In 2006, the veteran journalist Marci McDonald wrote a feature for The Walrus magazine called ‘Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons’, a reportage story about her time spent among evangelical conservatives and their growing influence on Canada’s political life. This article grew into her new book, The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada. It is described as an urgent wake-up call for all Canadians who think that this country is immune from the righteous brand of Christian nationalism that has bitterly divided and weakened the United States.
Few Canadians, she says, are aware that a militant band of conservative Christians with a direct pipeline to the Harper government are now shaping Canadian politics and pushing for even greater influence.
McDonald is the winner of seven gold National Magazine Awards, and is the recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ investigative feature award. A former bureau chief for Maclean’s in Paris and Washington, D.C., she also spent five years in the United States as a senior writer for US News & World Report. A winner of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, McDonald’s study of the North American free trade agreement led to her book Yankee Doodle Dandy: Brian Mulroney and the American Agenda.
She spoke to rabble.ca news editor Cathryn Atkinson in Vancouver on Monday.
Q – I wanted to ask you about the maelstrom of interest and abuse that you’ve received lately for writing the book. What date was it published?
Not quite a week ago! May 11! [Marci laughs] It was a week ago Tuesday and it’s been stunning because I had worried for the last few months that there was no news in it and that people would say ‘She really doesn’t have much to say, beyond her Walrus piece four years ago.’
Ironically, the government, since the book went to bed, has co-operated inadvertently in a wonderful way. I thought I’d be trying to persuade people of this influence, of this growing movement in Canada, and having to make strong arguments about where its hand was showing.
Instead, I have found I can hardly keep up with the daily headlines in the papers. The defunding initiatives seem to be coming so fast and furiously. I just wish I were updating the book right now!
Q – The timing is unbelievable.
Some would say divine — I think that’s what Antonia Zerbisias said in The [Toronto] Star. Interviews were set up by the publisher, hoping they would generate some minor interest in it. And instead, we can hardly keep up with the requests and the maelstrom, as you called it. We never anticipated it.
The amazing thing is that in the book I talk about a geography. It’s not a polemic; I’ve never written an opinion column. It’s meant to connect the dots, show the backstage connections and lay out the landscape of a growing movement that even since The Walrus piece four years ago has put down stronger roots and has more overt connections to this government.
So I’m saying in the book that we should follow the route that the Harper government has laid down, which is an electoral strategy to use religion as a party-building mechanism, to use social issues to broaden the base of the Conservative Party, as the Republicans did in the United States. This is an electoral strategy, not a commentary on whether people of faith should be in the public square.
It’s a dangerous road. And we, 30 years behind what happened in the United States, can anticipate what might happen here in the public debate by looking south and seeing the level of polarization and vitriol that is happening right now. The roots of the Tea Party movement, some of them go back to the religious right, and do we want this level of vitriol in our public debate?
Low and behold, the book is out three days and I have Ezra Levant on television calling me a bigot and a freak, certainly without reading the book when he first took aim at it on his blog, as he admits. And he didn’t correct me yesterday on Question Period [on CTV] when he called me a bigot again, and I pointed out he hadn’t read the book. What has amazed me is the warning that something like this might happen 30 years down the road and it’s coming true already.
Ezra Levant… David Frum calling me an anti-semite — they are simply proving my point. I have friends of all faiths, particularly Jewish friends, phoning me outraged, saying ‘we want to write letters to The National Post. We want to write letters in your defense.’ I said: ‘No, no, don’t. Don’t implicate yourselves.’ Besides, they have just proven the thesis of my book, inadvertently. They are showing that is the kind of vitriol and venom, ad hominem attacks that can happen here.
Q – And how does that make you feel?
I feel worried about the political debate in this country. Is that what the answer is? The irony is I’m only hearing it from a certain group of people who are close to Stephen Harper.
For years, I had religious conservatives complaining to me that they could never get a word in the mainstream media or they were never reported on. The March For Life, which just took place in Washington, was complaining how it would have what it claimed were huge numbers — 8,000 it claimed last year and it was claiming double that this year, but I would doubt it from what I saw — that it was not reported. It happened in Ottawa and the Ottawa Citizen did not report it.
This year, partly because my book had come out two days earlier and because of the G8 initiative creating such a furore over whether or not abortion should be funded overseas, suddenly it was in the news. Some ways it is a vindication for those on the religious right who wanted attention and headlines.
