Harper comes at the expense of the Liberals, and for Todd, that drift means one thing: “Canadians are experiencing increasing political polarization over the Christian faith,” he writes, “in somewhat the same way religion splits U.S. Republicans from Democrats.”
Thus, contrary to the Post’s assertion, it ought to come as no surprise that religious-right websites have blossomed in recent weeks, exhorting the faithful to get out the vote. On the very day Lewis’ story appeared, the newly-aggressive Evangelical Fellowship of Canada had just issued an election kit for its nearly one thousand member churches, complete with baby-simple instructions on how to hold an all-candidates meeting and lists of questions designed as a moral litmus test of wannabe MPs.
Carefully crafted and highly suggestive, the questions covered such predictable grounds as abortion (“What do you believe should be the legal status of the unborn child?”) and stem cell research (“Do you support the criminalization of embryo experimentation?”). But one section was devoted to the curious subject of “media regulation” and appeared to call for a crackdown on the CBC (“What steps would you propose to ensure that the CBC is held to the same standard as private broadcasters?”).
Why should the venerable EFC, once scorned as hopelessly moderate by the Reverend Charles McVety, be launching an attack on the country’s chief public broadcaster? In February, it filed a complaint with the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council protesting an investigative program on Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French-language network, which demonstrated the influence of evangelical Christians on the Harper government. Despite the fact that the show focused mainly on a group that is not even an EFC member, the fellowship has accused Radio-Canada of “vilifying” evangelicals.
Other religious right organizations are also attempting to propel believers to the polls. Nearly half a dozen of the conservative Christian groups that have put down institutional roots since Harper came to power have issued election advisories–some subtle, some not. As one call-to-arms on the website of 4MYCanada, the youth lobby run by Faytene Kryskow Grasseschi, points out, “In recent elections, in some cases, single churches could of (sic) swung an entire riding… Remember: YOUR PRESENCE IS POWERFUL.”
The groups take pains to appear non-partisan, but almost all carry links to another mysterious website, www.voteprayserve.ca, set up five days before the election was called. With rankings compiled by 4MYCanada, it rates MPs according to their votes on nine specific “family-values” bills. Among them: the 2005 legislation that legalized same-sex marriage and two Conservative private members’ bills that could have re-opened the abortion debate.
Still, according to voteprayserve.ca, only the most recent of those two anti-abortion bills—a 2010 measure sponsored by Winnipeg MP Rod Bruinooge—really counts. Known as Roxanne’s Law, Bruinooge’s proposal would have made it a crime to coerce anyone into an abortion. But unlike a previous private member’s bill on the issue sponsored by former Alberta MP Ken Epp, Harper not only voted against it last December, but declared that it did not have the party’s support, consigning it to defeat. He took that stand with this spring’s election already on the horizon, but 97 pro-life MPs went ahead and voted for Roxanne’s Law—87 of them defiant Conservatives. Most now earn straight As on voteprayserve’s report card, while Harper rates only a B, and both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton flunk out altogether. As voteprayserve.ca sees it, Roxanne’s Law was “THE VOTE THAT SHOWED THEIR TRUE COLOURS.”
That might suggest abortion is the only topic on evangelical minds—an impression that was further reinforced when Saskatoon MP Brad Trost sent shockwaves through the Conservative war room by bragging that petitions such as one he circulated had convinced the government to defund International Planned Parenthood Federation. In a panicked effort at damage control, Harper’s aides called a hasty post-midnight press conference to deny that any such decision had been made. But Trost did not back down, nor was he entirely wrong. A 2009 funding request from IPPF sat unanswered for nearly a year, its programs in limbo, until the organization got the message—a de facto act of defunding if ever there was one. Late last year, IPPF drafted a new grant request. Despite the fact that it contains no provision for abortion services, the federation still hasn’t heard back from the Canadian International Development Agency.
Indeed, Trost’s indiscretion—which has all the hallmarks of a calculated post-election prod to Harper—was a reminder that another development had slipped beneath the mainstream media’s radar. In the wake of the government’s refusal to include abortion services as part of his G-8 initiative on maternal and child health care, it seems that he has succeeded in implementing virtually the same ban on funding overseas abortions as George W. Bush did through his controversial executive orders in the U.S. The only difference is that Harper has done so without any such contentious fiat.
Nor has Trost been the only conservative Christian activist to make his presence felt on the campaign trail. Stockwell Day, the movement’s chief standard bearer in Parliament—at least until he chose not to seek re-election—turned up in Montreal to stump for his former chief of staff, Neil Drabkin, who is challenging the Liberals’ Marc Garneau in the riding of Westmount-Mount Royal.
There, as in several other Quebec and Ontario ridings with substantial Jewish populations, Drabkin and his fellow Conservative contenders are brandishing Harper’s unwavering support for Israel as their trump card. Harper himself has boasted that his stand cost Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council, but it may be paying off for him now, stealing as many as a half-dozen seats from the Liberals in the House of Commons.
