Monday, May 17, 2010

Those Not-So-Scary Evangelicals

Yale PHD candidate offers her take on Armageddon Factor

Marci McDonald's The Armageddon Factor, the book which has set Canada's far left alight, is a mixed bag of fastidious research, misunderstood theology, and rhetoric leeched from politically-motivated works offered in the United States.

So says Yale scholar Molly Worthen, a PHD candidate who is an expert on Evangelical Christianity, and its relationship to politics.

Worthen takes issue with McDonald's treatment of Evangelical Christians. Her book doesn't seem to give them sufficient respect in the sense of being autonomous and thinking human beings.

"McDonald has spent hundreds of hours interviewing evangelicals, but still seems to view them as Christian zombies masked as ordinary citizens, who 'burble' and 'enthuse' rather than merely speak, and whose emotional prayers make them look like 'kung fu masters channelling spiritual vibes,'" Worthen writes. "She reduces their diverse beliefs to two extreme nodes: Christian Reconstructionism, a theocratic vision that seeks 'dominion' over society by reinstating Mosaic law; and dispensationalist premillennialism, a view of the end times in which human history tumbles into chaos until Christ sweeps up believers in the Rapture and fights the final battle of Armageddon."

In fact, McDonald's work suffers from an over-reliance on American works that actively sought to spread panic about the alleged theocratic agenda of George W Bush for political ends.

"Her source notes reveal that her account relies heavily on a handful of books by American journalists who over-simplified Evangelical thought in an effort to galvanize liberals during the George W Bush era," Worthen explains, noting that McDonald fails to give sufficient credence to the diversity of Canadian Evangelical demoninations.

"Some of her subjects may indeed dream of ruling Canada by divine mandate, but she paints all – from Dutch Reformed to Lutheran to Mennonite – with the same theocratic brush, despite the fact that many of these churches have either rejected or severely qualified their views of Christian 'dominion' and the Rapture-centred vision of end times," Worthen continues. "Although most Evangelicals still believe that prophecy has something to do with current events, premillennialism has mellowed significantly in recent years."

While Worthen notes that McDonald has spent a great deal of time researching Evangelical Christianity in Canada, she hasn't spent nearly as much time on the subject as Lloyd Mackey.

Mackey categorizes Canadian Evangelical Christianity into seven cores:

-Mainstream Evangelical Churches.
-Pentecostal Assemblies, who embrace emotion as the core of their worship.
-Evangelical churches of the Charismatic Tradition, who embrace Pentecostal worship techniques within a theological foundation derived from Catholicism.
-Reformed Evangelical churches, who embrace Calvinism.
-Evengelical churches of the Holiness Tradition, who embrace Christian charity via the Social Gospel.
-Ethnic Evangelicals -- Evangelicals who immigrate to Canada from abroad.
-Evangelicals within mainstream Christian churches.

Understanding the amount of theological diversity within Canadian Evangelical Christianity leads to a better understanding of Worthen's criticism of McDonald's work. Though McDonald may treat Evangelical Christianity as monolithic, it's anything but.

By doing this, McDonald commits another error: while she treats the Evangelicals she speaks to as representative of the whole, the choices McDonald has made in which Evangelicals she interviewed for her book further mis-coloured this representation.

"The Evangelicals that McDonald meets occasionally declare their 'biblical worldview' or denounce the myth of neutrality in the public sphere," Worthen writes. "What she takes for the language of Christian Reconstructionism is actually a feature of Reformed cultural theology, a broad tradition that urges Christians to engage in all spheres of life through a unified worldview. To miss this point is fundamentally to misunderstand the intellectual position of many evangelicals."

"They have critiqued secular ideas of objectivity and the exclusion of religion from the public square by suggesting that in this postmodern age – when even atheist philosophers doubt there is just one true understanding of reality – Christian presuppositions are no less valid grounds for a worldview than those of secular rationalism," Worthen notes. "McDonald does not take on this argument, nor give the reader any hint of this broader context."

McDonald also makes the error of mistaking many mundane political activities as exceptional.

"McDonald sees Christian nationalist conspiracy everywhere she looks," Worthen concludes. "Yet much of what she describes sounds merely like politics as usual, which perhaps makes it no less disturbing to some."

Worthen concludes -- quite rightly -- that in a country as characterized by religious tension as Canada has been, Canadians perhaps should be wary of politically-active believers.

"In a country where religious conflict has historically threatened the foundations of Confederation, where political culture is as much buttoned-up and British as it is non-American, and where most view the American zoo of politicized faith as the great exception of the civilized world, Canadian Evangelicals who set their minds on politics do not have to be zealots in order to be disconcerting," Worthen explains.

Clearly, those in a rush to believe The Armageddon Factor to be an exhaustive expose on any danger posed by Evangelical Christianity would be well-advised to curb their enthusiasm.

After all, if Marci McDonald has so clearly misjudged and misunderstood Evangelical Christianity, it's more than reasonable to wonder what kind of errors she's made in her treatment of other denominations.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

Deborah Gyapong - "More on Marci McDonald's Bigoted anti-Christian Book

Strictly Right - "New Canadian Anti-Christian, Anti-Israel Book

Dean Skoreyko - "Goldstein Challenges Others in the Media to Cover Positive Christian Stories"


  1. I don't see the demonizing of the social conservatives as a winnable strategy in 201-2011.

    I think it will backfire as more voters stay away from the Liberals, NDP, Bloc who suggest this gov't is racist, anti-women, anti-gay.

    The evidence they present does not stand up to scrutiny and the thin gruel is being replayed over and over.

    This is 1990's fearmongering of a "radical religious right-hidden agenda" from the West should be ridiculed at every turn.

    It is creepy the lengths they are going to misinform and distort the truth.

  2. It must really suck for the allegedly pro-intelelctual far left to have their prized new toy smacked around by a Yale scholar.

    They are so out-of-touch that it isn't even funny. They've been trying to replicate the anti-Bush movement in the US against Harper. The best they could do was to muster an anti-proroguement movement that dissipated when the proroguement ended (some of them tried very hard to transform that into an anti-Harper movement, going so far as to launch an anti-Harper "second wave of action").

    That wasn't the magic bullet, and this isn't the magic bullet, either.

    They need to stop searching for magic bullets, and start looking for policies and ideas that will appeal to Canadians.

  3. I read Ezra Levant's take on her book and he has pointed out numerous errors and glaring misinformation within the pages. One that comes to mind is that she has stated somewhere that Jason Kenney used to be Stockwell Day's COS. Not true.
    It's going to backfire for sure. Not many Canadians are atheists, agnostic maybe but not outright against religion(s).

  4. I think Worthen lays it out pretty bare: McDonald's book is based largely on the politically motivated works produced during the anti-Bush mania in the US.

    Individuals like Murray Dobbin have been transplanting those same arguments to Canada ever since Stephen Harper rolled along. And lo and behold, they're all just rolling this nonsense along as if it weren't being debunked at nearly every turn.

    See, deference to experts is only good so long as its our deference to their experts.

  5. By the way, about that picture....

    It's of St. Roch Church in Quebec City. I occasionally used to attend Masses there on Sunday afternoon when I missed it in the morning.

    It is so NOT Religious Right! In fact, the pastor was caught illegally importing an immigrant into Canada (this was in the 90's).

    For someone like me, that picture is the wrong picture. Just saying!


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