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On a sun-dappled Saturday in the summer of 2008, a thousand young people throng the lawns of the Parliament Buildings in a classic picture-postcard tableau. Against the iconic backdrop of the Peace Tower, toddlers race through the crowd trailing rainbow streamers and a fresh-faced blonde stretches out under an umbrella to breastfeed her plump newborn. As the compelling rhythms of an electronic keyboard pound over the loudspeakers and a dance troupe swoops across an impromptu stage twirling oversized maple-leaf parasols, an onlooker might be forgiven for assuming that Ottawa’s tourist bureau orchestrated the idyllic scene. Then a young woman in a maple-leaf T-shirt shatters that perception with an anguished wail. “Father, save us!” she implores from the microphone, tears coursing down her cheeks. “Hear our cry!”
As her sobs erupt into the incantations of an old-time revival, it suddenly becomes clear that this is no occasion for celebration or national pride. For the conservative Christians who have flocked to Parliament Hill for this day-long fast and prayerfest called Thecry, it is a concerted, eleventh-hour plea for the repentance and reformation of a nation they believe is headed straight to the hellfires of damnation for having betrayed its divinely appointed destiny—a destiny spelled out in the national motto, Psalm 72:8, chiselled around the neo-Gothic windows of the Peace Tower: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Never mind that Old Testament scholars attribute that snatch of ancient Hebrew poetry to a desert patriarch whose entire cosmos was circumscribed by the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River. For Faytene Kryskow and a growing number of evangelicals whose faith is founded on the inerrancy of the Bible, the seventy-second psalm offers irrefutable proof that, thousands of years before Confederation and even before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God fingered Canada for a key role in the final days preceding the Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.
Now, as they chart the signs and portents that seem to signal the advent of those end times, as global warming thaws the polar ice caps and the global economy reels from another sort of meltdown, they are driven by an increasing imperative to reverse the moral impediments blocking the country from its scriptural fate. Despite decades of attempts to establish God’s dominion north of the forty-ninth parallel, Canada remains one of the few countries in the developed world without an abortion law and was among the first to legalize same-sex marriage. But on the promotional video for Thecry, Kryskow, the event’s chief organizer, ticks off a longer list of transgressions—from “gross moral decay, family breakdown, immorality and perversion” to “general cultural demise”—all of which must be set right. At the microphone, her voice is hoarse with emotion, her thin frame wracked with grief. “Lord, we pray for the sins of this nation,” she pleads. “Heal our land.”
The only hope for national redemption, as she sees it, lies in the strategic prayers of born-again believers to prod the country back onto a righteous legislative track. Turning to face the Supreme Court down the street, then toward all three wings of the Parliament Buildings, she leads her followers in an hour-long anti-abortion rite, their arms outstretched like kung fu masters channelling spiritual vibes—“prayer bombs,” she calls them—and their mouths plastered shut with scarlet duct tape inscribed with the word “life” to symbolize the stifled screams of an imperilled fetus.
But Thecry is not merely another pro-life rally attempting to storm Parliament Hill. Its agenda is much broader and far more radical: nothing less than restructuring Canada as a devoutly Christian nation governed by biblical literalists according to principles selectively plucked from the Old and New Testaments. That theocratic vision provides the underpinnings for a new Christian nationalist movement emerging in the capital, where Kryskow has become its most public face, the winsome front for a handful of militant evangelical groups determined to infiltrate the political system and, as she puts it, “reclaim Canada for Christ.”
Exactly what that phrase entails is as hard to pin down as Kryskow’s sketchy explanations of the country’s end-times role, but its implications for public policy are worthy of note. Establishing a Christian government in Ottawa—or re-establishing it, as Kryskow insists—would mean not only putting Bible believers in political office, but returning control of such services as education and social welfare to those institutions that Christian reconstructionists regard as the bedrock of a godly society: the family and the church.
While most of the teens and twenty-somethings in this crowd have been drawn to Kryskow’s calls for a Christian revival in Canada, few realize that she is part of a charismatic renewal movement that aims to wipe out the distinctions between church and state around the globe. Even her hyperbolic brand of righteous patriotism has been lifted from an American template: Thecry is patterned directly on TheCall, a daylong fast and prayer rally that drew fifty thousand Christian youth to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., only a week earlier. On TheCall’s website, in fact, Kryskow’s gathering is listed as the chief Canadian event sponsored by Missouri revivalist Lou Engle, the controversial pioneer of the red-duct-tape ritual that has become a staple of U.S. pro-life protests.
In Ottawa, Kryskow downplays those American ties, cultivating her reputation as a homegrown dynamo whose effervescence and impressive political connections have transformed her into one of the leading figures in this country’s emerging Christian right. At a time when the press corps routinely gets the cold shoulder on Parliament Hill, she sails through the corridors of power with an official security pass, popping up in the House of Commons’ gallery to cheer on the Conservative government’s initiatives and huddling with members of Parliament in the privacy of their offices to tout traditional values while joining hands with them in prayer.
At the prophetic conferences Kryskow runs under the banner of her youth lobby, 4MYCanada, she seldom fails to snag a guest appearance from one of the evangelicals in Harper’s caucus, and this edition of Thecry is no exception to that rule: Conservative MP Bev Shipley has trekked back to Ottawa during the Commons’ summer recess from his southwestern Ontario riding specifically to deliver greetings on behalf of his colleagues. A fellow Christian nationalist, Shipley has arrived fresh from a controversy of his own. Weeks earlier, he had been pilloried for handing out Canada Day bookmarks that asked constituents to pray for “godly” leaders who would govern “according to the Scriptural Foundation upon which our country was founded.”
Still, his endorsement pales in comparison to Kryskow’s chief public-relations coup: an effusive letter from the prime minister himself, which she reads to the crowd. In it, Harper lauds her youth movement for cultivating “thoughtful, faith-filled citizens” and praises its political activism. “Faith has shaped your perspective on the world and strengthened your resolve to make a political difference,” he writes, signing off with a beneficent “God Bless.”
What makes the letter noteworthy is that it arrived, unsolicited, from a politician who had spent years scrupulously avoiding any suggestion of coziness with the country’s Christian right. All through the 2006 race that brought him to power, Harper had barred his evangelical candidates from airing their contentious views on same-sex marriage and deftly sidestepped the minefields of the culture wars. Yet here he was in the summer of 2008, about to call an unscheduled election,openly currying favour with that constituency.
Was he simply trying to energize a new cadre of Conservative foot soldiers for the upcoming campaign? Or had there been a more profound shift in his strategy? Was Harper now secure in the assumption that, after two years of muzzling the most rambunctious believers in his caucus, he could count on the mainstream media not to notice that the religious right was alive and well—indeed thriving—under his government, where it had already begun to change the nation in ways that are far-reaching and perhaps irreversible?
For most Canadians, the first clue that they had a born-again prime minister came on election night in January 2006 when Harper capped off his victory speech with a three-word closing, “God bless Canada,” that sent commentators into conjectural overdrive. Some speculated that it was merely a case of rhetorical exuberance momentarily trumping his fabled cerebral cool. Others insisted it was yet another indication of his amply documented admiration for the American political system, a shameless imitation of every U.S. president within recent memory, no matter what their political stripes. Even among his intended audience, not everyone was thrilled. John Stackhouse, one of the country’s leading evangelical scholars, decried the gesture as a “sop” that had managed to miff both non-believers and committed Christians like himself. “It remains so vague, it has no important political purchase,” he argued. “It’s done very little except to irritate people.” In fact, Harper had used the phrase in some speeches as leader of the opposition, and for Preston Manning, his old Reform Party boss, the fuss was infuriating. “It’s just ridiculous to think that this is some novelty that was learned by watching Republicans on television,” Manning bridled in a phone interview. “This is a country that used to end every public meeting by saying, ‘God Save the Queen.’”
