Journalists have largely ignored the political influence of Canada’s right-wing Christians – especially when it comes to Conservative policies in the Middle East. Hence Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada1 is a good and important book, although you would never know it from the reviews.
In her negative (and confusing) Globe and Mail review, Molly Worthen implicitly includes Canada’s policy on Israel when she writes, “McDonald sees Christian nationalist conspiracy everywhere she looks. Yet much of what she describes sounds merely like politics as usual.”2 Worthen ends by cautioning that “Canadian evangelicals who set their minds on politics do not have to be zealots in order to be disconcerting,” but she doesn’t tell us how or why.
In his disparaging National Post review, John G. Stackhouse, Jr., admits that McDonald “rightly shines her journalistic spotlight on people such as Timothy Bloedow and Gary Goodyear Stockwell Day.”3 But, he advises, “forget making fun of the creation-science museum in Alberta, forget trying to demonize Preston Manning. Forget Charles McVety and Faytene Kryskow. Focus on Stockwell Day and his associates and the religious culture that spawned and supports them. How have such people become so powerful and stayed so prominent even under Prime Minister Harper, who” – Stackhouse tells us – “is not like them?” “premillennial dispensationalism” – is a lot like astrology or creationism, except that there’s a lot less empirical evidence for PD. PDers claim that, interpreted properly, certain passages in the Jewish and Christian bibles predict the conditions for Christ’s return and his “thousand-year reign.” One of those conditions is that Jews must be in control of their entire biblical homeland. The whole story is remarkably insane.6 As you can imagine, Christ’s return and his thousand-year reign are a tremendously big deal. Abortion and same-sex marriage pale in comparison, because once Jesus comes back, everyone knows what will happen to those sinners – unless they’re born again, of course. PDers are completely opposed to Israel’s giving up land for a Palestinian state. They see a settlement freeze as the thin edge of the wedge of the two-state solution, which, they fear, will set back Jesus’ return. Most Canadian Jews would happily or grudgingly accept a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Harper’s extreme position is not aimed at them. No one knows how many PDers there are in Canada – it’s not the kind of thing people proclaim outside the comfort of their churches. McDonald estimates that the “evangelical community” makes up 10 to 12 per cent of the Canadian population.
Most PDers are evangelical Christians, but not all evangelicals are right-wing and, certainly, not all evangelicals are PDers. Still, in the United States the biggest names in right-wing Christianity – the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, John Hagee – are or were PDers. Many of Canada’s leading rightwing Christians are their disciples. It’s clear that several MPs and others close to Harper are Christian Zionists, which is pretty much a codeword for PD beliefs. In other words: As a group, right-wing Christians are extremely important to Harper’s coalition, and PD is life and death to many right-wing Christians. Right-wing Christians contribute a great deal of money, they’re well organized and they have very high voter turnout. And right-wing Christians who reject PD seem not to object to the PDers among them.
These are the people for whom Harper’s Israel policy is constructed. Which should give us pause. This is not a matter of religion and politics. It’s one thing for biblical literalists, say, to campaign for MPs with similar views; everyone’s ethics come from somewhere. But PD isn’t an ethical system. It’s a statement about the physical world. Is it okay for Palestinians to be killed if it will hasten the second coming? Do we actually want Canada’s foreign policy fashioned to satisfy people with secret, magical beliefs? As for Stephen Harper, either he’s willing to subvert what is likely the most important area of Canadian foreign policy in pursuit of support from the Christian right, or he’s a PDer himself. I’m not sure which is more frightening. Can we not get a few journalists to follow up on Marci McDonald’s important beginning?
The truth is, McDonald does quite a good job of explaining how that’s happened. The answer is roughly this: The various organizations of the Christian right in Canada became increasingly desperate and well organized after losing the battles on abortion and same-sex marriage. The Christian right had supported Day, and after winning the leadership Harper wanted its money, organization and electoral support. But the almost always pragmatic Harper knew that a too-vocal Christian right would cost him among moderate Conservatives.
With help from similarly pragmatic right-wing Christians like Preston Manning, many on the Christian right were taught that political effectiveness means knowing when to shut up. They still needed their rewards, however. It was political suicide to raise the two issues nearest and dearest to right-wing Christians, abortion and same-sex marriage, so Harper gave them what he could: funding for stay-at-home mothers; funding (for the first time in Canada) for Christian postsecondary education; a criminal justice system based on an-eye-for-an-eye; thousands of appointments to senior positions in the bureaucracy and to judicial bodies; positions of power in cabinet, in the PMO and among his personal staff; and speeches that ended in “God bless Canada.”
One can understand the appeal of each of these to biblical literalists, social conservatives and right-wing Christians. But Harper gave them one more gift: an unreserved, uniquely stupid government policy on Israel. “Wait a second,” you say. “Didn’t he adopt his Israel-right-or-wrong policy to win support from Jews?” That’s what journalists suggest. I think they’re wrong. The Jewish Israel lobby has some clout, and might be able to deliver the odd riding to the Conservatives. But a direct link between Harper’s policy and more Jewish votes isn’t easy to demonstrate. Canadian Jews have been moving to the right on a number of issues and some would have supported the Conservatives anyway. They had no great objection to the Liberals’ nominally balanced but decidedly pro-Israel policies, so it’s hard to know how many Jewish votes the new policy will attract, especially since many Jews disagree (privately) with the Harper position and are as likely to be repelled as attracted by it.
In any case, Jews make up about 1 per cent of the Canadian population. They have money to offer but not many votes. There may be a small benefit, but can it be enough to justify turning Canada into an international laughingstock? Are a few votes and a bit of money worth losing a seat on the UN Security Council? The Christian right is another matter. In their formerly controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,4 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt suggest that Christian Zionists are a major component of the Israel lobby. In his 2005 article “The PD Factor: Christian Fundamentalists and U.S. Policy in the Middle East,” Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos explained why that might be.
The Conservatives have:
- refused to criticize any aspect of Israel’s attack on Lebanon, even after a
Canadian UN peacekeeper was killed.
- refused to criticize any aspect of Israel’s attack on Gaza.
- refused to criticize any aspect of Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla.
- barred outspoken critic George Galloway from entering Canada.
- eliminated funding to UNRWA (UN assistance to Palestinian refugees).
- eliminated funding to Gaza after Hamas’s electoral victory. Canada was the first country to do so.
- eliminated funding to KAIROS Canada (“eleven churches and religious organizations in faithful action for ecological justice and human rights”) for supporting the boycott of Israel – which they never did. The government confused them with another organization.
- eliminated funding to the Canadian Arab Federation.
- virtually destroyed the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic
Development (Rights & Democracy) for providing small grants to one Israeli
and two Palestinian human rights groups. Here lies a sordid tale. The new vicechair,
Jacques Gauthier, is the lawyer for the International Christian Embassy
in Jerusalem, which Marci McDonald describes as “the largest and most
influential of the country’s Christian Zionist organizations.”
An excellent CBC documentary on Rights & Democracy can be found at