Nor is the government’s adamant pro-Israel policy only a selling point with Jewish crowds. In an election alert from the country’s leading Christian Zionist organization, the Canadian branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, the appeal is cautiously worded but unmistakably clear. “Canada has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on the international stage,” it reads. “In order for this to continue, we need to have a Canadian Parliament led by strong pro-Israel MPs in every party, ready to stand with Israel during dangerous times.” Lest there be any doubt about who those MPs might be, ICEJ refers members to voteprayserve.ca and a website affiliated with the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee (CJPAC).
Still, getting conservative Christians to the polls is only half the story in the calculated, low-key minuet between Harper and his restive theo-con base. Having miffed so many with his disclaimer on abortion, he promptly proffered two campaign promises to appease the theo-con crowd. The first was also the most overlooked: a vow to introduce family income-splitting into the tax code. Most commentators were so busy dismissing the measure as economic pie-in-the-sky—chortling over Harper’s caveat that it wouldn’t be implemented until the budget was balanced in four or five years—that they missed the point of the announcement entirely. For the country’s leading conservative Christian lobbies and think tanks, it was a signal that Harper was onside.
At the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a spin-off from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family empire, they had been touting such a measure for years, and executive director Dave Quist was practically doing verbal cartwheels as he made the rounds of radio and TV talk shows hailing the “good news.” Just as in 2006, when the Conservatives scrapped the Liberals’ national day-care plan in favor of individual child-care allowances, Harper was offering more than a simple legislative sop. He was bolstering an idealized 1950s’ notion of the traditional family that—no matter how statistically outdated—remains sacred to religious-right voters, above all to those new Canadians he has been courting from ethnic communities and non-Christian faiths.
They were also the target audience when he announced his other symbolic gesture: the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom within the department of foreign affairs. Critics have dismissed the office’s budget as paltry and its mandate to monitor religious persecution around the world as an exceedingly thorny task–one unlikely to be made easier in a department that Harper has spent the last five years ignoring. But whether or not the office ever materializes or it can meddle in other countries’ internal politics, Harper demonstrated his aptitude for tapping into the anxieties of the religious right.
After recent attacks on Egypt’s Coptic minority and the assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, concern swept through many Christian denominations with active overseas missions, as well as those mushrooming evangelical congregations whose members have emigrated from China, Korea and the Philippines. On Easter Saturday morning, many were at the Trinity Coptic Christian Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, where Harper announced—or, in fact, re-announced—that monitoring religious persecution around the world would become a key focus of his foreign policy.
To his travelling press corps, the 500 enthusiasts wildly cheering that two-week-old platform plank might have looked like so many of his other campaign crowds–a textbook example of the sort of “very ethnic” voters that a leaked strategy memo from Jason Kenney’s office had fingered as ripe prospects for the Conservatives. But what most in the mainstream media failed to understand was that this sea of visible minorities was also the new face of the Canadian religious right.
In fact, many attendees had been invited to the rally thanks to lists provided by churches and other faith groups—a detail I can vouch for since I was an inadvertent entry on one. Beside me sat a member of the beleaguered Chinese sect, Falun Gong, who said nearly three dozen of his fellow adherents had been summoned to the invitation-only event to show their support for Harper.
During the long wait for the prime minister’s appearance, other prominent evangelical leaders worked the crowd. Steve Long, pastor of the controversial Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship—now rechristened Catch the Fire—schmoozed his way through the hall like an unofficial greeter. Nearby, another local preacher took his place in a front-row seat: Don Meredith, a Jamaican-born Pentecostal whom Harper named one of his Conservative senators. As the rally got underway, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney rhymed off a list of other attendees from religious minorities, including the centre’s own black-robed Coptic priests, Pakistani Ahmadis, Tibetan Buddhists and numerous Sikhs.
Back in 2003, when Harper first spelled out his party-building strategy in a speech to the conservative group, Civitas, he had stressed the necessity of courting those religious and social conservatives whom he termed “theo-cons.” At the time, most analysts assumed that he meant the sort of middle-class white conservative Christians who make up the U.S. religious right. But even then he understood that, if the party’s social policies were cannily crafted, they would appeal to voters across both ethnic and faith lines.
Eight years later, the success of that strategy was on display at the Coptic Christian Centre where representatives from a rainbow of faiths greeted him like a rock star. Indeed, never was their allegiance clearer than when a CBC reporter aggressively pressed the prime minister to explain why one of his B.C. candidates had accepted the endorsement of a controversial Sikh leader. As the reporter persisted, the crowd rose as one with a concerted roar of outrage, drowning out the CBC’s Terry Milewski with rhythmic applause and chants of “Har-per! Har-per!” Watching that stunning circle-the-wagons moment, one thing seemed clear. The country’s new religious right might not fit the prevailing stereotype, but the ferocity of its affection for Harper makes it a force to be reckoned with not only during this election, but for some time to come on the shifting political landscape.