Q – When you shine a light on something as a journalist you can never tell who is going to use it, how it is going to be perceived. It belongs to everyone.
It’s not my job to decide how it is used. It’s my job to try and report, and try to give everybody a fair say. People kept saying to me ‘have you seen [the satirical play on religion] Regulus? Did you go to all these satires?’ And I didn’t. I studiously avoided going to things that made fun of religion. I didn’t want to get somehow infected by that satirical attitude because I wanted to give these people a fair say.
Q – It’s interesting that what they describe as bigotry is what others might describe as something that is missing from much journalism today — good investigative work. Professional inquiry and skepticism.
I don’t even think it’s investigative. I think that most people in the mainstream media don’t have the resources to cover this sort of thing. Who, in an Ottawa bureau, where the funding had been cut, resources are overstretched, would think of sending a political reporter to a religious rally, where they might find there are MPs, there are messages from the prime minister being read on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and there are cries going out to reclaim Canada for Christ?
It wouldn’t be on the mainstream media’s agenda. I don’t fault them at all. I happen to have the luxury of time to do this and the interest. And I was stunned, because not for general public consumption, but within their own sympathizers, they are much more straight forward. So if you actually go to all their conferences, listen to their tapes… I was influenced a bit by a reporter called Sarah Diamond, who wrote some of the first books on the religious right in the United States years ago. I was mystified when I first read them. She said she hadn’t used interviews, she had used their own publications. There wasn’t the internet then.
In retrospect I realize what a wise move it was, because people can’t say ‘I didn’t say that, let’s have a dueling tape recorder battle.’ They, by and large, said these things on websites, in their CDs, at their conferences, which I attended. I was not undercover. So it wasn’t investigative, it was open; I had my notebook out, people saw me, in most cases they knew I was there. If they didn’t, it was because it was such a large public rally on Parliament Hill that I wouldn’t know who to report to.
Q – Did people ever come to you and challenge you?
Once. Faytene Kryskow, who’s a leader of a youth lobby called 4mycanada, and she also leads these rallies called TheCRY, she once… My wallet got left behind at one of these conferences she held at a church on Halloween night in Toronto. It was meant to fight the pagan influence of Halloween.
When I went back to get my wallet, someone had turned it in to her and she march smartly down the aisle, surrounded by assorted backers and prophets who were speaking at the event, and said ‘Marci! You know we have proof that you were here!’ and I said ‘ Yes, I was here openly.’
‘Well, you know, the media didn’t have permission to be here!’ And I told them they’d sent out on their website a call for one and all to come to St. Paul’s Church, and we showed up. My husband, who is a former ombudsman for a newspaper in Canada, said ‘This is a public place. This is a church. What are you talking about?’
Q – A lot of your background knowledge about the Christian right came from your experiences in the U.S. and I wanted to know about how that prepared you.
I hate to admit how old I am! I arrived in Washington in 1984, and it was the prime in some ways of the first phase of the religious right, the Moral Majority. I had watched from Europe as Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were credited with putting Reagan in office once, and I arrived in the middle of his re-election campaign.
To me, as a Canadian and as someone who had been stationed in Europe, it was so exotic. I wanted to check it out. I was amazed at the rhetoric. I went down to Lynchburg [Virginia] to his church and met him, interviewed him, did a story, and first heard about The Rapture, which I was innocent of before.
I watched how the mainstream media in the United States, people I respect greatly, dismissed this as a passing phenomenon, not really having any future. And, indeed, after the televangelical scandals in the late 80s he did shut down the movement, because his funding was being hurt.
Low and behold, a year later, Pat Robertson is running for president and I’m on a plane after the New Hampshire caucuses where he’s done surprisingly well. The Republican Party was in total panic — he might actually do too well. Again, his campaign flamed out and people said ‘this can’t happen. It’s over.’
What they didn’t know is that Pat Robertson was getting Ralph Reed to organize The Christian Coalition. Ralph Reed, who boasted that stealth was his modus operandi, he organized grassroots-level churches at the municipal level, at school boards, and [Americans] woke up to find that both Houses of Congress had been taken over. They saw the Republican Party hijacked, essentially, to the dismay of many old cloth-coat, Yankee Republicans who would be the equivalents of our Red Tories.
Q – Have you had conversations with ordinary Canadian Conservatives who aren’t evangelicals?