But as a New York Times’ correspondent noted, Harper’s benediction was an aberration “in a country where politicians do not customarily talk about God.” Pierre Trudeau had been careful to cultivate his image as a playboy rather than betray his fervent Catholicism, and even Lester Pearson, the son of a Methodist minister, preferred to play up his identity as a baseball fanatic, not a wily coalition builder who occasionally prayed with Social Credit leader Robert Thompson, the devout evangelical whose votes kept his minority Liberals in power. As the first evangelical prime minister since John Diefenbaker, Harper didn’t need any tutorials on the risks of mixing faith and politics: he had watched creationist sentiments sink the leadership career of his Canadian Alliance rival Stockwell Day. But when he proceeded to turn his election-night blessing into a trademark exit line—even commending the contents of his first throne speech to the will of “divine providence”—it raised an obvious question: why would a politician known for attempting to control every public utterance by his party choose to invoke what Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella dubbed “the G-word?”
One answer lay south of the border where George Bush was still in power, regularly seeding his speeches with coded scriptural allusions to reassure those evangelicals who had helped put him in office that he remained onside. In this country, where the evangelical community is a fraction of the size—10 to 12 percent of the population compared to more than 30 percent in the U.S.—any oratorical outreach was riskier, but there was no doubt that Harper, too, owed conservative Christians a debt for their support at the ballot box. After he took the same-sex-marriage issue off the table on the first day of the 2006 campaign, promising a free vote on whether to reopen the debate, evangelical leaders rallied their troops on the strength of that pledge. Taking over nomination meetings and often ousting more moderate candidates, they propelled their faithful to the polls and, as an Ipsos Reid survey revealed, those efforts translated into votes. Sixty-four percent of weekly Protestant churchgoers—most of them evangelicals—opted for the Conservatives, a 24 percent jump from the previous election. Even more significantly in a country where Roman Catholics make up the biggest slice of the spiritual pie, for the first time in the history of Canadian polling, a majority of the most devout Catholics had shifted their allegiance from the Liberals to the Conservatives. A religious right was taking shape in Canada, and Harper was determined to ensure that it was no fluke. For most conservative Christians tuning in to his victory speech, “God bless Canada” was the equivalent of a televised thank-you note.
Still, for many in the Ottawa press corps, it came as a shock. Invocations of the divine were not what they had come to expect from the buttoned-down policy wonk known to brighten at the mere mention of fiscal transfer payments. Although Harper had succeeded in remaining an enigma to all but a close circle of advisers, there had never been a hint that beneath his opaque mask lurked a covert Bible thumper. Even a four-hundred-page biography by his admiring Boswell, William Johnson, made no mention of his interest in a higher power.
Then, suddenly, just months before the election, Harper’s cover was blown by an unlikely source. Lloyd Mackey, the veteran Ottawa editor of B.C. Christian News, published The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, a slim volume that chronicled Harper’s spiritual odyssey from the stolid United Church pews of his Toronto boyhood to the rollicking guitar-and-drum-laced services of the evangelical church he sought out in the working-class obscurity of Ottawa’s east end. It was there that Mackey found him one “Shoebox Sunday,” beaming with paternal pride as his two children, Ben and Rachel, trooped to the front with their boxed mission gifts for the overseas relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse.
Harper never accorded Mackey an interview and was furious that the book appeared on the eve of the 2006 vote, but he had little to fear. Because Mackey was an outsider in the capital, a bespectacled loner who seldom pursued the stories that obsessed political scribes, his revelations were largely ignored until after his subject was safely ensconced at 24 Sussex Drive. By then, Mackey’s thesis was beyond dispute: as the former editor of the Reform Party’s newspaper, he had known Harper during a period that Johnson’s biography had glossed over—one that stood at odds with his reputation as a flinty control freak who brooked no ideological doubts. It was a period that a more confessional politician might have referred to as his dark night of the soul.
Until the 2006 election, Harper had publicly alluded to his faith on only two occasions, both of them interviews with small Christian media outlets where he was assured a sympathetic ear. In one, on joy1250, a Toronto-area radio station, host Drew Marshall cued him for an apparently well-rehearsed confession. “Let’s jump into the Jesus stuff here,” Marshall announced. “Rumour has it that you actually are a genuine follower of Christ.” In contrast to his usual impatience with the press, Harper seemed delighted by the query, acknowledging that he had become a Christian in his twenties but didn’t like to talk about it much. Then he hastened to reassure secular listeners who might have tuned in with a deftly hedged declaration.: “I won’t say I always keep my faith and politics separate,” he conceded, “but I don’t mix my advocacy of a political position with my advocacy of faith.” Ten years earlier, in a profile for the now defunct Ottawa Times, he had admitted that as a teenager he thought of himself as “an agnostic central Canadian liberal,” but “life experiences” led him to “other conclusions,” and eventually to the pews of the Christian and Missionary Alliance church.
Mackey traced those experiences back to the late 1980s when Harper returned to Calgary after his first stint in Ottawa as an aide to Conservative MP Jim Hawkes—a postgraduate dream job that had turned into a nightmare year of disillusionment and self-doubt. Solitary and friendless in the foreign culture of the capital, his only confidante his backbencher boss, Harper watched, appalled, as his theoretical policy ideals smashed up against the compromises of parliamentary realpolitik. He fled back to Calgary only to face a traumatic breakup with his fiancée, then threw himself into studies for a master’s degree in economics, determined to make his career in the loftier groves of academe. It was at the University of Calgary, sitting in on the “egghead lunches” convened by a group of political-science professors for the benefit of Preston Manning, that he was recruited to help draft the Reform Party’s first platform.
In those days, Manning had not yet established himself as the voice of Western alienation and he carried the weight of a legacy that was not political alone: he was known chiefly as the charisma-challenged son of Ernest Manning, whose celebrity as Alberta’s longest-serving premier was only outstripped by his career as a spellbinding radio preacher. “The premier’s kid,” as Manning called himself, grew up in the wings of his father’s electronic pulpit, taking notes on his sermons and often running the kids’ portion of the program while his mother played the organ and conducted the choir. Talking to Manning about the thorny path to personal faith was akin to signing up for Fundamental Christianity 101.
Today, Manning shrugs off his role as Harper’s spiritual mentor. “Stephen does have deep spiritual convictions,” he says warily, invoking Harper’s penchant for privacy. But others are more forthright. Deborah Grey, the feisty Alberta high-school teacher who became Reform’s first member of Parliament, and, briefly, Harper’s boss, recalls his “very long, very involved discussions” with Manning over the course of several years: “Stephen saw Preston and a faith that was real, and how you could marry faith and politics.”
Unlike George W. Bush, who claimed a life-changing epiphany on the booze-sodden road to perdition, Harper embarked on a spiritual journey that lacked a dramatic plot twist. Mackey describes him as a “cerebral” Christian who read and reasoned his way to faith. “When it came to his spiritual formation with Preston, he’d say, ‘What are the classics?’” Mackey reports. “And Preston would say, ‘Try C. S. Lewis,’ or ‘Try Muggeridge.’”
