Stephen Harper’s Covert Evangelicalism
How an apocalyptic strain of Christianity guides his policies and campaigning.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s love-in with Israel’s right-wing government provides more insight on the influence of his religious views on public policy — and the importance he places on pleasing evangelical Christian voters.
It also confirms what I wrote three years ago in a Tyee column that went viral across the nation.
That piece argued that Harper’s own evangelical beliefs, which are closely aligned with extreme elements of the Republican Party, explained his disinterest in climate change and his government’s pointed trashing of environmental science. It also explained his penchant for secrecy and his dislike of the media, environmentalists and other secular groups.
In particular I referenced the reportage of Marci McDonald, whose book The Armageddon Factor carefully outlined the growing strength of the Christian right on Canada’s political landscape and its significant influence on Harper’s administration.
McDonald did not write a polemic. She merely documented how Harper slowly exploited moral and religious beliefs for partisan purposes with little transparency and no public debate.
Most Canadians still don’t even know that Harper has been a long-time member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical church established by a Canadian nearly 100 years ago. It has a wide following in Alberta.
Harper’s church believes that Jesus Christ will return to Earth in an apocalypse that is “imminent.” It does not support abortion and homosexuality and believes that those who aren’t born-again are “lost.”
About 10 per cent of Canadians call themselves evangelicals representing a diverse set of Protestant denominations.
It’s well documented that in a 1996 speech in Calgary Harper outlined how he would unite social conservatives and evangelicals by choosing issues carefully and implementing real change incrementally. This alliance would include Canada’s Jewish community. In 2003 he reiterated this agenda, calling members of the new alliance “theo-cons.”
Yet when McDonald’s book was published in 2010, friends of Stephen Harper including Ezra Levant and David Frum immediately attacked it as anti-Christian and bigoted. (For the record, McDonald considers herself Christian and is part Jewish.)
More lately, two high-profile books on Harper by Paul Wells and John Ibbitson either ignore Harper’s evangelical leanings altogether or dismiss them as inconsequential. They argue that Harper adroitly avoided two divisive issues dear to social conservatives: gay marriages and pro-life politics. Therefore the influence of religion on Harper’s politics does not matter.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
‘Smartest evangelical politician’
For starters, Christianity Today pegged Harper as “The Smartest Evangelical Politician You Never Heard Of” in 2006.
Harper had a secret formula for not being likened to George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, said the magazine. It included “keeping his God talk below the media radar.” And Harper has maintained that discipline.
Next comes the union made by Big Oil and right-wing evangelicals in Alberta. When the Petroleum Belt linked to the Bible Belt more than 50 years ago, the province forged a unique Republican-style political culture.
In fact, Harper’s views draw upon and are part of a tradition that goes back to Ernest Manning and Sunoco president J. Howard Pew of oilsands fame.
In the 1960s both men shared Protestant evangelical views and even vacationed together in Jasper every summer.
When Pew, the American equivalent of a Saudi sheik in terms of wealth and power, encountered resistance to his bold bitumen mining plans in Fort McMurray (conventional oil drillers feared the project could tank oil prices), he had a talk with his pal, premier Ernest Manning.
Shortly afterwards, the government smoothed things over and approved the first oilsands project in 1964. Pew then helped to fund Manning’s popular radio show Back to the Bible Hour.
Pew’s deep pockets also extended to conservative political lobbying. He helped to finance the far-right John Birch Society as well as the American Enterprise Institute, where Republican speech writer David Frum later worked for a number of years.
Pew also cultivated the famous evangelical energy of Billy Graham. To Pew, Manning and Graham, the Great Canadian Oil Sands Project represented a triumph of the evangelical Protestant spirit as well as “the right to extract all of the bountiful gifts of the great Creator and in ways that affirm their dominion over the earth,” writes Darren Dochuk in his marvellous historical account, American Evangelicals and the 1960s.
So Harper’s low-key Christian fundamentalism (he doesn’t discuss his religion in public) is not some inconsequential belief system but remains part of an ongoing Alberta political legacy where, as one U.S. scholar put it, “the forces of oil and evangelism have had a longer and more entwined relationship” than Ottawa journalists have ever reported.
Israel as keystone
The Israeli press understands Canada’s new religious reality. During Harper’s celebrated state visit to Israel in 2014 the local press published an analysis noting that views of “the devout evangelical Christian prime minister” probably played a key role in Canada’s new strategic union with the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Under Netanyahu, anti-Arab harassment and hatefulness have reached dangerous heights. Even the conservative Israeli president Ruvi Rivlin has despaired about the racism, extremism and “thuggishness that has permeated the national dialogue” in Israel.
A 2012 poll showed that one-third of Israelis don’t think that its two million Arab citizens should have the right to vote, and half would strip their citizenship rights. Many citizens now believe that Israel’s democracy, in which right-wing Orthodox Jews hold increasing sway, is sick.
But that’s not what Canadians now hear from their evangelical prime minister. His government has declared a “zero tolerance” approach towards groups that support boycotting Israel to protest its dealings with Palestinians, conflating criticism of state policies with “anti-Semitism.” That meant the Canadian government has identified as enemies such boycott backers as the United Church of Canada, Canadian Quakers, labour and student groups.
KAIROS, a Christian foreign aid group, was “defunded” by the Harper government in 2009 for criticizing Israel, according to then immigration minister Jason Kenney. That startling admission, notes McDonald in her book, demonstrated that “some expressions of Christianity were acceptable and others were not” in Harper’s theo-con Canada.
The evangelicalization of Canada’s Israeli foreign policy (previous governments held balanced views that recognized the plight of the Palestinians) began promptly in 2006.
Since then Harper has constantly attacked Israel’s enemies and backed every military operation. His government routinely describes the killing of Israel soldiers as “appalling.” Yet the Harper government has not once used that adjective to describe the impact of residential schools on First Nations or the startling number of murdered or missing Aboriginal women in Canada.
So why has Harper become Israel’s “staunchest supporter?” asked the Times of Israel when our PM visited the country in January 2014. “Harper is Canada’s first evangelical prime minister in 50 years, and most observers accept that his faith plays some role in his support for Israel,” explained its Toronto-based contributor.
Citing McDonald’s book, the column added that Harper has backed Israel with such fervour that some scholars and diplomats “rank it as the most dramatic shift in the history of postwar Canadian foreign policy.”
Who’s on board
Other evangelical politicians saluted Harper’s rapturous visit. Sarah Palin, for example, tweeted: “Thank you to our good neighbors led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for their exemplary support of our friend Israel. It’s wise and prudent for Canada and America to stand together against evil that would seek to destroy Israel.”
So religion not only powerfully influences domestic policy in Canada, it has also radically reshaped the nation’s foreign policy in a direction more in tune with the U.S. administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Both men courted the evangelical vote and both acted as fervent supporters for Israel.
The composition of Harper’s delegation to Israel also spoke volumes about his beliefs and Ottawa’s new directions. It included 21 rabbis and more than 56 representatives from various Zionist lobbying groups (including the Canadian chapter of the militant Jewish Defense League, a “violent extremist” organization according to the FBI in the United States, where it is outlawed.)
Representatives from evangelical Christian groups also joined the “historic” pilgrimage but hardly any came from mainline churches. The select group included Harper’s own church the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Trinity Bible Church, Crossroads Christian Communications and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
Many hold extreme views. The Ontario-based Crossroads Christian Communications has described homosexuality as a “perversion” and a “sin.” It received $544,813 in funding from the Harper government for foreign aid work in Uganda, prompting a public uproar.
Former Tory cabinet minister Stockwell Day, another Pentecostal and former Alberta and Tory politician, also joined the delegation. Day sits on the board of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups in Canada.
The visit and its photo-ops were sure to appeal to evangelicals who believe that Israel is a nation chosen by God to play a special role in history based on their Americanized reading of the Bible.
Some Christian Zionists argue that Israel must be defended at all costs so that the end of the world unfolds as Biblically foretold. Without an intact Israel, goes the theology, there can’t be an Armageddon.
Many of these Christian Zionists are dispensationalists who believe that if Israel gets into a huge battle with the Arab states, the destruction might actually invite the second coming of Christ. (Only about a third of U.S. evangelicals are dispensationalists and many belong to John Hagee’s Christians United For Israel.)
Such novel beliefs oddly make both the state of Israel and the Jewish people players in an end times theology largely espoused by white evangelical churches in the United States.
Several years ago Timothy Webber, a U.S. evangelical scholar, explained this extraordinary theology to journalist Bill Moyers:
“Without Israel in the land, there can be none of the other events prophesied in the Bible. There can be no rise of Anti-Christ. There can be no rebuilding of the Temple. There can be no Battle of Armageddon. And there can be no second coming of Jesus Christ. So everything is riding on the Jews, getting them there and keeping them there in the Holy Land.”
U.S. evangelical leader Jerry Falwell typically proclaimed in 1981: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God. We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel.”
The founder of the Harper’s chosen Christian and Missionary Alliance church certainly leaned towards dispensationalism. Given his church’s own website lists as a core belief that the end of the world is nigh, Harper himself may be a dispensationalist. No Ottawa journalist has asked him. (It’s unlikely the smartest evangelical politician you never heard of would answer the question.)
But Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East can sound a lot like dispensationalism. Defending Israel wasn’t just the right thing to do, Harper preached to Israel’s parliament in 2014. “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you,” he thundered in closing his speech.
Onward Christian voters?
Canada’s evangelical Christians are highly organized, well-funded, strongly disciplined and much more prone to vote than other Canadians. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that all of Canada’s three million evangelicals agree with Harper’s policies or the way he has exercised power.
Many, for example, find his refusal to address climate change a matter of moral outrage.
Contrast Harper’s studied intransigence on the subject with the sentiments of Richard Cizik’s New Evangelical Partnership:
“Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator and Jesus our Lord, through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.”
The great issue here is deception. Harper has inserted an agenda into the life of the nation without a full declaration or any transparency. He pretends to be a boring centrist when in reality he represents, in many cases, the views of an extreme religious minority.
Despite the denials of some Ottawa journalists, the evidence that Harper’s evangelical views have greatly influenced Canadian foreign and domestic policy are now overwhelming.
Religion explains why Harper appointed a creationist, Gary Goodyear, as science minister in 2009; why the party employs Arthur Hamilton, as its hard-nosed lawyer (he’s an evangelical too and a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance); why Conservative MP Wai Young would defend the government’s highly controversial spying legislation, Bill C-51, by saying it reflects the teachings of Jesus; and why Canada’s new relationship with Israel dominates what’s left of the country’s shredded foreign policy.
It also explains why Harper would abolish the role of science advisor in the federal government only to open an Office of Religious Freedom under the department of Foreign Affairs with an annual $5-million budget. Why? Because millions of suburban white evangelical Christians consider religious freedom a more vital issue than same-sex marriage or climate change.
While such gestures helped pull evangelicals into Harper’s coalition (a 2011 poll found Conservatives attract 50 per cent of regular churchgoers), Harper now faces some backlash from some of the most ardent “theo-cons” he’s wooed. Many evangelicals today feel that Harper has not gone far enough. Many regard the man more as a political opportunist than as a true believer.
Of approximately 30 evangelical MPs that followed Harper into power in 2006, most have stepped down for this election. One, James Lunney, even resigned from the party to run as an independent member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Alberni.
Lunney did so as he called critics of creationism “social bigots,” and railed against what he describes as “deliberate attempts to suppress a Christian worldview from professional and economic opportunity in law, medicine and academia.”
‘Faith as an opportunity’
Harper, who prefers to let his policies do the talking when trying to connect with Christian fundamentalist voters, probably was not sorry to see Lunney go. Lunney’s forthright expression of his beliefs made him a liability to Harper’s overall re-election strategy.
Indeed, the subversive nature of Harper’s religious agenda may be a factor in his party’s obsession with media control and secrecy, and why less than five per cent of Conservative candidates now agree to interviews with reporters. Harper wants the evangelical vote, but he also wants voters who are made uneasy by Christian fundamentalist social views and apocalyptic yearnings.
Although Harper remains most comfortable with the worldview of evangelicals, says Marci McDonald, he is probably more of a political opportunist than a true believer.
“Harper uses faith as an opportunity politically to build a base that he saw working in the United States with the Republicans,” McDonald told The Tyee. “And he has got a lot of vocal support from the States to build that base.”
Whether Harper lets evangelicalism be his guide because of his faith-filled heart or his strategy-spinning head matters little. In the process he has demolished science libraries and environmental science funding; defunded women’s groups and Christian groups that don’t speak in evangelical tongues; and concocted a “values-based” foreign policy that puts Israel first.
Many Christians (and I’m one of them) find this undeclared agenda not only abhorrent but also fundamentally anti-Christian. The great Protestant philosopher, Jacques Ellul, believed “Christian faith tells us that we should live, not how we should live.”
Ellul read the Bible as “antipolitical” in the sense that Jesus regards political power as idolatrous. “Christianity offers no justification for political power; on the contrary, it radically questions it,” explained Ellul.
That is hardly the theology of Stephen Harper, who has reshaped the Canadian government in service of a covert evangelical mission.