Loads. They’re saying ‘we’ve lost our party, go and write this book, we need more debate about this.’ Maybe there’s a chance for old Red Tories and people of a more moderate persuasion, or even evangelicals who do not like to see religion used as the wedge to pit one brand of Christianity against another. Not just other faiths.
What’s so interesting is that an organization like Kairos could be deemed inappropriate to fund although it’s a Christian organization, though largely representing mainline denominations that are more moderate.
And that’s what offends me. It offends, even, many evangelicals — that there are acceptable Christian groups to fund under this government’s tactics and unacceptable Christian groups. Or groups that must be attacked.
Q – With the knowledge you’ve gained, and getting a sense of their panic because of the way you’ve been attacked in the last week, where do you sense it is going with these people? Do you have a sense of how the future could unfold or is unfolding?
I think they’ve made clear that they’re here to stay, by putting down organizational roots in Ottawa they are here for the long term, not just Stephen Harper’s term. If fact, Stephen Harper, they made clear, is not their messiah. They do not expect him to deliver and they don’t really count him as one of them. He was never part of the Family Values caucus in Reform, and they were always suspicious of him. Even though he is an evangelical, he is seen as more of an economic conservative than a social conservative. So they are here no matter what party is in power, but they also have some figures in this current Conservative Party that they see as more likely and sympathetic leaders.
Stockwell Day would be one of them. A lot of mainstream Canadians would roll their eyes at that prospect, but in fact Stockwell Day has been very smart and strategic in his cabinet portfolios, and we have The National Post proclaiming him as more politically and physically fit than he’s ever been. [He’s 60 this year.] He’s certainly had powerful portfolios and when he was given the Treasury Board, Harper’s office went to great pains to point out that this was not a demotion because Day is the de facto leader of the social and religious conservatives, always has been.
When he was running against Harper for the leadership of The Alliance and lost, Harper realized that the vast recruitment effort that Day’s supporters had put on, of conservative Christians in churches and using religious organizations, had given the party — then the alliance — a huge base that Harper had to now deal with. And that was partly, I believe, the motivation behind him outlining his theo-Con strategy.
Q – And who are some of the others? Does Jason Kenney figure?
Jason Kenney is often mentioned. These are not names that I’m floating, they are names that journalists and people in the party have leaked.
And then there’s the period before the 2008 election, when social and religious conservatives were furious with Harper. He had not given them any policy overtures and, worse, the two measures that were dear to their hearts, the Bill C10 — getting rid of tax credits for Canadian films that were deemed morally offensive — it was snuck into a Budget bill and got all the way to the Senate, passed the House, was defended by Harper all the way up to the election, when it turned out he was having a backlash in Quebec by denouncing the arts and being unsympathetic to the arts. He walked away from that move and he walked away from a private members bill that he’d also supported in the House, on abortion.
Q – Harper seems to be too much of a pragmatist for the Christian nationalists.
He’s very much a pragmatist, and this is a strategic decision more than a decision or conviction of the heart.
Q – Where does Quebec fit into the vision? What is Quebec’s place in the world of the evangelicals?
What is so interesting is that there is a growing evangelical presence in Quebec, some charismatic Catholics, but also evangelicals as such. Two candidates who ran in the last election in Quebec, were evangelicals or courted evangelical churches and constituencies. Faytene Kryskow’s 4mycanada — every one of her rallies is bilingual from the stage. Part of her entourage, two of her musicians, is from Quebec.
Part of the aim is to be inclusive and to include Quebec in this movement and what I was astounded to discover is that one of the evangelical candidates for the Conservatives had been the former chief of staff to Jean-Pierre Blackburn, who had been in charge of the Quebec dossier for the Conservatives, a minister in Harper’s government, and had funneled millions to Quebec ridings. So his former right-hand man was running, and was courting evangelicals openly.
Q – So it’s truly a national movement.
Q – You’re in Vancouver today and you’re about to go on a regional, Lower Mainland talk radio phone-in show. What sort of response are you expecting?
I don’t know. I have a lot of sympathetic Christians who I’ve interview and I spent quite a bit of time in The Fraser Valley and there are a lot of evangelicals who are really worried about the development they see and they don’t want Christianity in general, and their faith tradition to be hijacked by this stridency that is emerging, this American-style rhetoric, the shrillness, and the concentration on the extreme issues — abortion, same-sex marriage — at the expense of social justice and poverty, and other issues they believe are more “New Testament” issues.
