The church of Stephen Harper
At East Gate Alliance, they use PowerPoint, and pray for the Prime Minister
COLIN CAMPBELL | Feb 20, 2006
The Sunday before he was sworn in as Canada's 22nd prime minister -- with his own personal Bible -- Stephen Harper, arguably the country's most openly religious leader in decades, did something few might expect: he skipped church. Harper and his family attend the East Gate Alliance church, in the working class neighbourhood of Vanier, just down the street from a suburban strip mall that counts as tenants a pizza restaurant and a sex shop. With its red brickwork and white Roman columns, it might resemble a funeral home if not for the steeple on top. That Sunday, while Harper was putting the final touches on who would and wouldn't be in his cabinet, the congregation at East Gate prayed for one of its sick members; they prayed for a single mother who couldn't find work; and they prayed for their absent, soon-to-be prime minister. "We want to pray for Stephen Harper," said his pastor, Rev. Bill Buitenwerf, a tall, thin bespectacled man with a bushy goatee. "We pray that he will glorify [God's] name while he's in office."
As a man of religious conviction, Harper is no different than past prime ministers. Most of his predecessors have professed religious faith, though they've been careful not to let it drive their policies. Paul Martin personally opposed same-sex marriage, but eventually supported it as a Charter of Rights issue. Even Pierre Trudeau, who famously said the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and who advanced abortion rights, was a devout Catholic.(Since then, Kim Campbell, an Anglican, has been the only non-Catholic PM before Harper.)But Harper is the first in recent times whose religion has become an issue, largely because it is seen to cut against the grain of mainstream Canadian social values. He is the first evangelical prime minister since John Diefenbaker, and the first ever to belong to the relatively obscure Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.
His church follows in traditions normally associated with American evangelicalism, a brand of Christianity that has a relatively small following in Canada. In that vein, Harper appears to have more in common with President George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, than with his predecessors. At the East Gate Alliance Church, the hymnals even contain the song America, the Beautiful. "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord," they read. The church looks and sounds nothing like the ornate, staid Catholic churches attended by past prime ministers. There is no choir, organ or pews. Instead, there is a drum kit, guitars, piano and metal chairs. There is a large wooden cross at the front, but little else by way of decoration. The pastor uses PowerPoint graphics, projected onto the building's pale pink walls to highlight his sermon. Worshippers are encouraged to clap or raise their hands to the sky while singing.
It is not unlike a Baptist church. There is a strong emphasis on the certainty of one's faith and on the authority of the Bible. There is an emphasis on the physical healing powers of Jesus Christ(at the end of the service the pastor asks the sick to come up to be anointed with oil). In the church lobby, there are pamphlets opposing stem cell research and outlining the risks of abortion. And like many other religions, including the Roman Catholic faith, the church opposes gay marriage.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance church was founded by a Presbyterian Canadian pastor, Albert Simpson, in 1887, originally as a "mission society" rather than a distinct denomination. Simpson was motivated by a desire to spread the Gospel to the farthest corners of the world, and quickly established a significant evangelical following in both the United States and Canada, though it didn't officially become its own denomination until the 1970s. Even more so than other evangelical churches, the Christian and Missionary Alliance considers organized missionary and relief work as one of its central functions. There are now about 2,000 congregations in 75 countries, including one in Baghdad. This "international aspect" is one of the key draws for Harper, according to Lloyd Mackey, the author of the book The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper.
Still, the depth of Harper's faith is something of a question mark. "He is a fairly devoutly religious person," says Mackey. Harper has roots in the Presbyterian and United churches, but after moving to Calgary to do an M.A. in economics, he turned to the evangelical faith under the influence of people like Preston Manning and Diane Ablonczy, and by reading C.S. Lewis, says Mackey. But Harper is not all that different from Paul Martin, both being what pollsters might call "customizing Christians." "They take their faith seriously, and listen carefully to what their spiritual leaders have to say, but they don't necessarily accept everything as absolute truth that's said from the pulpit," says Mackey. "In other words, they use the minds that God gave them. He's very cerebral and rational, and that's the kind of thing that's reflected in his faith."
Harper has inherited a party with roots in the Alberta tradition of preacher politicians, exemplified by William "Bible Bill" Aberhart, Ernest Manning, and his son, Preston. But he's also performing a balancing act between his party's social and progressive conservatives, says John G. Stackhouse, a theology professor at Regent College at the University of British Columbia. Harper's new habit of ending speeches with "God Bless Canada" may be partly a nod to his party's religious elements. "He is cautiously signalling to some of his constituents that the more obvious Christianity of the Reform party is still alive and well in the new Conservative party, but he's also careful to signal to everyone else that this is a safely generic kind of piety," says Stackhouse.
Harper is not the first Conservative leader to find himself with an evangelical segment in his caucus. In the early 1970s, Robert Stanfield's party absorbed the remainders of Social Credit, along with its evangelical elements. That influence remained through to the Mulroney era and became known as the "God Squad"(it included MPs like Jake Epp and John Reimer). The evangelical block in the old party "was just about as strong as it is in the new Conservative party," says Mackey.
Canadians have long been squeamish about religion in politics, dating back to early conflicts between the French and English. "Because religion has been very divisive and because of the dominance of a Catholic Quebec, what politicians quickly learned is that burying religion was probably a good idea," says David Marshall, the head of the history department at the University of Calgary. Yet religion has never been far removed from the political sphere, with references to God in the Constitution and the national anthem, points out Bill Blaikie, a United Church minister and NDP MP. Many leaders on the political left have worn their faith on their sleeve, without drawing any attention, says Blaikie. Harper himself echoes those sentiments. "The separation of church and state is an American constitutional doctrine," he wrote in Faith Today magazine last month. "It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or the public square."
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