Both Malcolm Muggeridge, the acerbic British journalist who championed Mother Theresa, and Lewis, the celebrated author of The Chronicles of Narnia, came to their convictions late in life. In Mere Christianity, Lewis lays out core doctrines with wit and a relentless logic that speaks directly to rationalists like Harper who might be horrified by the unruly gusts of emotion that can ambush a convert. “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is,” Lewis wrote in a masterful metaphor sure to resonate with any student of politics. “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Harper’s quest coincided with a period when his father, the man he calls the most important influence on his life, was facing his own spiritual crossroads. On the Drew Marshall Show, he recounted how Joseph Harper, a gregarious accountant and lifelong teetotaller, became “quite an expert in theological matters” and suddenly, after years as a United Church elder, switched his allegiance to the Presbyterian camp. Harper sidestepped an explanation of why his father jumped ship, but pointedly noted that Marshall’s audience would get his drift—a veiled allusion to the explosive 1988 decision by the United Church General Council to approve the ordination of homosexuals.
While his parents fled to the Presbyterian fold, Harper forged his own path, exploring the evangelical services that seemed to provide his Reform colleagues such enviable certainty. Diane Ablonczy, the party’s newly widowed communications director, had found consolation at Calgary’s Centre Street Church, and she talked Harper into buying tickets for one of its fundraising galas, nudging him to invite a bubbly blonde graphic designer named Laureen Teskey on what would be their first date. In the end, Harper spurned Centre Street’s bustle as well as the upscale reassurance of Manning’s First Alliance Church, opting for an upstart branch of the same denomination near his home in the city’s booming northwestern suburbs.
Founded in 1986 by a few dozen families who gathered in a school, Bow Valley Alliance had grown at such a heady rate that it was obliged to move to a shopping mall and a community college before taking over the Dutch Canadian Club hall, where Brent Trask, its ambitious young pastor, was turning Bow Valley into one of the high-energy experiments in conservative Protestantism that were erupting across the continent. Like Harper, Trask took his inspiration from the U.S., where two gurus of church growth, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, were transforming contemporary worship, using Christian rock music and corporate marketing techniques to attract the enormous memberships that have made the evangelical movement a force to be reckoned with in American politics.
The view from the parking lot is the stuff of Alberta travel brochures. In the distance, the snow-slicked Rockies glisten white and magisterial beyond one of the rare expanses of untouched ranchland not yet ravaged by Calgary’s relentless construction juggernaut. Here on a mesa just off Highway 1A on the northwest cusp of the city, Brent Trask’s flock sits on a real-estate bonanza—twenty-three acres of pasture crowned by a mammoth cinder-block house of worship that could double as a Walmart, complete with wraparound space for a thousand cars. Acquired as part of a merger with a foundering Baptist congregation, the property serves as the headquarters of Trask’s newly rebranded RockPointe Church, a twenty-five-hundred-member, multi-site megachurch that counts the old Bow Valley sanctuary where Harper once worshipped as one of its three campuses.
In the lobby, volunteer greeters are on the watch for “seekers,” those trepidatious drop-ins whose salvation has not yet been secured by a personal encounter with Christ. For them, the regular two-dollar fee at the espresso bar is waived, but anyone not up for a dose of high-test java can patronize the church’s own Tim Hortons counter, where tables and chairs attempt to conjure up a café atmosphere. Inside the eight-hundred-seat auditorium, there are no pews, only rows of stackable metal chairs that gradually fill up with a well-heeled crowd in designer windbreakers, kids of all ages in tow. On the walls, no crosses or other symbols betray the fact that this is a sanctuary, nor is there a pulpit in sight. Onstage a five-piece band breaks into the infectious rhythms of a soft-rock anthem, paced by a mop-haired teen drummer who bobs ecstatically to his own beat, and two comely brunettes with the lungs of country-music divas appear with hand-held microphones, belting out upbeat lyrics projected onto three giant video screens. The congregation joins in, clapping and swaying, before a succession of speakers bound onstage with reports from African mission projects and a pitch for an upcoming fundraiser. “Mark it down,” exhorts one excitable junior pastor. “We’ve got a gourmet caterer puttin’ on an awesome spread. Here at RockPointe, we like to party. It’s gonna be a good time.”
Then the lights go down and video clips flash on the screens, all featuring men about to undertake hilariously ill-advised tasks, including one would-be handyman blithely poised on a metal ladder in a swimming pool, electric drill in hand. The congregation is still doubled over in laughter as another pastor on Trask’s team strolls out in an open-necked sports shirt to serve up a sermon entitled “Foolish Wisdom.” Pacing the stage like a seasoned nightclub emcee, a wireless microphone clamped to his head, he studs his patter with everyday anecdotes and self-deprecating jokes, occasionally calling on parishioners to turn to their Bibles. For those who haven’t brought along a personal copy, there is no need for embarrassment: snappy summaries of the relevant passages pop up on the video screens. Despite the laid-back lingo and high-tech gloss, the sermon is an oldfashioned argument for adhering to the counsel of the Scriptures even when conventional wisdom counsels the opposite course. “Any number of Christian doctrines can seem like bunk,” he concedes. “But a follower of Christ must not allow the source of their wisdom to be anything other than the wisdom of God. That is absolutely mission critical.”
From its cappuccino bar and soft-rock band to its trendy repackaging of the gospel, RockPointe’s service is based on a prototype pioneered in the suburbs of Chicago by Bill Hybels, the entrepreneurial founder of a 23,000-member megacongregation called Willow Creek Community Church. Starting out with 125 young people in a theatre, Hybels used live bands and a lounge-act format to pull in crowds, many of them upscale GenXers turned off by the formality or the fire-and-brimstone of their childhood worship. As Willow Creek grew into a colossus, other pastors clamoured for the secrets of its success. Now, for an annual fee of $249, more than 12,000 churches around the world—1,100 of them in Canada—are members of the Willow Creek Association, which entitles them to a monthly coaching tips from Hybels and entree to his annual leadership summits featuring corporate darlings such as Carly Fiorina. Time magazine anointed Hybels one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America, but some critics scorn his “pastorpreneurial” approach for producing jammed pews and shallow believers, who are lulled by Christianity Lite.
Trask is one of hundreds of Alliance pastors who signed on with Hybels’s franchise and, at a time when Calgary’s population was exploding, the move paid off with soaring membership rolls. It isn’t difficult to picture Harper sitting in on his super-caffeinated services, based on a corporate-inspired worship model profiled by the Stanford Business School magazine, but Trask makes clear that his most celebrated parishioner never presented himself as some unquestioning sheep. “He didn’t just believe what he was told,” the burly pastor told the Vancouver Sun’s religion writer, Douglas Todd. “He had to rationalize what he was hearing about Christianity.”
What Harper heard those Sunday mornings would hardly have come as a shock. Beneath the hip trappings, Trask’s congregation is a member of a stoutly conservative denomination founded by a Prince Edward Island–born preacher named Albert B. Simpson who, in 1887, at the height of his career at a prestigious New York Presbyterian church, suddenly felt a more compelling call. Captivated by the prophetic endtimes doctrines then sweeping the continent and a personal belief in faith healing, he launched soul-saving campaigns at home and abroad that eventually merged to form the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
For the straitlaced Presbyterians of his day, Simpson’s emphasis on personal salvation and spiritual cures might have been considered outré. But he drew the line at charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues, parting ways with many early followers who bolted to the emotive Pentecostal camp. Now with nearly four million members in fourteen thousand congregations around the world, the Alliance is squarely in the evangelical mainstream. According to its Statement of Faith, adherents believe that the Bible is inerrant and the Second Coming “imminent,” and that Christ’s return will be both “personal and visible.” Women are still not accepted for ordination, and a position paper on divorce does not mince words on a related matrimonial topic. “Homosexual unions are specifically forbidden,” it decrees, “and are described in Scripture as manifestations of the basest form of sinful conduct.”
Even the church’s emphasis on overseas missions is rooted in a neo-conservative worldview. Trask’s congregations have raised thousands of dollars for African communities struggling with hiv/ aids, and, like many Christian conservatives, he regards such charity toward the marginalized and impoverished as the business of the church, not the state. Although Trask recalls debates with Harper over Alliance doctrine, they never disagreed on that point: social welfare ought to be delivered by faith communities, not by the government. At a time when George Bush was funnelling millions for social programs through his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to foster that thesis, Harper carried the same conviction to Ottawa where, as the centrepiece of his first budget, he shelved plans for a national daycare scheme in favour of a monthly allowance doled out directly to families. The policy provoked howls of protest from child-care advocates, but Trask and a network of evangelical pastors signed on to promote it.
In 2003, when Harper had moved to the capital with his family, it was Trask who helped him find a new church: East Gate Alliance, where an elder named Laurie Throness, then an aide to British Columbia MP Chuck Strahl, could serve as a spiritual counsellor who was wise to the demands of political life. By any other measure, East Gate Alliance seemed an unlikely choice. Fifteen minutes east of the Parliament Buildings, around the corner from the faded storefronts and fast-food joints that line Montreal Road, it sits in the heart of a gritty blue-collar neighbourhood that seems light years from the neo-Gothic limestone of official Ottawa. A former elementary school with a row of white pillars across the front, its services are a tribute to working-class life in the capital, occasionally punctuated by the cries of a lost soul wandering in, dazed and dishevelled, after a hard night on the neighbouring streets. Capitalizing on its location, Pastor Bill Buitenwerf has tried to turn the church into a multicultural haven, sharing the sanctuary with Filipino, Hispanic and Arabic congregations. Aside from its live band, East Gate’s services would never be mistaken for some slick Willow Creek spinoff.
Still, its very unfashionability and offbeat location were perfectly tailored for the next chapter in Harper’s political life. He had arrived in Ottawa determined to cobble together a new conservative movement, and while it might have been unremarkable to attend an evangelical church in Calgary, that was certainly not the case in the capital. What better place to hide his evangelical ties than in this improbable sanctuary far from the prying eyes of the national press corps?
For nearly three years, Harper succeeded in keeping his attendance at East Gate Alliance under wraps, and when Lloyd Mackey finally broke the story, most of his press-gallery colleagues were stunned. Some speculated the Conservative leader must have been dragged there by his gregarious, motorcycle-riding spouse, but the opposite was true. Laureen Teskey had grown up in Alberta’s Turner Valley watching her mother’s growing obsession with a fundamentalist sect drive a wedge in her parents’ marriage, and she now gave religion a wide berth. She seldom set foot in East Gate and Buitenwerf claimed never to have met her. “She’s not interested in spiritual things,” Deborah Grey confirms.
For Harper, it was yet another reason to keep his faith to himself. After all, some ultra-conservative evangelicals believe in “headship”—the notion that, as the biblically anointed head of his household, a husband has every right to march his helpmate straight to the pews, or anywhere else. Owning up to his solo attendance at East Gate Alliance might raise awkward questions with a constituency that already had suspicions about whether Harper was really one of their own.
“God is Alive!” trumpeted an April 1993 cover of Maclean’s. Contradicting every news story in years, the magazine reported that the demise of the Almighty had been greatly exaggerated: a comprehensive national poll revealed that eight out of ten Canadians believed in a deity and two-thirds embraced the core Christian doctrine of the resurrection. Given such evidence of an “overwhelmingly Christian populace,” Maclean’s posed the obvious question: “Why is there a near total absence of religious discourse in Canadian politics?”
That question had long preoccupied Preston Manning, and six months later, when his fledgling Reform Party won fifty-two seats in Parliament, many of his new evangelical MPs were determined to fill the rhetorical void. Not since Social Credit’s heyday had so many conservative Protestants found a home in a political party, but to most of Reform’s born-again believers, Ottawa was hostile territory, a bastion of secular humanism, and they made clear that they had no intention of being co-opted by its highfalutin traditions or politically correct equivocations. Myron Thompson, the irrepressible member for the Alberta riding of Wild Rose, and his colleague Darrel Stinson, a former B.C. prospector, refused to doff their Stetsons in the Parliament Buildings or tone down their sentiments on gay rights. “I want the whole world to know that I do not condone homosexuals,” Thompson famously told the House. “I do not condone their activity. I do not like what they do. I think it is wrong. I think it is unnatural and I think it is totally immoral. I will object to it forever whenever they attack the good, traditional Canadian family unit that built this country.”
For Manning, who declined to campaign in churches or court the evangelical vote, social-conservative issues presented a tactical nightmare. He preferred to leave them to riding referendums but found himself under mounting pressure to take a moral stand on questions such as abortion and protecting homosexuals under the Canadian Human Rights Act. That put him at odds with Harper, who argued that such polarizing hot potatoes had no place in Reform’s platform. Their conflict came to a head at the party’s 1994 convention, when Manning presented a resolution to limit the definition of marriage to one man and one woman, especially when applied to federal spousal benefits, and Harper spoke out against it. “I think it’s perfectly legitimate to have moral objections as well as moral approval of homosexuality,” he told the assembled delegates, “but I don’t think political parties should do that.”
His fellow Reformers clearly disagreed—87 percent supported Manning’s motion—but by then Harper was no longer the party’s policy chief. He and Manning had parted ways after a power struggle over the direction of the 1993 campaign, and in Ottawa, Harper cemented that breach by publicly denouncing the Reform leader’s expenses, a move that earned him a reputation for betrayal and the enduring distrust of Manning loyalists. Although their split had nothing to do with social issues, Harper’s policy job went to Darrel Reid, an ardent evangelical who would later become Manning’s chief of staff before heading the Canadian branch of Focus on the Family. Increasingly, Manning surrounded himself with social conservatives, and in a party with a family-values caucus, Harper had never been considered a member of that Christian-right tribe. When he finally left Reform in 1997 to run the National Citizens Coalition, some evangelical members of that organization quit in protest. “The so-cons did not like Harper one bit,” recalls his former deputy Gerry Nicholls. “They thought he was too moderate.”
Soon, they would have a standard bearer of their own.
In Bentley, a hamlet west of Red Deer, Alberta, Stockwell Day is still regarded as an iconic figure, the rightfully anointed leader of Canadian conservatism who was martyred by the media and scheming secularists. Although that sentiment is shared by many evangelicals across the country, nowhere has it found more fertile ground than in the town where Day’s political career began, which has been dubbed “the buckle in Alberta’s Bible Belt.” Arriving there after years of false career starts in Edmonton and British Columbia, Day landed a job as youth pastor at Bentley Christian Centre, a renegade Pentecostal congregation known for its rousing services, where attendees regularly spoke in tongues. As the administrator of its private Christian school, he found himself in a fight with the provincial education ministry over the right to use curriculum guides published by Accelerated Christian Education (ace), an American fundamentalist outfit whose science texts are based on biblical literalism, featuring lyrical expositions of creationism and no mention of evolution. A commission investigating Alberta’s schools at the time found ace materials disturbing for other reasons. Its socialstudies lessons were deemed insensitive to blacks, Muslims and Jews, and appeared to promote the merits of a theocracy: one workbook dismissed the concept of a democratically elected government as “the ultimate deification of man, which is the very essence of humanism and totally alien to God’s word.” Defiant, Day emerged as the chief spokesperson for a coalition of the province’s Christian schools, taking to the media spotlight like a duck discovering his first pond. “God’s law is clear,” he proclaimed. “Standards of education are not set by government, but by God, the Bible, the home and the school.”
Within months of that declaration, he was elected to the Alberta legislature as the member for Red Deer North, launching a fifteen-year career in provincial politics that saw him rise to treasurer and what his official website calls “acting premier.” Occasionally, the actual premier, Ralph Klein, moved to rein him in, notably when Day tried to eliminate abortion from health-care funding and exempt homosexuals from protection under the provincial human rights code. But his embrace of a flat tax and his talent for glad-handing made him so popular that, when mutterings of discontent about Manning’s leadership grew to a din, a group of dissidents persuaded Day to throw his hat into the leadership ring and then ensured his victory as head of the newly rebranded version of Reform, the Canadian Alliance.
Day had been leader of the opposition for only a month when a surprise federal election call shattered the image he had attempted to cultivate when he roared into his debut press conference in a wetsuit astride a Sea-doo. Midway through the election campaign, the cbc unearthed reports of a 1997 speech he had made at a Red Deer Christian school, asserting that the earth was only six thousand years old and that Adam and Eve had strolled in the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs. As the story turned into a media sensation, Liberal campaign wizard Warren Kinsella appeared on a Canada AM panel brandishing a purple Barney doll. “I just want to say to Mr. Day,” Kinsella quipped, “that The Flintstones were not a documentary—and the only dinosaur that walked with human beings recently was this one right here.”
Overnight, Day became a national laughingstock, dubbed by one columnist “Jump-for-Jesus Day.” He would actually increase the Alliance seat count and its share of the popular vote, but all anybody seemed to remember about the 2000 campaign was that he had been outed as a creationist. Still, that was not his only problem. Gaffes dogged his tenure, provoking a constant turnover in his staff. He had been in the job just nine months when a caucus revolt, led by Manning loyalists Deborah Grey and Chuck Strahl, sparked a leadership challenge. As it turned out, a familiar face was waiting in the wings. A blue flyer suddenly appeared in Alliance mailboxes: “Draft Stephen Harper—True Reformer . . . True Conservative.”
Technically, the leadership contest was a four-horse race in which all the contenders were conservative Christians—Diane Ablonczy was an evangelical and Grant Hill, a family doctor, was a Mormon convert—but only Day’s faith became an issue in a battle that centred on whether he or Harper could sign up the most new party members. Across the country, Christian activists rallied to Day’s side, many of them fellow Pentecostals, the fastest growing branch of the evangelical clan. In Calgary, a former Victory Church pastor named Roy Beyer revived a group called Families for Day, which had already helped overthrow Manning, and in Toronto, Beyer’s pal, the Reverend Charles McVety organized a related recruitment blitz. Together, they claimed to have added ten thousand new names to the party lists, all in support of a candidate who, Beyer declared, would “properly advance and defend Christian principles.”
But when Harper’s backers discovered that Campaign Life Coalition, the national anti-abortion lobby, was illegally selling memberships for Day on its website, they launched a counterattack. Tom Flanagan, his campaign chief, sought out a Globe and Mail reporter to charge that Day was building “an unholy alliance” of evangelicals, right-wing Catholics and members of the Dutch Reformed Church in order to take over the party. On a visit to the Ottawa Citizen, Harper denounced Day for using churches as recruiting grounds, branding it both bad religion and bad politics. “My view is that the purpose of a Christian church is to promote the message and the life of Christ,” he told the paper’s editorial board. “It is not to promote a particular political party or candidacy.”
Such jibes were a calculated reminder of the biblical baggage that Day would bring to 24 Sussex Drive. When the votes were finally tallied, Harper had triumphed and Day limped off into apparent political oblivion, reduced to a radio talk-show joke. Later, reflecting on the mistakes made in Harper’s campaign, Flanagan confessed that although their scaremongering may have been excessive, “It kept alive concern among our supporters that Day might win the race, which was fine with us.”
Certainly, Harper emerged from the contest as the determined voice of secularism. Watching him rebuke Day’s Christian cohort for mixing piety and politics, Gerry Nicholls had no doubts about the course his old boss would chart as leader of the Canadian Alliance; months earlier, Harper had confided that, for anyone trying to build a conservative movement in Canada, cultivating the Christian right was a mistake. “He told me it was bad politics to court the social-conservative crowd,” Nicholls recalled. “He said those ideas were no longer popular with the public and people who cared about them were a shrinking demographic.” At the time, Nicholls chimed in with a dismissive riff about the religious right, but Harper cut him short. “He said, ‘Make no mistake, Gerry: I am a Christian,’” Nicholls recounted years later. “But in terms of politics in those days, he didn’t see [social conservatism] as winnable.”
Nearly two years after taking over the Canadian Alliance, Harper stunned a ballroom of right-wing movers and shakers: speaking at the annual Civitas conference in June 2003, he laid out a blueprint for building a new conservative coalition that was tantamount to an ideological conversion. Suddenly, Harper, the unrepentant fiscal conservative and free marketeer, was calling on fellow economic libertarians to drop their preoccupation with tax cuts and deregulation. Instead, he argued, it was time to concentrate on those issues that mattered to what he called “theo-cons.” In party circles, that group had always been referred to as “so-cons,” but Harper had chosen his words with care. He borrowed the term from Alberta Report publisher Ted Byfield, one of the granddaddies of the Canadian Christian right. For his part, Byfield was delighted to hear about the Alliance leader’s about-face, particularly when Harper made clear that he intended to wade into the social issues he had recoiled from under Manning’s watch. Moral relativism, Harper told his audience, had replaced socialism as the new threat. “The truth of the matter is that the real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values,” he declared, “so conservatives must do the same.”
That shift, Harper argued, would not limit the party to the usual social-conservative preoccupations such as abortion and gay rights. The key was to expand its concerns to a raft of issues once considered irrelevant by the family-values set: more muscular law-and-order measures and even defence and foreign affairs, where Alliance stands would leave no doubt about whose side the party was on. When Harper warned that taking a “moral” foreign policy position could entail backing up the country’s traditional allies with “hard power,” the implication was obvious: the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien had just declined Bush’s invitation to join the Coalition of the Willing against Saddam Hussein, but a Harper regime would have regarded such a summons to war as a righteous call to arms. Still, he cautioned that the party would have to be judicious in picking its new political battlefronts. “The social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational,” he said, “but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths.”
It was the first time Harper had laid out the Reaganesque strategy that would help bring him to power, championing policies that cut across faith and party lines to appeal not only to the evangelicals who had been the backbone of the Reform party, but also to those conservative Catholics, Jews and ethnic Canadians who had been considered the Liberals’ electoral preserve. In a country with the world’s highest immigration rate, he understood that most newcomers were as culturally conservative as prairie Bible believers, adamantly opposed to homosexuality and to the sort of permissiveness that threatened centuries of old-world patriarchy.
It was a strategy that risked alienating the very voters Harper appeared to be pursuing in his planned merger with Peter MacKay’s Progressive Conservatives, but as he made clear to the Civitas crowd, he considered many of the players in that merger excess baggage. “We may lose some old ‘conservatives,’ Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks,” he shrugged. “This is not all bad.”
Under Civitas ground rules, his speech was off the record, but Harper made sure his turnabout reached its target audience: the full text was published in Byfield’s magazine, displayed like a manifesto under the headline “Rediscovering the Right Agenda.” One explanation for his astonishing change of course lay in the narrative then dominating American newscasts: the mounting evidence that George W. Bush owed his residency in the White House to the organizing efforts of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. But after more than a year of pondering the numerical odds, Harper had also concluded he had no choice. Although he had vanquished Day in the leadership race, he had taken over a party with a newly expanded and energized base of social conservatives. Darrel Reid, who was by then president of Focus on the Family Canada, underlined that dynamic shortly after Harper’s victory in an article for the Globe and Mail: “You Better Get Used to Us, There Are a Lot More Social Conservatives Around Than You Think.”
In his piece, Reid exposed a reality that few reporters or even other federal politicians grasped: religious conservatives in Canada were no neatly corralled demographic with uniform inclinations at the voting booth. They were, he stressed, “a shifting group who come together on various issues at various times,” and not all were evangelical Protestants. Many conservative Catholics and Anglicans had no intention of setting aside their opposition to same-sex marriage to vote for a party they had once called their political home. Considering that more than 60 percent of Canadians believe Jesus is their personal redeemer, Reid argued, the pool of Christians motivated by faith issues could swell far beyond the usual head count in Canadian pews—a flawed measure at best. Ever since the 1960s, church attendance in this country has declined, unlike that in the U.S., but the number of people who consider themselves Christians has remained high, inspiring one analyst to term Canadian Christians “believers not belongers.”
Harper’s overture to theo-conservatives also offered instant access to campaign networks for a newly constructed party whose fractious wings still regarded each other with suspicion. George Bush’s battle for the White House had demonstrated how a parallel network of churches and religious lobbies could reshape the political landscape, springing logistical surprises at the ballot box long before the mainstream media caught on. “This is the one group that can get people out to a meeting,” says Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria. “They have these interlocking networks that they can very quickly activate.”
Just how effectively those networks could be activated would become evident over the next three years as Harper cobbled together his new Conservative Party. At the time of his Civitas speech, right-wing Christians claimed scant organizing expertise. A few groups boasted Ottawa redoubts, including the Christian Embassy, a spinoff of Campus Crusade for Christ, but it focused on cultivating the capital’s powerbrokers—politicians, diplomats and the military—not getting bodies out to the voting booth. For that, Harper would have Paul Martin to thank. By legalizing same-sex marriage, Martin galvanized the Christian right in a way that no evangelical barnburner could, even prompting America’s star televangelists to turn their attention and campaign skills north of the border. When pollsters parsed Harper’s 2006 victory, one conclusion was unavoidable: the overwhelming impulse that had driven evangelicals to the Conservative camp was their concern over such moral issues as gay marriage.
Once elected, Harper’s challenge was to keep that burgeoning Christian right on his side in a way that would not jeopardize his chances of winning an eventual majority government. It was a strategy that would oblige him to walk an uneasy policy tightrope, never taking too extreme a step, but it would also require him to offer his theoconservative constituency more than an occasional scriptural nod in his speeches. Exiting stage right muttering “God bless Canada” was not going to suffice.
In evangelical pulpits, electronic and otherwise, the mood after the 2006 election was initially upbeat. “We’ve got a born-again prime minister!” crowed David Mainse, the founding host of 100 Huntley Street, the country’s longest-running Christian talk show. But others sounded a cautionary note. Brian Stiller, the former head of the Evangelical Fellowship—who had known Harper since he was Deborah Grey’s legislative assistant and had never detected any apparent spiritual leanings on his part—warned that although the new prime minister was indeed a fellow evangelical he might not choose to govern like one. Some conservative Christians on the opposition benches were more skeptical, hinting that leaks about Harper’s faith had come at an exceedingly convenient political time—and, curiously, never before. “Has he ever been at the weekly prayer breakfast or Bible study?” demanded a senior Liberal strategist. “I’ve never seen him there.”
One key to Harper’s strategy was that it allowed him to remain an enigma. While critics sent up alarms about the potential extremism of his evangelical agenda, Christian-right leaders worried that Harper was too inherently cautious to demonstrate the true colours of his faith. In his Civitas speech and countless times afterward, Harper warned that his party-building strategy would require patience and an appreciation of “incremental change.” In that phrase lay a warning not to expect showy—or politically suicidal—measures such as an anti-abortion bill. Not that many did; to the frustration of the pro-life movement, he had already announced that he had no intention of introducing abortion legislation. “People of faith don’t see Stephen Harper as their messiah,” noted Derek Rogusky, the vice-president of Focus on the Family Canada. “They don’t feel he’s going to change everything they want.”
Embarking on that strategic tightrope, Harper initially seemed surefooted. Following the lead of Bush’s White House, which had created a deputy for “Christian outreach,” he installed a gatekeeper for the evangelical community in the prime minister’s office: Kevin Lacey, a former aide to Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm, whose title was “director of stakeholder relations.” Georganne Burke, the Conservative Party’s community-relations manager—later a ministerial aide—became his chief liaison with Jewish groups, whom Harper was courting with a new, unequivocal defence of Israel.
Instead of sidelining his former rival Stockwell Day, Harper rewarded him with the plum post of foreign affairs critic, then, after the Conservatives came to office, the prestigious ministries of public security and international trade, before naming him president of the Treasury Board. Nor did he marginalize Day’s loyalists, those scrappy, self-proclaimed “Stockaholics” who had turned their ongoing allegiance into a badge of honour. When Harper announced his first cabinet, some pundits marvelled that he had overlooked Jason Kenney, the boisterous Calgary bachelor who had served as Day’s chief of staff. But Harper had actually entrusted Kenney with a weightier task, one on which the Conservatives’ theo-conservative strategy turned. Naming him his own parliamentary secretary, he anointed Kenney as his unofficial point man with the religious right, a backstage power-broker who wielded more influence than most of Harper’s strictly supervised ministers.
For Kenney, the assignment was a perfect fit. A charismatic Catholic who regularly appeared at pro-life confabs, he was on a first-name basis with the leading lights in the evangelical and Jewish right, and never found himself at a loss for a partisan riposte. But a key part of his assignment was to woo the conservative wings of those immigrant groups at the heart of Harper’s theo-con game plan, a brief that only came to light when a leaked strategy paper revealed that Kenney was running an “ethnic outreach team” under the cover of the pmo. Using sophisticated voter-profiling software, he compiled a massive database of immigrants, targeting them with direct-mail appeals and the lure of one-on-one meetings with Harper or his cabinet ministers during lavishly publicized drop-ins at ethnic festivals. The Conservatives’ goal, Kenney admitted, was to “replace the Liberals as the primary voice of new Canadians and ethnic minorities”—a prospect that already seemed a distinct possibility. As his leaked report concluded, the values of new Canadians are “more aligned with the values of the Conservative Party of Canada” than with those of the Liberals, who had just introduced same-sex marriage.
Over the next two years, Kenney racked up appearances at more than five hundred ethnic events, a travel schedule that earned him the nicknames “Curry in a Hurry” and the “Smiling Buddha.” His initial stress on shared conservative values was bolstered with more concrete gestures, such as cutting landed immigrant fees. Harper himself issued an official apology to the country’s largest ethnic population, Canada’s 1.3 million Chinese, for the hated head tax that had been imposed on their ancestors at the turn of the century, and he expressed remorse for the 1914 tragedy that befell Sikh refugees aboard the Komagata Maru, when government officials refused to let them disembark in Vancouver. In the 2008 election, that courtship paid off: ethnic support for the Liberals plummeted by 19 percent, virtually all of it going to Harper’s Conservative Party, with some of the Liberals’ South Asian superstars like Ruby Dhalla and Ujjal Dosanjh barely squeaking to victory in their once-safe ethnic strongholds.
For years, Harper’s opponents had warned of his hidden agenda, but after he took office that agenda turned out to be hidden in plain sight. In a calculated leak of his legislative program, insiders confided that he planned to raise the age of sexual consent from fourteen to sixteen. The Ottawa press corps greeted the news with a barely concealed yawn, but blocks away, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which had been lobbying for years on the issue, saw the bill as a breakthrough. “We took it as a message that we were being heard,” said Janet Epp Buckingham, then the group’s chief lobbyist, who noted that being heard was a refreshing change. In the previous two elections, the efc’s eighty member organizations had winced at opposition ads ominously underlining Harper’s “scary” connections with evangelicals. “The Liberals were doing quite a bit of fear-mongering,” Buckingham pointed out. “It’s such a relief to have a party that says, ‘You guys are welcome here.’”
Others on the Christian right felt the same. At a time when Harper was openly snubbing the Liberal premier of Ontario in a federalprovincial standoff, he made room on his schedule for dozens of faithbased groups, including a five-woman delegation from the Catholic Women’s League in Calgary that hadn’t managed to wangle time with a prime minister in twenty-four years. “Smile if you’re a so-con,” ran a headline in the Western Standard. “Canada’s traditional Christian groups can’t say enough good things about the Tories’ social policies so far.”
Not everyone, however, was as enthusiastic. When the most outspoken evangelicals from the Defend Marriage campaign bragged to a Globe and Mail reporter that Harper had recruited them to promote his contentious child-care allowance, the resulting outcry lasted for weeks. But that measure illustrated the canniness of Harper’s tightly choreographed strategy. Not only did it delight social conservatives by keeping the government out of child-rearing decisions, but it left the other key wing of the party—economic conservatives—equally ecstatic by quashing a costly state-run program they considered fiscal heresy. Better still, so consistent was the measure with Harper’s usual economic libertarianism that, until the Globe’s scoop, few outsiders twigged to the fact it was aimed at pleasing the religious right.
While the media scanned legislative initiatives for more theoconservative fingerprints, most of Harper’s moves to placate that constituency neatly bypassed the House of Commons floor. As Donald Savoie, the country’s premier public-service scholar, points out, ever since the consolidation of power by Pierre Trudeau, Canadian prime ministers command many of the same prerogatives that French mobs once stripped from Louis XIV. Their ability to issue orders-in-council and dole out an estimated five thousand appointments to federal regulatory bodies gives them the authority of monarchs presiding over what Savoie terms “court government.” Harper himself was well aware of the extra-parliamentary levers at his disposal. Years later, caught on video at a closed-door student conference, he enumerated the perils of electing a Liberal government in those very terms. “Imagine how many left-wing ideologues they would be putting in the courts, federal institutions, agencies, the Senate,” he warned, having just done the same with his own Conservative loyalists.
Some of Harper’s appointments were traditional patronage plums—rewards to party faithful of the very sort that in opposition he had vowed to stamp out. But he raised eyebrows when Jason Kenney named Douglas Cryer, the former director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship, to the Immigration and Refugee Board, and high-profile evangelicals like Preston Manning began popping up on commissions that have a say in shaping science policy. When Harper named the first panel on reproductive technology, he did so four days before Christmas, when few reporters or critics were likely to take note. To the consternation of many in the medical community, not a single expert on fertility or stem-cell research from a recommended short list appeared on the final board. Four of its ten members were social conservatives who had taken stands against abortion or embryonic stem-cell research, and the chair, Dr. John Hamm, the former Conservative premier of Nova Scotia, had just been recruited as a prime-ministerial adviser.
In opposition, Harper had railed against the liberalism and judicial activism of the country’s courts, so it hardly came as a surprise when he named a flock of Conservative activists as judges. But the Canadian Bar Association was shocked to discover that merely by making a bureaucratic adjustment to the country’s judicial advisory panels, he had surreptitiously put in place a mechanism that allowed him to impose a long-term ideological stamp on at least a thousand federal appointments to the bench. Learning of his ability to change the nature of the courts without the sort of congressional oversight required in the U.S., Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, marvelled that, “a Canadian prime minister has more power than a United States president.”
But appointments were not the only instruments of policy change that Harper had at his fingertips. His government had inherited a $13 billion surplus, but he announced a $10 million belt-tightening that scored a direct hit on two agencies long scorned by social conservatives as leftwing slush funds. Status of Women Canada was put on life support, its budget slashed by 40 percent, forcing it to shutter twelve of sixteen regional offices and shelve its mandate to lobby for gender equality, essentially eviscerating the chief voice for women in the federal government. Then, cancelling the $5.6 million Court Challenges Program, he wiped out an arm of the justice department that had allowed a range of minorities, including women and the disabled, to appeal injustices under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not that its demise was entirely unexpected. Although set up to underwrite claims of discrimination by linguistic minorities, the program had financed most of the lawsuits by homosexuals that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
For many evangelical activists, however, these were minor victories on the road to realizing their overriding goal of overturning that legislation. But when Harper did fulful his pledge to call a free vote on reopening the debate over gay matrimony, he did so with such brisk despatch—expending no political capital on ensuring the motion’s passage—that it ended up boomeranging on him, infuriating the very constituency the move had been designed to placate.
Suddenly, Harper’s theo-con strategy appeared to be foundering and across the country, Christian conservatives began muttering about his machinations, lamenting that they had been used as pawns. In Surrey, a long-time activist named Ted Hewlett, the former head of the Campaign Life Coalition in British Columbia, launched a withering online attack, charging that the prime minister was too clever a tactician not to have foreseen the negative outcome of the vote. “This kind of transparent cleverness has negative consequences,” Hewlett warned. “He may see a large segment of his party lose their enthusiasm for supporting a government which fails to support what they stand for.”
Increasingly, whenever Harper attempted to mollify his socialconservative constituency, he did so with a furtive mixture of awkwardness and calculation. Once he had been lauded as a genius at pitting competing camps against one another and keeping rivals off-balance, but his overtures to the party’s theo-con base took on a frantic quality, as if he was constantly rushing to put out ideological brush fires that threatened to bring down the Conservative edifice he had built.
That impression only increased when he ignored his own fixed-date election legislation and forced a surprise federal vote in the fall of 2008. As the global economy imploded and the free-market theories on which he’d built his career fell into disrepute, it was, inexplicably, his commitment to his theo-conservative constituency that he chose to jettison. He disowned a private member’s bill designed to give legal status to a fetus harmed in a crime—a measure he had once showily voted for—and after months of resisting pressures to withdraw a controversial tax provision for morally offensive films, he abruptly ditched it seven days before the election, when it turned out to be costing him support in Quebec.
Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, was furious. He warned that Harper would pay a price at the polls for such crass political expediency, and when the Conservatives only managed to eke out another minority government, he boasted that it was a boycott by his disenchanted Christian supporters—not the market-shattering economic meltdown—that had delivered the comeuppance. “The base did not come out in 2008 as they did in 2006,” McVety declared in his Evangelical Christian magazine. “History is littered with the bones of those who bow to this world.”
Depite that disenchantment, the 2008 election results produced a far less damning picture for the chastened game theorist who had been returned to 24 Sussex Drive. Although overall voter turnout had dropped significantly, pollster Andrew Grenville discovered that 64 percent of churchgoing Protestants who did cast their ballots had once again declared their allegiance to Harper’s party. Among the most conservative evangelical denominations, the level of enthusiasm had leaped to an astonishing 74 percent. Another trend was even more striking: 49 percent of Catholics outside Quebec who identified themselves as regulars at mass had traded in their long-standing loyalty to the Liberals for Harper’s camp. To Grenville, the senior researcher at Angus Reid Strategies, those figures signalled that the 2006 election was no aberration: a discernible Christian right was emerging that was unique to this country—a new “status quo,” as he called it, that was as dependent on devout Catholics as it was on Bible-believing Protestants. “It’s a new re-alignment: evangelicals are standing up with the Conservatives, and Catholics have abandoned the Liberals,” he said. “That to me is a big change in a short period of time.”
But that change passed almost unnoticed in the Canadian press. In a country where the media had been on constant alert for signs of just such an emerging Christian coalition, the punditocracy was distracted by the riveting milestone of the U.S. presidential election, busily composing obituaries for the American religious right, while remaining largely oblivious to the movement’s growing muscularity on this side of the border. For Harper, that was not an unwelcome development.
The emergence of a religious-right voting block vindicated Harper’s theo-con strategy, but, as its leaders made clear, he also had fences to mend, and he wasted no time in doing just that. Shortly after the 2008 election, conservative Christians in his caucus who had once been forbidden to utter a peep found themselves with unprecedented freedom to air their beliefs. When Winnipeg’s Rod Bruinooge took over the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus, he received not a word of rebuke for telling a Canadian Press reporter that he intended to reopen the abortion debate. Other conservative Christians won new committee chairmanships or elevated profiles in cabinet, and more than a dozen were named parliamentary secretaries. Jason Kenney was rewarded with a full-fledged ministry—citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism—from which he could continue courting ethnic conservatives.
Not only was Harper busily patching the holes he had punched in his own party-building strategy, he was doing so with a new boldness. One reason may be that, by 2008, four of the top officials in the pmo were committed theo-conservatives, led by Harper’s chief of staff Guy Giorno, an architect of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution in Ontario who is a devout Roman Catholic known for his pro-life convictions and hardball partisan tactics. Giorno’s deputy, Darrel Reid, was the former head of Focus on the Family Canada, who, in turn, had recruited his long-time friend Paul Wilson, the founding director of an elite evangelical training program in the capital, to replace him as Harper’s policy director. The fourth member of the quartet, Mark Cameron, an evangelical who had converted to Catholicism and would remain in the pmo until the summer of 2009, had once addressed a student group on how to carry out a Christian mandate in government.
Their fingerprints were apparent in a series of gestures both substantive and symbolic. As Harper doled out millions in academic infrastructure funds under his economic stimulus package, veteran university administrators were astonished to discover that, for the first time in memory, the federal gravy train had stopped by at least fourteen private Christian colleges to distribute more than $26 million in grants, each one unveiled at a splashy press conference featuring a local Conservative member of Parliament. Atlantic Baptist University in New Brunswick’s Bible belt lucked into $6 million, the largest handout by far, while Redeemer University College, located outside Hamilton in the riding of Conservative MP David Sweet, the former president of Promise Keepers Canada, received nearly $3 million. “The fact that this money is going to private institutions—and fundamental Christian ones at that—is something we haven’t seen in this country before,” said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
In a bid to refurbish Harper’s image, Christian media outlets became vehicles for his charm offensive. During the election campaign, he had been the only party leader who declined to discuss his faith with Lorna Dueck, the host of a syndicated current affairs show called Listen Up!, carried on Crossroads Television. But six months after the election, the pmo phoned Dueck out of the blue, requesting air time for Harper to convey his Easter greetings. As Dueck hinted in her introduction, even she found the overture curious—almost as curious as the slick, three-minute video supplied by the pmo, which showed Harper impeccably suited and coiffed, poised between a bouquet of lilies and the flag, lauding the “indispensable contribution” of Christian believers to the nation. But his assertion “that God works out His purposes in our history” set off alarm bells in some moderate evangelical circles. That unusual phrase seemed to be a coded confirmation of the Christian-nationalist conviction that Canada has a unique prophetic role to play in the final days before the Second Coming.
Harper was well into his public-relations blitz when he dropped by a closed-door reception at Preston Manning’s annual conservative networking conference in the spring of 2009. Although his appearance was unannounced, it was not unplanned. Before an audience of hardcore conservatives, many of them economic libertarians apoplectic about his stimulus spending and the country’s mounting debt loads, he delivered a carefully reasoned update on his Civitas speech. While most of the address was an exercise in self-defence, he tossed a calculated bouquet to the bruised theo-cons in his party with a newly honed definition of conservatism. The movement, he declared, had three pillars, which he dubbed the “three Fs”: faith, family and freedom—the first two clearly intended to melt skeptical conservative Christian hearts.
Nor was that rhetorical flourish his only gesture of conciliation. A month later, Harper sat down for an interview with Prestige, a Quebec City magazine, attempting to repair his standing in a province where his popularity had plummeted after his anti-arts diatribes during the 2008 campaign. Stressing the importance of his family, he professed to care more about “God’s verdict” on his life than the judgment of historians.
To some conservative Christians, however, those declarations were mere window dressing, not unlike his mass mailings of Rosh Hashanah cards to Jewish ridings or his highly publicized meeting with the pope. To others, they indicated just what a strategic straitjacket Harper had created for himself as he attempted to re-inspire his theo-con troops while reassuring moderates that he was merely a benign, piano-playing centrist. Never was that uneasy balancing act clearer than when Charles McVety exploded at the news that $400,000 in federal stimulus funds had gone to Toronto’s 2009 Gay Pride parade. As insiders pointed out, the grant had been approved at the highest levels of government, but no sooner had the religious right raised an outcry than Harper backtracked; he unleashed Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost to protest that it had come as a shock to social conservatives in the caucus, and let it be known that the minister responsible, Harper’s former confidante Diane Ablonczy, was being stripped of a portion of her porfolio.
Increasingly, Harper appeared to be a prisoner of the very theo-con strategy that had brought him to power, but now threatened to put a majority mandate beyond his grasp. After his disastrous gamesmanship almost provoked an opposition coalition takeover in the fall of 2008, discontent within Conservative ranks burst into the open with leaked hints that it was time for a leadership change. Among those named as potential successors were two of the party’s most high-profile social conservatives, Jason Kenney and Harper’s old foe Stockwell Day. To the mainstream media and much of the Canadian public, the idea of Day as a prime-ministerial contender might seem preposterous, but to many in the charismatic wing of the Christian right, he remains a prophetic figure whose finest hour is yet to come. In the pmo, it did not pass unnoticed that, during the height of speculation over Harper’s future, the National Post ran a laudatory feature on Day, rating him “in the best political shape of his life.”
Only history can measure the extent to which Harper has furthered God’s dominion in Ottawa, but there is no doubt that the religious right he has so openly fostered is here to stay as a political force. Its presence has been guaranteed by a four-year spree that saw conservative Christians establish a half-dozen new organizations in the capital. Almost all are modelled on the institutions that the religious right planted in Washington three decades ago, designed to ensure that theocons have a lasting voice in the national debate no matter who happens to be in power. As Darrel Reid explained shortly after Harper’s first victory, “The fact that there’s a government that’s more sympathetic is good, but the government won’t be there forever. That’s why we need to be there for the long haul.”