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April 14, 2011

Harper the evangelical

The Canadian Charger

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is damned if he does talk about his evangelical beliefs and damned if he doesn't.

If he continues to avoid answering questions about his religious convictions, political observers say he appears secretive, like he's hiding something. But, at the same time, most Canadians do not share the moral convictions of his evangelical denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

The Alliance Church, to which Harper has belonged for decades, believes Jesus Christ will return to Earth in an apocalypse, won't ordain women, strongly opposes abortion and divorce, condemns homosexuality as the most base of sins and believes those who aren't born-again are "lost."

Readers have requested that I post this feature about the prime minister's religious beliefs, which I wrote in the summer of 2007 based on a trip to visit his former pastor in Calgary.

August 17, 2008

CALGARY - The mega-church headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pastor friend boasts a coffee bar, a soft-rock band and a shopping-mall-sized parking lot. Rev. Brent Trask's RockPointe Church -- which displays moving images of Jesus on three giant screens when elders serve communion -- is perched on rolling farmland right next to Highway 1A.

Overlooking the snow-capped foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Rockpointe is a giant "destination" church, accessible only by car, SUV or truck. It's reached by driving west of the endless, look-alike subdivisions of this sprawling, oil-rich city.

On the outside, RockPointe Church looks like a bunker. On the inside, it's a cavernous auditorium with no crosses, altar or pulpit. Instead it has a "stage" on which its many pastors champion conservative moral values while strolling like casual talk-show hosts, remarking on how "cool" things are, exclaiming "Right on!" and referring to adherents as "You guys."

Trask believes the more than 2,000 evangelical Protestants in his thriving church, as well as most of the 2.5 million evangelicals across the country, are enthusiastic supporters of his old friend, the prime minister.

Evangelicals like the Conservative leader, Trask says, because he's a "small-c conservative" on moral issues, encourages followers to help the poor through Christian charity rather than government programs, trusts in the free market and shares the evangelical belief Jesus Christ is the route to salvation.

As a sign of how evangelicals support Harper on policy issues, Trask last year joined a network of Christians across the country in vigorously supporting Harper's cancellation of the Liberals' universal daycare program, in favour of handouts for parents. Evangelicals, Trask says, don't want the state meddling in the sacred duty of raising children.

Harper, the 48-year-old leader of a minority Conservative government, virtually never talks publicly about his Christian beliefs. As a result, those who are curious about his spiritual views resort to visiting Harper's friends, such as Trask, and congregations like RockPointe -- which belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, with which Harper has been connected for about two decades.

Political observers say Harper -- who has been criticized for muzzling his cabinet and his many evangelical MPs -- could suffer politically if he were more open about his form of Christianity in a diverse, multicultural country such as Canada.

Fewer than one of 10 Canadians consider themselves evangelical Protestant, the religious stream to which the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination firmly belongs.

The percentage of Canadians who might generally follow evangelical-style theology, say pollsters, could at the most rise as high as 18 per cent, but only if one were to include theologically conservative mainline Protestants and Catholics.

A recent poll, in addition, revealed Canadians are growing much less inclined to vote for a prime minister who is evangelical.

"Stephen is a personal friend of mine," Trask said after a Sunday service in which he urged about 700 worshippers to "be relentlessly focused on the lost [people who have not converted to Christianity]."

Well-muscled, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and sporting a goatee, Trask said he and Harper have talked frequently, beginning in the 1980s.

That's when Harper was on an intense spiritual and political quest and becoming involved with the then-new Reform party of Preston Manning, an evangelical radio preacher.

"[Harper] didn't just believe what he was told. He had to rationalize what he was hearing about Christianity. He wasn't a blank slate. That's the best way to come to faith," said Trask (left).

About two decades ago, Harper shifted away from the mainline Protestant denominations of his father and began finding a home in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which has about 2.5 million members and 14,000 congregations worldwide. One fifth of its members live in North America, with Alberta a Canadian hotbed.

Since Harper moved in 2003 to Ottawa, he has been attending the capital city's Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, called East Gate, under the guidance of Pastor Bill Buitenwerf.

