I wrote in a recent post about Marci McDonaldâ€™s book The Armageddon Factor, which traces the growing political influence of Canadaâ€™s religious right. McDonald has clearly struck a nerve â€“ two bodyguards accompanied her at a recent Calgary event to promote her book. Reviews and interviews with her (and her critics) have been everywhere since the book was released in mid-May. On the week ending June 5th, The Armageddon Factor was ranked second on The Globe and Mailâ€™s list of hardcover sales among Canadian titles. McDonald and her work have also been the object of close attention among reviewers, Op Ed writers and bloggers. Letâ€™s look at some of the comments.
Charge from the right
The charge from the right was led by the National Post and featured some of its regular polemicists. They included the ubiquitous Ezra Levant, who in his subtle and gracious way described McDonald as a â€œbigotâ€ against Christians, Jews and Sikhs. On his blog he called her a â€œChristian haterâ€ and described her asÂ â€œbigoted, sloppy, error-prone, smug.â€ On his Twitter feed, Levant said this: â€œWatching Marci McDonald on TV. What a hateful bigot. If she spoke this way about Jews, she’d be run out of town as an anti-Semite.â€ Levant and some others throw this latter accusation around rather casually these days.
Levant points to a list of factual errors in the book and suggests that may have occurred because McDonald â€œspent her career in Washington, D.C.â€ and is out of touch with Canadian political reality. McDonald indicates that she worked as a journalist in the U.S. beginning in 1984 and that she returned to Canada in 2002. For a good deal of that time she was bureau chief for Macleanâ€™s magazine in Washington.
David Frum has spent most of his adult life studying and working in the U.S., but that does not appear to disqualify him from commenting regularly on matters Canadian in the National Post. He also weighed in on McDonaldâ€™s book, describing it as â€œweirdly cluelessâ€ and McDonald as â€œbreathlessâ€ in her description of â€œa sinister conspiracy by militant evangelicals to reach into the very centre of Canadian government.â€ But what appears to bother Frum most is McDonaldâ€™s contention that the Harper government has taken pro-Israel policy positions at least partly in order to reward a supportive coalition of religious conservatives. Frum concludes: â€œIt’s hard to avoid the suspicion that McDonald’s real grievance against the Harper government is not that it is too pro-Christian, but that it is insufficiently anti-Jewish.â€
Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizensâ€™ Coalition, also attacks McDonald in the National Post, describing her book as â€œgreat propaganda,â€ and â€œpure and utter nonsense.â€ He makes the following claim: â€œFor one thing, Harper is by no means an Evangelical Christian; he’s not even a social conservative.â€ This would come as news to Lloyd Mackey, a Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter who has filed for religious publications for years. In 2005, Mackey published a book called The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, in which he described Harperâ€™s religious faith and his gradual move from mainline Protestantism to his becoming a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
In the Saskatchewan farm country where I was raised, people used to say that if you throw a stick into the bush and hear a yelp that means you have hit something. In this case, McDonald obviously has hit something at the National Post. In their exaggerated personal attacks and their fevered rush to discredit and destroy, these writers undermine whatever credibility their critiques may otherwise have had.
There are critics of McDonaldâ€™s book who are more thoughtful and plausible than those mentioned above. Paul Wells, who writes for Macleanâ€™s as McDonald once did, describes the genesis of her book. â€œIn 2006, she wrote a long article for The Walrus,â€ Wells writes. â€œIn 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…â€ Despite his criticisms, however, Wells accepts as fact McDonaldâ€™s claim that the religious right has influence with the Harper government, but believes she overstates it.
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., a professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, provides a detailed three-part critique of The Armageddon Factor on his blog. He faults McDonald for â€œfrequently [failing] to pass even minimal journalistic standards,â€ and says that her conclusions are largely mistaken. He claims, for example, that she confuses â€œa generic concern to influence Canada according to Christian principles with the extremist agenda of establishing a theocracy that would stone homosexuals.â€
He writes, â€œMs. McDonald uses weird literary camerawork to zoom in on people she admits are on the fringes of evangelicalism only to widen out to include other evangelicals, Roman Catholics, â€˜conservative Christiansâ€™ and even Jews as if theyâ€™re all connected. But where are the basic definitions we need? What is fundamentalism or evangelicalism or Pentecostalism or charismatic Christianity? What is a â€˜Christian Rightâ€™ or a â€˜Religious Rightâ€™ versus simply orthodox Christianity or politically conservative religious people? Ms. McDonald never defines any of these key termsÂ . . . so we literally donâ€™t know what sheâ€™s talking about.â€
Despite his criticisms, Stackhouse sees an inherent value in what McDonald has produced.Â â€œMs. McDonald, despite her evident trouble understanding quite what sheâ€™s looking at, has nonetheless found something to which the rest of us ought to pay attention. There are, it appears, people in Canadian public life and in the federal government in particular whose views and associations ought to trouble not just the Marci McDonalds but even card-carrying, bona fide evangelicals like me.â€
Reporting on faith and politics
Few academics in Canada have shown much interest over the years in exploring the interface between faith and public life and most journalists are unequipped to report knowledgeably on these connections. The topic was clearly not an easy one for McDonald to master either but she has rendered us a great service. There is a religious right in Canada, it has political influence and we should be reporting on this development. I would observe that there is a religious left too, whose flame burns only weakly these days, and we should report on it as well.