Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons. The rising clout of Canada’s religious right.


By Marci McDonaldPhotograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
PoliticsFrom the October 2006 magazine

Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons

The rising clout of Canada’s religious right

On the car radio, the weather report was aptly apocalyptic. Environment Canada had just issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Toronto, and already the sky north of the city had turned an ominous charcoal. Even the most cynical Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have dreamed up a more fitting scene-setter as a stream of cars turned into a parking lot tucked behind the Loblaws superstore at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road in search of a more precise forecast on just when to expect Armageddon.

Outside the low-rise office building that houses Canada Christian College, security was tight. Yellow police tape blocked the driveway, and plainclothes rcmp officers eyed the crowd for threats to two visitors inside: Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Alan Baker, and Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, chief of Israel’s military intelligence. Still, neither was the night’s main draw. Taking their seats on the stage of the college’s ground-floor auditorium, they were mere warm-up acts for the undisputed star of the show: Reverend John Hagee, the Texas televangelist who packs eighteen thousand born-again Christians into his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio every Sunday and whose fire-and-brimstone broadcasts reach an estimated ninety-three million homes around the globe.

Seated onstage, Hagee hardly looked capable of mustering such charisma. A squat fire plug in a brown shirt, brown suit, and beige striped tie, he stared out from behind owlish wire rims, no hint of a smile creasing his jowls. But the moment he strode to the mike, he had the audience in thrall. “As we sit here in safety and security, a nuclear time bomb is ticking in the Middle East,” Hagee intoned, his drawl gathering decibels as he rhymed off the litany of threats against Israel from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including his vow to see the nation wiped off the map. “In the twenty-first century, the president of Iran is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” Hagee thundered. “I believe Israel is in the greatest hour of danger it has known since statehood.”

In his latest book, Jerusalem Countdown — on sale for $14 in the college lobby — Hagee had already spelled out the implications of that scenario, complete with supporting arguments from top intelligence sources and the Biblical prophet Ezekiel. “We are facing a countdown in the Middle East,” he wrote with urgent certitude. “It is a countdown that will usher in the end of this world.”

But on this particular May night, Hagee chose not to elaborate on that discomfiting doomsday plot — discomfiting, that is, for all but Bible-believing Christians like himself, who bank on wafting heavenward in the rapture before all the bloodshed sweeps the globe. As he had warned in Jerusalem Countdown, “We are racing toward the end of the age. Messiah is coming much sooner than you think!”

The Second Coming has always raised an awkward theological hurdle in Hagee’s quarter-century of cheerleading for Israel. Even in his disputed reading of the Bible, there are only rapture provisions for those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. For this audience, sprinkled with Jewish dignitaries, Hagee chose to focus on a more diplomatic, short-term action plan one he unveiled last February when he summoned four evangelical pastors, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, to San Antonio to recruit a grassroots lobby called Christians United for Israel.

This summer, as Israeli jets pounded Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, killing an estimated 900 civilians, 3,500 of Hagee’s evangelical conscripts descended on the US capital to demand that Congress stand in solidarity with Israel. Any calls for a ceasefire ignored “God’s foreign policy statement” for the Jewish people, Hagee told the Washington crowd. “Leave Israel alone. Let them do the job.” No matter that such solidarity might fuel new waves of Islamic terrorism or, as Hagee details in Jerusalem Countdown, lead to a preemptive Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear installations, which risks igniting the final-days fuse. “I challenge you to be bold, be fearless,” he exhorted his Toronto audience. “Christians, stand up and speak up for Israel.”

To some Canadians, Hagee’s end-of-time sabre-rattling might seem like a marginal sideshow — an exotic import from the sometimes raucous big top of the US Christian right. But here, political pulse-takers seem to have overlooked the signs and portents of a shift in the landscape where fervent religious conviction and realpolitik meet. Not a word about Hagee’s Canadian visit had crept into the mainstream media, nor had its organizers run a single conventional ad. Despite that lack of publicity, two thousand evangelicals had made the pilgrimage to this suburban campus, alerted only by Christian broadcasters and church bulletins, to hear a superstar pastor with a direct pipeline to the born-again occupant of the White House. As Hagee confided to a reporter before his Toronto appearance, he first broke bread with George Bush back in the Texas statehouse, “so I know that he is with us.”

Now he has reached the same conclusion about the man ensconced at 24 Sussex Drive. On stage, Hagee lauded one of Stephen Harper’s first post-election acts: after Hamas militants won power in the Palestinian Authority, Harper became the first world leader to cut off its funding, trumping even Bush. “God has promised to bless the man, the church, the nation that blesses the Jewish people,” Hagee purred from the podium. “I am so delighted that Canada’s prime minister immediately denounced Hamas terrorism when he became the leader of this great nation.”