Evangelical political journalist Lloyd Mackey, author of The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, says the prime minister is a "cerebral" evangelical Christian who appreciates Buitenwerf and "speaks warmly of the influence" and intelligence of Trask.

Two other important religious mentors for Harper, according to Mackey and others, have been Calgary Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy, a fellow evangelical, and Manning, who like Harper is an Alliance Church adherent.

Foundational convictions of Alliance Church

Indiana State Purdue University religious studies Prof. Philip Goff says the Alliance Church holds to four foundational convictions, which emerge out of its belief the Bible is without error.

The Alliance Church places an intense focus on the need for personal salvation, emphasizes the importance of leading a "holy" life and encourages spiritual healing, says Goff.

The denomination also stresses that Jesus Christ's return to Earth is imminent, says the evangelical specialist, who was raised in the Alliance Church.

Alliance Church doctrine, like those of other evangelical denominations, strongly oppose homosexual relationships, describing them as the "basest form of sinful conduct."

The Alliance Church is also tough on divorce and holds that Christians who have been adulterous do not have a right to remarry.

The denomination's leaders, in addition, oppose abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, the use of marijuana and ordained female clergy.

When Trask told his suburban Calgary congregation during a recent Sunday sermon about RockPointe's mission to be "relentlessly focused on the lost," he was reflecting the Alliance Church's belief in the need to rescue non-Christians from damnation.

The Canadian church's website features a list of sample prayers "for the lost," so members can pray for sinful non-Christians they hope Jesus Christ will save from "eternal damnation."

Harper doesn't respond to journalists, including those from The Vancouver Sun, who want to ask whether he shares such Alliance Church doctrines.

Goff, however, says saving the "lost" is "general evangelical language about the need to be born again, otherwise you will not get to heaven."

Airing such a belief in the U.S. would not cause a politician any damage, says Goff, in part because evangelicals dominate President George W. Bush's Republican Party and are active among the Democratic Party.

But Notre Dame University's Mark Noll, one of North America's leading evangelical church historians, says: "I suspect many Canadians would be upset to learn about the conservative beliefs of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. They certainly are far less tolerant than, say, the United Church of Canada."

For his part, RockPointe's Trask, who spoke regularly to Harper until 2004, didn't want to say what Harper believes about the need to convert non-Christians.

"I'm not going to talk about his [Harper's] personal life."

It's interesting to know which theologians have shaped Harper.

Mackey says he "risks embarrassing" Harper by revealing that Harper has been inspired by two British Christian thinkers: C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge.

Lewis (1898-1963) is the famed Irish writer of The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, who converted in mid-life to evangelical Anglicanism.

Lewis is much-loved in evangelical circles for his apologetics -- his engaging literary defences of traditional Christianity. In books such as Mere Christianity, Lewis outlines his conviction that Jesus Christ was more than a wise man, that he was the divine, only son of God, responsible for handing down absolute positions on morality.

Muggeridge (1903-1990) was another British author and agnostic who converted as an adult to conservative Christianity.

A drinker, heavy smoker and womanizer in his earlier life, Muggeridge first made his name as an adventurous journalist and soldier-spy. But he went on to become known as the "discoverer" of Mother Teresa, producing the film, Something Beautiful for God.

As a conservative Christian, Muggeridge adopted right-wing economic views and attacked Britons and others for relying on alcohol, sex, birth control and marijuana.

Mackey, who is well-connected in Canada's evangelical community, understands why Canada's prime minister won't talk more about his loyalty to the Alliance Church, even to sympathetic biographers such as himself.

In Canadian politics, Mackey believes Harper is one of many conservative Christians who have been striving to downplay the public's fears about evangelicals being "scary."

A 2006 Ipsos Reid poll showed the percentage of Canadians willing to vote for a prime minister who is evangelical had fallen 17 percentage points in a decade.

Only 63 per cent of Canadians said they'd vote for a prime minister if he were an evangelical, below the 68 per cent who wouldn't hesitate to vote for an atheist or a Muslim.

Even though two-thirds of Canadians tell pollsters they believe the resurrection of Jesus provides for the forgiveness of sins, just one-fifth share the Alliance Church belief the world will end with the return of Jesus Christ and a cosmic battle called Armageddon.

