The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada
By Marci Mcdonald
THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR: THE RISE OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM IN CANADA, RANDOM HOUSE CANADA, 2010 HARDCOVER, 432 PAGES. LIST PRICE $32.00
REVIEW BY Ray Pennings
Marci McDonald is promoted as “one of Canada’s most respected journalists” and her book as a “comprehensive look” at Christian nationalism in Canada, a movement with political influence “out of all proportion to its popular support.” Random House is a mainstream publisher; thirty-five pages of source notes are included to back up the text. Clearly, for anyone with more than a passing interest in the intersection of faith and politics in Canada, this is required reading.
But I do not recall ever reading a book that got so much wrong. Mistaking someone’s title may seem a picayune error, but when the dustcover advertises how a militant band has a covert “direct pipeline” to the Prime Minister in actively reshaping the nations’ politics, it does matter. When it comes to elementary factual errors, I stopped counting at a dozen—and that does not include the numerous additional ones that have been exposed in reviews since. It certainly calls into question the methodology used in researching the text.
Mistaken details might be overlooked if the overall story was accurately told, but here too McDonald and her editors display remarkable carelessness. Let me illustrate with one of many possible examples. Regarding faith-based education politics in Ontario, McDonald claims that Premier Harris, “intent on wooing the suburban evangelical vote, promised tax credits for private schools. But his proposal never made it into law and the issue appeared to drop off the political map” (222). The facts are that the tax credit was part of Ontario’s 2001 budget and subsequently passed into law through Bill 45, Equity in Education Tax Credit in June 2001. This bill provided for a five-year phase, commencing with the 2002 tax year, but became a major issue in the 2003 provincial election. Subsequent to their election, the McGuinty Liberals reversed this tax credit (some would argue punitively, withdrawing the credit for the 2003 tax year at the end of the year and creating hardship for many who had counted on it). Given that the major Conservative proponent of this initiative was then-provincial Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who was a candidate in the 2002 and 2004 provincial Conservative leadership races, the matter was a major issue in both of these races.
The point is not to play “gotcha” with Ms. McDonald. However, she devotes 38 pages to a chapter entitled “Raising the Joshua Generation,” exposing how “it is possible to spend an entire academic lifetime . . . inside the cocoon of faith-based institutions,” something that McDonald suggests gives them “only a nodding acquaintance with the secular society they scorn” (7). And so it seems incredible that she dismisses the issue as “(dropping) off the political map” in Ontario politics when in fact, it was a major part of the narrative.
And so, the harsh criticism this book has received in the press is well deserved. But just because she gets the story wrong does not mean there is not a story to tell. In her preface, McDonald describes a Canada with two solitudes. “On the one side are those who inhabit what is regarded as the mainstream—sophisticated, secular and urban . . .[o]n the other side is an increasingly self-sufficient conservative Christian cosmos, largely planted in Canada’s suburbs and rural outposts, which believes the world is going to hell in a hand basket and is preparing for that divinely ordained eventuality” (7). Interestingly, McDonald notes that Stephen Harper won the Canadian Alliance leadership “as the determined voice of secularism” but subsequently changed his mind. She extensively cites his Civitas speech (which McDonald mistakenly dates as June 2003) in which he “laid out a blueprint for a new conservative coalition that was tantamount to an ideological conversion” (33). She continues the story, including details that were well-documented in the press and on various organizational websites, as if it was carried out in a clandestine manner. Initiatives “came to light,” offices were “tucked away” and spokespersons “admit” things in this movement of “stealth and obfuscation.” She does admit that the movement includes diverse perspectives, but chooses to focus on “Christian nationalism,” which, she tells us, is a “radical theocratic vision . . . that embraces a much larger body of believers who parrot the same brand of hyper patriotic religiosity and share many of the same aims, but have only the haziest grasp of any defining theology” (11). Since she acknowledges these adherents lack a defined theology, McDonald is not shy about giving them one. The movement, she tells us, has four key theological tenants: the end times are at hand; Canada has a God-ordained role in the unfolding of this apocalyptic drama; Israel will be returned as a Jewish stronghold with “Old Testament might”; and, consequently, temporal concerns like global warming should be ignored in favour of “saving souls.”
As anyone with a smidgen of theological literacy will attest that although these elements can be found in the theology of some, most of those who McDonald portrays as proponents of this Christian nationalism would vigorously object to this characterization. Let me illustrate with just two of the theologians McDonald cites as providing the framework for the movement.
Rousas John Rushdoony was a California based orthodox Calvinist philosopher, historian, and theologian. He is known as the father of a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism, which emphasized continuity between Old and New Testament times. John Nelson Darby was a nineteenth century English evangelist who produced a new translation of the Bible. He is known for dividing history into seven eras or dispensations. Very simply characterized, those who attend churches that follow Rushdoony tend to be austere Calvinists in their worship and emphasize the requirements for here-and-now obedience and faithfulness, while Darbyists typically are enthusiastic Pentecostals whose focus is on the second coming of Christ and the rapture of believers.
You don’t need an advanced theology degree to understand that these groups disagree about quite a bit. Yet, reading MacDonald (who spends a few pages on each), Rushdoony and Darby are merged into the intellectual fathers of a single movement. Judging from her source notes, she appears to have simply relied on a few American authors to make sweeping generalizations on Canadian perspectives that amount to little more than ill-informed caricatures grossly lacking in nuance. McDonald recruits prominent Jewish leaders such as Joseph Ben Ami and Ezra Levant, and for good measure the Canadian Constitution Foundation (whose litigation director Karen Selick has written “I don’t believe [God] exists and I get exasperated at times with people who do”) as co-conspirators in this Christian nationalist project, reducing her theological explanations to comedy.
I wonder if that two solitudes framework which McDonald admits in her preface is perhaps at the root of the failings of this book. McDonald sees herself as part of the “sophisticated, secular, and urban” crowd and admits to being “shocked” by the “inflammatory” polarizing rhetoric of those her book is describing. Although she has taken publicly taken pains to portray herself as religiously sympathetic, trying to objectively describe the positions and motives of those with whom she clearly disagrees, she does not succeed in suspending her own judgment long enough to hear what they are saying.
Consequently, what we get is a careless synthesis of some of most outlandish statements from a few of the noisiest spokespeople which she warps into some new-fangled Christian dominionism, the contours of which are practically unrecognizable to nearly everyone she claims is a proponent. McDonald suggests that this wave of Christian nationalism is “united across the continent by the charismatic renewal movement,” but that will come as a surprise to majority of Christians involved in conservative politics. In fact, most of those who belong to churches who adhere to a theology that comes closest to McDonald’s account tend to resist political engagement. Saving souls doesn’t happen through politics (losing your soul through politics would in fact be a more familiar theme in these churches), and if God has a special place for Canada in solving Middle East tensions in order to clear the timetable for his imminent return, the logical implications would prompt a platform and focus very different than the one she describes at work in Ottawa.
There are two further key considerations for which McDonald does not adequately account. Her assessment of conservatism is flawed in that she seeks to describe a unifying political philosophy where none exists. Following the 2006 election, I outlined in a Policy Options article how the newly formed Conservative Party reflected a coalition between at least six distinguishable genres of conservatism, of which social conservatism was but one (and was best understood as consisting of two distinct sub-strands.) Anyone who has attended Conservative party policy discussions in the conservative movement will recognize that a fierce debate continues between these groups. As recently as the Civitas conference in Calgary on May 2, Alberta Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith provided a keynote entitled “Reconciling Economic and Social Conservatism,” an indication that the matters Mr. Harper addressed at the same gathering in 2003 are hardly settled questions. However, reading McDonald’s book, it would come as a surprise that this debate is taking place. McDonald makes no allowance for the nuance and fault lines around which this debate is taking place. Instead, every initiative described is presented implicitly or explicitly as part of Harper’s “theo-con” strategy. She concedes that “Harper’s theo-con constituency is not large enough to guarantee him a clear majority” (353), but nonetheless, this is portrayed as a reluctant accommodation to reality that is forcing a moderation in pursuing these objectives, and not in any way a challenge to her thesis.
In addition to not accounting for the complexity of the conservative movement, McDonald also fails to account for the various strands of orthodox religious perspective present in Canada. She concludes her book by recounting an episode on a radio call-in show. She knew her affirmative answer to a questioner’s “Are you a Christian?” did not meet his criteria since “I am, to put it bluntly, not his kind of Christian, and as such, I am the Other, the enemy ” (360). Sadly, McDonald seems oblivious to the fact that her book contains a very similar judgmental intolerance regarding those who hold orthodox religious perspectives.
Orthodox proponents of various faith perspectives clearly are increasingly engaged in public life, and the so-called secular consensus of the latter half of the twentieth century (which UBC professor George Egerton has effectively shown is an a-historical anomaly) no longer holds in a post-9/11 era. Regrettably, McDonald did not choose to engage the existing significant scholarship (including McGill’s Charles Taylor, whose wrote a 2007 prize-winning book A Secular Age) regarding the interplay of religion and public life. Instead, The Armageddon Factor amounts to little more than a poorly researched screed that caricatures its subjects, bungles the story, and contributes to broadening the chasm between Canada’s publics.
Ray Pennings is a Senior Fellow and Director of Research with Cardus.