Hagee’s assessment of Harper isn’t based on news clips alone. His Toronto host, not to mention his longtime Canadian major-domo, was Canada Christian College president Charles McVety, one of the most outspoken players in this country’s religious right wing. During the last election, as head of a handful of pro-family lobbies including the Defend Marriage Coalition, McVety emerged as a power to be reckoned with. He bought up the rights to unclaimed Liberal websites such as and stacked a handful of Conservative nomination contests in favour of evangelical candidates adamantly opposed to same-sex matrimony, a campaign he has vowed to repeat. As Harper navigates the tricky waters of minority rule — keeping the lid on any eruptions of rhetorical fervour from the rambunctious theo-cons in his caucus — it is noteworthy that he has continued to cultivate a man regarded as the lightning rod of the Christian right. Last spring, those around the prime minister drafted McVety to help sell the government’s contentious child-care policy, and on budget day he was the personal guest of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in the Commons’ vip gallery.

Were those gestures — like Harper’s promised vote on reopening the gay marriage debate — mere sops to a constituency that the Conservatives need to transform their mandate into a majority? Most in the Ottawa press corps see them that way — as an exercise in cynicism by a canny strategist who remains at heart an unalloyed economic conservative, a tax cutter temporarily forced to pander to a passel of holy rollers he can’t wait to shrug off.

But McVety and others on the religious right are equally convinced that Harper is one of their own. “We’ve got a born-again prime minister,” trumpets David Mainse, the founder of Canada’s premier Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street. They see him as an image-savvy evangelical who has been careful to keep his signals to them under the media radar, but they have no doubt his convictions run deep — so deep that only after he wins a majority will he dare translate the true colours of his faith into policies that could remake the fabric of the nation. If they’re right, it remains unclear whether those convictions would turn government into a kinder, gentler guarantor of social justice for all or transform the country into a stern, narrow-minded theocracy. And what would his evangelical worldview mean for international relations?

During this summer’s Middle East war, Harper reversed decades of Canadian foreign policy with his adamant support for Israel, even after its jets smashed a clearly marked United Nations observation post, killing a veteran Canadian peacekeeper. His admirers argue that steadfastness could turn the burgeoning bond between evangelical Christians and Jews into a powerful and unprecedented alliance that could leave him unbeatable at the ballot box. But a growing chorus of critics warns that Harper has already paid a high price for that strategic calculation, irrevocably alienating Canada’s mushrooming Islamic population and leaving in shreds the country’s reputation as an even-handed peace broker. Harper’s stand has also raised more unsettling questions. What does it mean if and when a believer in the infallibility of Biblical prophecy comes to power and backs a damn-the-torpedoes course in the Middle East? Does it end up fuelling overenthusiastic end-timers who feel they have nothing to lose in some future conflagration, helping speed the world on Hagee’s fast track to Armageddon?

Fifteen minutes east of the Parliament Buildings, far from the neo-Gothic limestone of official Ottawa, the faded storefronts and fast-food joints along Montreal Road testify to working-class life in the capital. Just around the corner on Codd’s Road, next to Halley’s Service Centre, a curbside sign announces East Gate Alliance Church, the unlikely evangelical congregation that Harper attends.

The single-storey brick building still resembles the public school it once was. Stout colonial pillars have been tacked onto the front where former classrooms now house half a dozen ethnic congregations. Inside the airy sanctuary, there are no pews — only rows of stackable metal chairs beneath a simple cathedral ceiling. The pink walls, punctuated by pink blinds topped by skinny chintz swags, are the only nod to decor. No stained glass or gilt icons detract from the stark wooden cross above the stage.

On this particular Sunday, East Gate’s star parishioner is miles away, but it seems no wonder that a man with a passion for secrecy would choose this house of worship, light years from the media’s prying eyes. As members take their seats, few of the men sport jackets or ties, and kids race through the aisles to the chords of a grand piano. Suddenly a band strikes up, complete with a drum and guitars, and a young woman with a hand-held mike leads hymns whose rousing lyrics are projected onto the back wall. Halfway through the service, Pastor Bill Buitenwerf, who prefers a dark shirt and tie to his clerical collar, finally lopes to the pulpit, counselling his flock not to lose heart when the forces of darkness close in. “There’s moral degradation everywhere,” he begins, rhyming off a list of evils, including abortion, which he plans to protest at a right-to-life rally on Parliament Hill later that week. “It can be discouraging when we try to make a difference in our government,” he says, then catches himself. “Now, I’m not saying anything about our current government.”

Buitenwerf’s sermon is no barn-burner. Occasionally during a hymn, scattered worshippers lift their arms skyward, palms raised in praise, but this isn’t some emotive, revival-style service, studded with ecstatic sobs and hallelujahs. East Gate is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, founded in 1887 by a Prince Edward Island–born preacher named Albert Simpson. Infused with a zeal for faith healing and more aggressive evangelizing abroad, Simpson’s breakaway sect was part of what divinity scholars call the holiness movement, which agitated for a return to Methodism’s reformist roots. Now, with more than four hundred thousand members in two thousand churches across the continent, it’s considered squarely in the evangelical mainstream. According to its Statement of Faith, adherents believe the Bible is “inerrant” and the Second Coming is “imminent.” Women are still not accepted for ordination, and a position paper on divorce does not mince words on a related matrimonial subject. “Homosexual unions are specifically forbidden,” it decrees, “and are described in Scripture as manifestations of the basest form of sinful conduct.”

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