And only one-quarter of Canadians support evangelicals' push to convert non-Christians.

Aware that many Canadians are suspicious of evangelicals, Manning last year organized a series of conferences to urge conservative Christian leaders to tone down their Biblical, "peel-the-paint-off-the-walls" rhetoric.

As head of the new Manning Centre for Building Democracy, he called on religious people to be patient as they pursue their political agendas, whether it's opposing abortion and homosexuality or supporting capitalism and reducing the size of government.

Some commentators said Manning's "charm school for Christians" could sound to outsiders like "stealth evangelism."

Harper buries religious beliefs to win majority government

Bruce Foster, head of policy studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary, believes Harper keeps his religious beliefs close to his chest because he's a strategic thinker who worries it would hurt his chances of winning a majority government.

"If Harper came out and said those who don't know the Lord are 'lost,' are doomed, he'd be held up to ridicule," Foster said. "In a multicultural, diverse, relativistic country like Canada, that's toxic stuff for most voters."

It is hard for the Canadian public to reconcile Harper's image as a highly rationalistic policy wonk with the conservative Christian morality and leap-of-faith belief system of the denomination to which he belongs, says Foster, a specialist on Canadian politics and conservative Christianity.

Harper's "near-Teutonic" rationalism, says Foster, seems at odds with his evangelical faith, which Foster says relies on supernatural belief.

"It's as if the two hemispheres of his brain are warring with each other."

If Harper was upfront about his evangelical loyalties, Foster believes he could be mocked by opposition politicians and the media.

That's the fate Foster maintains befell former Alliance party leader Stockwell Day, now a Conservative cabinet minister, when journalists learned he was a Biblical creationist who thinks humans once lived with dinosaurs.

Canadians tend to be suspicious about evangelicals in high office. Only 39 per cent of Canadians believe "Christians should get involved in politics to protect their values."

That's a drop of seven percentage points from 1996, according to Ipsos Reid, and well below the 54 per cent of Americans who want Christians running governments.

Still, it appears Canadian voters may be beginning to polarize along religious lines, like Americans.

Andrew Grenville's research for Ipsos Reid shows the 2006 federal election brought the first indication of a new national religious-conservative voting bloc.

Compared to the 2004 federal election, the Conservatives in last year's February election enjoyed a 25-per-cent increase in votes from Protestants who attended church weekly, with no increase from those who did not.

Despite such new religiously shaped voting trends, Foster doesn't believe Harper is pretending to be an evangelical just to court conservative Christian support.

Noting that Harper's wife, Laureen Teskey, is not interested in evangelical religion, Foster says Harper would probably draw conservative Christian support whether he was one or not. "Evangelicals have nowhere else to park their vote."

Still, the Calgary-based political scientist says Harper has to find a way to appeal to non-conservative Christians for support, especially the many secularists who live in Quebec and major Canadian cities. That's where Harper's party did badly in 2006 -- and where skepticism is strong about politicians who blend religion and politics.

As a result, Foster believes Harper is in a double bind. He's damned if he becomes more open about having conservative religious connections. But he's also damned if he remains silent about his faith "because it makes it look as if he has something to hide."

Notre Dame's Noll, who frequently teaches at Vancouver's evangelical Regent College, believes Harper could ease Canadians' fears of evangelicals by emphasizing the Alliance Church has traditionally had a "quietistic," or private, approach to religion, which emphasizes converting individuals rather than imposing faith-based values on the public.

Whatever strategy Harper adopts, polls show his personal popularity has fallen since he took office in February 2006. In July an Environics poll revealed his approval ratings dropped below 50 per cent for the first time.

Given such low ratings, Foster says, Harper may have no choice but to come more boldly out of his religious closet.

Like Harper, former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was also an intellectual who was coy about his Roman Catholicism, Foster says. But, unlike Trudeau, Harper has been unable to make his aloofness entertaining.

"Harper is stolid. He's solemn. The man is almost robotic. You can't get a feel for the guy. And he must know it's a problem. If voters can't get a sense of the man, then it's no surprise his personal ratings have stalled, or worse.

"He's the prime minister. Questions about his faith and personality are not going to go away."

This editorial is written by Douglas Todd.

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