What I want to keep saying, and sometimes it is forgotten in all this, is that my book is not a polemic. I’m not an atheist like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and I didn’t want to include myself in the book, but I felt it was necessary to make that disclaimer. I was on a radio show once from Vancouver and someone said ‘Oh, you’re a Christ-hater.’ I had to say that I consider myself a Christian, though some in the religious right wouldn’t consider me a good-enough Christian to qualify in their circles, but I’m not against people of faith having a voice in the public square. Everyone should have a voice.
There has been this long complaint that religion has been sidelined. What I want to point out and let people make up their own minds about is when a political party uses religion as an electoral strategy and a wedge issue to court a constituency that may represent the more extreme views of the country.
Q – What is your religious community?
I was brought up in the United Church and now attend an Anglican church, since my marriage.
Q – Do you think where U.S. extremist evangelicalism leads, Canada has followed, or do you see it as Canada’s own particular journey?
I think that the emerging religious right in Canada has a particular past. It’s not a carbon copy of the United States. Some people expect it to be.
Q – Who?
Skeptics in the mainstream media say, ‘We’re nowhere near where they are in the United States.’ We have to remember it took them 30 years to get there. Canada also has a far larger proportion of Catholics in the religious mix, but there are a lot of evangelical Catholics, and they feel more affinity to the policies of the religious right than they do to the mainline Anglican or Presbyterian denominations. So it cuts across different lines.
Harper’s strategy has also been to court ethnic communities and immigrants who are of a more socially conservative persuasion, who come out of those traditions. So that’s been part of the brilliance of his strategy — with policies that don’t look on the surface to be aimed at Christians or at religious people, but which, in fact, are tailored very carefully to create a social conservative constituency, broad based.
Q – The Harper government’s support for Israel, compared to that of the Obama administration, stands out, and pleases the extreme evangelical fringe.
It stood out from the first. Almost from the instant he got elected, his unwavering support of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon. That’s one of the clearest delineations we see of this.
Q – I thought about the differences between the characters of George W. Bush and Stephen Harper. Harper runs a parliament in a presidential way and Bush ran his presidency being heavily dependent on many evangelical insiders as counsel. Bush was shaped by these people around him. It seems like Harper is more independent this way. Do you see that?
Well, he is the one who laid out this strategy in 2003, when he spoke to Civitas and said this would be the strategy with which he’d build the Canadian Alliance, and therefore the Conservative Party. So it is very much his own strategy.
Increasingly, as he has been in office, he has surrounded himself with more and more evangelicals. His deputy chief of staff, Darrel Reid, is the former head of Focus On The Family Canada. Another top official in the PMO is Paul Wilson, who set up the Laurentian Leadership Centre, which is the branch of Trinity Western University that trains young Christians for jobs in government or politics or the public service. He’s a well-known evangelical who has worked with and for Darrel Reid in the Reform Party.
So Harper has increased the number of faith-based advisors.
Q – Doesn’t he worry that it’s going to get out of hand, being the pragmatist he is? Will it not tilt Canada towards theocracy?
Little would I know the strategic mind of Stephen Harper. I’d being the last person he’d confide in [Marci laughs]. I would say as an outsider we need to watch for the forces he has unleashed. This is a Pandora’s Box. If you are using religion, it has not got a good track record in the political arena. Think Northern Ireland. Think the former Yugoslavia.
Some terrible, terrible things have been done in the name of faith. Some wonderful things have been done, too, but if you are using religion as a tool, politically, and maybe cynically, certainly opportunistically, you better be prepared for the consequences. That’s all I am trying to say in the book. Let’s look at it.
If the worst my book does is provoke public debate, then maybe that’s not so bad.
Q – The attacks against you have been strange. The book is not a gun. You’re not shutting them down.
It’s not a screed. It’s just meant as a piece of reportage. What’s so interesting is the most shrill critics virtually admit they haven’t read it. So it is so easy to dismiss it with ‘she’s got an axe to grind.’ I actually don’t have an axe to grind.
I’m a journalist who saw a story that wasn’t being reported here, and I had the luxury of time and space to explore it. I never thought I’d spend four years of my life on it.
Q – What are you planning to do next?
I think I’m just going to enjoy my husband’s wonderful company! [Marci laughs]
Cathryn Atkinson is the News and Features Editor of rabble.ca.