Separation of church and fourth estate

In a contentious new book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, the author explores how evangelical Christian organizations have affected Canadian public policy and opinion by pressuring the media and borrowing lobby tactics imported from our southern neighbours. Ken Paradis reports.

One of the most contentious pieces of Canadian journalism to emerge this year is Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House, 2010).  It has been almost continuously castigated in letters to the editor and comment pages since its release in May.  The odd thing about these responses is that a very quick media search will show that the letters share an almost identical pattern, right down to the adjectives and “arguments” chosen to denigrate the book: the phrase “anti-Christian bigotry,” for example, the label chosen by political operative / media mover and shaker Kory Teneycke, for example (formerly Stephen Harper’s spokesperson, now the prime mover behind the Sun TV / Fox News North initiative), comes up fairly regularly, probably because it has the twin virtues of being inflammatorily and derogatory, without actually requiring the denouncer to demonstrate actually having read the book. 

The above-the-fold article on the Comment page of the June 2nd Globe and Mail, for instance, is indicative of a slightly more informed response, but is also exemplary. Written by Ray Pennings of Cardus – an “independent policy institute,” – the piece derides the book as an example of Canadian “neo-squeamishness about public faith.”  (Yes: “neo-squeamishness”).  

Ten seconds on the Cardus website, however, reveals that Pennings’ primary affiliation is as “Chairman of Redeemer University College’s Board of Governors,” and a five second search of McDonald’s book on Amazon reveals that Redeemer University College “in the riding of Conservative MP David Sweet, the former president of [evangelical organization] Promise Keepers Canada,” is identified as one of the main beneficiaries of a historically unprecedented shower of federal cash from the Conservative government onto private, Christian colleges and universities (McDonald, p. 46-7).

The funny thing about these responses is the way that they are almost exactly telegraphed by McDonald’s book itself, which details, in part, the way that evangelical Christian organizations in Canada have, over the past decade, increasingly sought to affect Canadian public policy and shape Canadian public opinion on key issues through the mobilization of media pressure mechanisms and lobby tactics imported from our neighbours to the south.  The book describes in great detail, for example, the development of Canadian evangelical pressure groups who have developed and coordinated letter-to-the-editor-and-MP correspondence strategies, the establishment of obscurely named “think tanks” designed to shape public opinion on sensitive issues, and, through a close analysis of several case studies, the way that evangelical groups have effectively mobilized media strategies and tactics developed in the American Christian right.

There are valid criticisms to be made of McDonald’s book: her hyperbolic style is often grating to my academic ear; she gets some of the fine points of evangelical doctrine wrong or fudgy; and her assumption that the discourse of Christian right leaders can be mapped onto what actual Canadian Christians believe or will act on is undermined by the continuing fact that there remains little perceptible upswing in popular social conservatism and little public acceptance of overt religious rhetoric in public discourse.  The book’s cataloguing of “scary” (ie. premillennial dispensationalist Armageddon-type theories); “wacky” (ie. creationism) and disturbing (the violently militaristic language of “spiritual warfare” characteristic of the “Third Wave” charismatic movement to which both Sarah Palin and Stockwell Day adhere) aspects of popular Christianity are colourful,  but needlessly provacative.  These groups have always been around, in one form or another, for a long time, and have long been used as straw men to disparage all Christians, while making non-adherents feel smug and superior. (Remember HL Mencken describing evangelical Tennesseans at the Scopes trial as “gaping primates from the upland valleys?”)  Though necessary as background, the presentation of these parts of the book distracts from its core mission, which is documenting the admittedly much less colourful machinations of lobbyists and political operatives. 

It is this core mission, however, and its largely successful execution, that makes this book so valuable.  In a media climate increasingly dominated by the name-calling and auto-attacks of a plug-and-play punditry, McDonald gives us real, honest investigative journalism. Contra Ray Pennings, the book actually says almost nothing about faith, and almost as little about Christianity, which, as the Kairos defunding incident illustrates, has a far wider ideological and policy ambit than those of the sects that fund the groups McDonald investigates, even though these characteristically arrogate the name “Christian” to themselves, while excluding those – such as McDonald herself – who worship slightly differently. Instead, McDonald’s book largely confines itself to providing appropriate background and context, naming names, using direct and sourced quotes, following money trails, tracking organizational affiliations across obscurantist switcheroos, shell companies and numbered post office boxes, and, in general, providing solid evidence for the connections between financiers, organizations, lobbyists, politicians, political appointments and policy initiatives that it reveals.  

Whatever your faith, if you want to speak knowledgeably about religious issues and their engagement with contemporary Canadian public policy, you will benefit from reading this book.
Dr. Kenneth Paradis is an assistant professor of contemporary studies at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus.