The Evangelical Prime Minister?

The intersection of religion and politics fascinates me. In the United States, where church and state are constitutionally separate, the religious beliefs of presidential candidates are always part of the public discourse. In Canada, with no such wall of separation, I suspect 99% of the populace would be hard pressed to name the religious affiliation, if any, of the party leaders – not even the one who aspires to the Anglican priesthood.

Yesterday my friend Paul pointed me to a blog posting by John Stackhouse Jr. I have read some of John’s work in the past. He always makes me think more deeply about whatever topic is being addressed.

I hadn’t thought about the Prime Minister’s faith this way before. John has graciously given me permission to share his thoughts with you.

Stephen Harper Isn’t Evangelical ENOUGH
September 30, 2015

Opponents of the Prime Minister sometimes link him with a spooky, sinister Religious Right that is quietly scheming to turn secular, broad-minded, and inclusive Canada into a pinched, heavy-handed theocracy. “He is, after all, an evangelical,” such people tend to say, as if invoking the very term “evangelical” settles the issue decidedly against Mr. Harper.

As a scholar of evangelicalism in Canada, however, I retort that it might be well for Canada, and for the Prime Minister, if he were manifestly more evangelical than he appears to be.

Yes, evangelicals typically are suspicious of governmental power. But any sensible person shares that suspicion. And evangelicals throughout Canadian history have concluded that some large problems can be tackled adequately only by government, whether the exploitation of the economy by certain big players at the expense of the common person, or the dominance of one region or class of the country at the expense of everyone else.

As different as they have been from each other, the Social Credit movement and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the NDP) were both founded by evangelical clergymen. And lots of evangelicals have supported more moderate versions of government leadership since then, whether in government agencies caring for single mothers, employment programs for those victimized by economic changes, welcoming of refugees, and significant aid to other countries suffering under famine or war.

“Small government” is not, therefore, an evangelical slogan. “Just government,” “helpful government,” “compassionate government,” “government for everyone”—those slogans would be much more in keeping with Canada’s evangelical heritage.

Yes, evangelicals typically prioritize spiritual matters over secular ones. But that very concern to prepare for the world to come tends to motivate evangelicals to self-sacrifice in this one. Most of the largest relief-and-development charities in the world were founded by evangelicals, from World Vision to Compassion to Food for the Hungry to the Salvation Army itself. The YMCA and YWCA were originally evangelical organizations designed to help uprooted rural young people find safety, companionship, and wholesome entertainment in Canada’s burgeoning cities. And many of our universities, including some of our most prominent, were founded by evangelicals in order to train not only pastors, but a wide range of professionals, scientists, and scholars.

Yes, what about science and scholarship? Evangelicals have a bad reputation for anti-intellectualism, and the Prime Minister’s apparent distaste for “sociology” versus a more manly “action,” for natural science (that comes to inconvenient conclusions), and even for just basic information (whether about our waterways or even ourselves, via the long-form census) seems of a piece with “know-nothing” fundamentalism.

Yet Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, is an evangelical, and he is typical of leading evangelical scientists in North American universities from coast to coast. Evangelical scholars publish with the top university presses while (and this is important) enjoying high regard among evangelical pastors and laypeople.

Yes, evangelicals typically worry that universities can harbour enemies of the faith who unscrupulously abuse the professorial lectern to tear down the faith of vulnerable students, and as a veteran of such universities myself, I can testify that such professorial malpractice certainly happens here and there. The typical evangelical confidence, nonetheless, is that the truth is on the evangelical side of things. So bring on the science and the scholarship! Mr. Harper would be more evangelical if he invested more, rather than less, in the pursuit of the truth.

Finally, what about the end of the world? Aren’t evangelicals disaster-mongers who revel with Schadenfreude about the imminent collapse of civilization and the triumph of their cause? And isn’t this a terrible worldview for someone leading Canada today?

There are television preachers, to be sure, who trade in such extremes…although most of them are beamed up from south of our border, and their viewership in Canada is very low. I have visited churches from coast to coast and almost never hear, or hear of, fire-and-brimstone preaching anymore.

Ironically, it might be well for the Prime Minister to be a little more afraid than he seems to be about the end of the world: whether brought on by global climate change, the proliferation of war, or the pent-up fury of oppressed peoples.

If he were more evangelical, he would care more and better for the creation (as does the evangelical A Rocha society, recently endorsed by Margaret Atwood—who is not widely noted as a comrade of the Religious Right). If he were more evangelical, he would return our armed forces to Canada’s peacekeeping role in international war zones. If he were more evangelical, he would extend more help to the world’s needy, and especially those understandably outraged by our adventurist meddling in their politics.

Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau seem not only uninterested in, but even repelled by, evangelicalism and evangelical support for their parties. The Conservatives would do well, then, to do what their enemies think would be terrible, but might actually be just the ticket: become decidedly more evangelical.

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