In 2008, 2½ years into Stephen Harper’s term as Prime Minister, the abortion advocate Henry Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada. This bit of history pops up at the bottom of page 167 of Marci McDonald’s book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada. And by the second paragraph of page 168 it’s forgotten, never to be mentioned again, because in the bizarre Canada McDonald spends the rest of her book describing, the extension of official honour to the likes of Morgentaler cannot possibly have happened.
McDonald is a former Washington and Paris bureau chief for this magazine. In 2006 she wrote a long article for The Walrus (that clause contains a redundant adjective). In it, she took an obvious and interesting fact—the Harper government pays a lot of attention to the concerns of evangelical Christians—and turned it into a risible fantasy: the Harper government is a plaything of wild-eyed end-timers who would transform Canada into a soul-saving factory in anticipation of the Rapture.
The Armageddon Factor is the book-length version of that article. Four years on, there’s a lot more evidence of evangelicals’ influence—and of its limits—within the Harper coalition. Was it too much to hope McDonald would tone down the excesses of her analysis and try harder to take her subject’s proper measure? Yes, apparently, it was.
“What drives [the] growing Christian nationalist movement is its adherents’ conviction that the end times foretold in the book of Revelation are at hand,” she writes. “Braced for an impending apocalypse, they feel impelled to ensure that Canada assumes a unique, scripturally ordained role in the final days before the Second Coming—and little else. That preoccupation with final-days preparations may help explain why nearly a thousand young evangelicals could gather in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, passionately calling for an end to abortion and premarital sex while ignoring the perils of global warming.”
After a while, you get used to reading paragraphs like that from McDonald. It’s a blend of screaming hysteria (“scripturally ordained role in the final days”) linked to something that probably actually happened (evangelicals in Stanley Park) over an exquisitely equivocal footbridge of maybe-words. Ambient madness “may help explain” calls for an end to abortion. So could, oh I don’t know, opposition to abortion. As for the loony kids’ insistence on “ignoring the perils of global warming,” it’s even worse than that. The Stanley Park protesters also failed to say a word about slavery, apartheid, Kenny G or the infield-fly rule. Don’t you get it? They’re evil.
But how influential are evangelicals? Here McDonald bobs and weaves a bit. She admits her so-called Christian nationalists are only “one faction,” before declaring it has “gained influence out of all proportion to its numerical heft.” From there it’s only a short step along the maybe-word footbridge to warning that the end-timers are about to take over. “The degree to which they succeed in prevailing over policy may depend”—ding ding ding—“on whether Canadians wake up to the realization that slowly, covertly, the political process is being co-opted by an extremist vision of Christianity—one ultimately shaped by what I call ‘the Armageddon factor.’ ”
I will spare you a detailed explanation of this Armageddon factor, except to note that the numbers 7 and 28 appear on the book’s cover and that, when McDonald finally explains their significance, it will turn your brain to oatmeal. I’ll note only that McDonald offers numerous sketches of devout and earnest evangelicals whose influence she continues, after four years of research, to have trouble demonstrating. All the favourites from her Walrus article are back. The guy who landed an invite, on the day of Harper’s first Throne Speech, to “a prestigious luncheon in the parliamentary dining room convened by Sen. Anne Cools.” The guy who became a big-time Hill insider during “six years as an executive assistant to former Reform/Alliance MP Reed Elley.” Here’s a bona fide Ottawa insider tip: Anne Cools and Reed Elley aren’t clout. It’s odd to read a book about power and religion in Harper’s Ottawa that mentions Stockwell Day more than 30 times, Jason Kenney only seven times and Guy Giorno twice while reserving a chapter for some guy who opened a creationism museum in southern Alberta.
But McDonald is out to fit data to conclusions, not the other way around. She calls Harper’s tendency to end speeches with “God bless Canada” an “aberration,” and explicitly contrasts such gaudy godliness with the styles of Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson. Really? Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution Act recognizes “the supremacy of God” in its first line. When the Maple Leaf flag first flew in 1965, Pearson said the day would be remembered “if our nation, by God’s grace, endures a thousand years.” Which nation? “A land of decent God-fearing people,” Pearson said, before concluding, “God bless Canada!”
People who believe in God and vote their beliefs often work hard. That makes them a potent ingredient in any political coalition anywhere. They win some and lose some. Always have, always will. These days they win more than they used to. They still lose a lot. A keen eye for the real weight of things will come in handy, if someone ever tells their story.