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Marci McDonald, "The Armageddon Factor": Part 1: Information

Marci McDonald is described on the flyleaf of her new book, The Armageddon Factor (Random House Canada), as “one of Canada’s most respected journalists” and winner of numerous impressive awards for her craft. She spent several years in the USA on behalf of both Maclean’s and U.S. News & World Report, and clearly was troubled by what she saw there of the American Religious Right. Returning to Canada, she has spent considerable time  researching the rise of what she fears (and I use the verb advisedly) is a similar political movement in Canada.

Her account of a putative Religious Right, alas, is not what we ought to be able to expect of such a prominent journalist. As a historian of recent North American evangelicalism and as an occasional journalist myself, I’m going to take the measure of this book according to the two key components of journalism–and of history: information and interpretation (Parts 1 and 2 of this series). On both counts, I will argue, this book frequently fails to pass even minimal journalistic standards.

I will then argue in Part 3 that her conclusions are mistaken—except where they’re not. Marci McDonald—who, during our two interviews, I found to be both intelligent and pleasant—is not wrong about everything. Not at all. In fact, my main regret about this book is that its several flaws will allow those who prefer to do so to discount its important message: There is a Religious Right in Canada and it’s more important than many people have thought. In fact, it is more important than I had thought.

So I proceed with the unhappy task of showing that the book is frequently flawed on the basic level of getting the facts right.

A book that argues that something is getting bigger and more powerful needs to be scrupulous about statistics. But this book isn’t. In fact, so far as I can tell (from the sketchy appendix describing her sources—and why isn’t a book like this footnoted, or at least more rigorous about its references?), Ms. McDonald frequently seems simply to take her subject’s word for matters of fact. Yet why would a seasoned journalist do that, especially when precisely what is at issue is the size and shape of institutions, careers, influence, and so on?

She says, for example, that Ron Luce’s Texas ministry “Teen Mania” has “baptized thousands of sobbing adolescents a night” (p. 142). But let’s think about that a moment. How do you baptize thousands of people in one evening? First, where’s the water in these stadiums in which these revivals have taken place? Second, do the math: Either you dunk hundreds at a time in Olympic-size pools or you have a very long line of people getting baptized all night and well into the next day. Say you have water for ten lines of people. Say you can baptize people at two minutes per person, a very quick rite indeed (since it likely would be done by immersion, not just mass sprinkling). So that means you can baptize, optimally, 300 people per hour. A thousand people takes well over three hours. “Thousands” would be, indeed, an all-nighter of assembly-line baptizing. We’re supposed to believe that statistic?

Here’s a harder statistic, from a similar source. Luce and evangelist Lou Engle are reported by this award-winning reporter to have “packed three hundred thousand of their young shock troops into San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium for a one-night simulcast” (p. 148). Let’s leave the “shock troops” phrasing for the next post. For now, let’s just pause on the astonishing claim that 300 thousand people somehow got into a US football/baseball stadium. Five minutes on the Internet shows that the capacity for football attendance at Qualcomm is 71,000. Even if you use the whole football field for chairs, are you really going to get another 229,000 people in there–the equivalent of more than two Rose Bowls? I don’t think so. Fact-checking is fast disappearing in journalism everywhere, I recognize. But here’s the thing: If Ms. McDonald is credulous about such easy-to-check information that is used to demonstrate how big and important something is, then her credibility about any assertion about “big” and “important” has to come into question.

Canadian pastor and activist Charles McVety, for instance, claims to have “signed up more than nine thousand new supporters for [Frank] Klees” in the Ontario Conservatives’ 2009 leadership race and claims further to have recruited “five thousand new members for Stockwell Day” during Day’s attempt to become leader of the Canadian Alliance (p. 65). But Ms. McDonald’s notes show no corroboration of these claims. (Nor, to be sure, does she put them into any comparative context: Is that a lot of people to sign up, even if the claims are true?)

If we move from statistics to religion, perhaps the other key category of her argument, we have different sorts of factual problems. At a minor level, Ms. McDonald refers to a speaker’s stories as “shibboleths,” a bizarre misunderstanding of that idiom based on Judges 12:6.

More importantly, she repeats the common, but erroneous, account of the rise of American fundamentalism as being articulated in a few key principles at conferences like the Niagara Conference of the late 1800s and in the tract series called The Fundamentals.  Scholarship going back at least as far as George Marsden’s major work on Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford UP, 1980) has shown this portrait to be a collage of fact and fiction. (For instance, you can scan the volumes of The Fundamentals all you want—and I’m likely one of the few people alive who has actually read them cover to cover—and you can’t find a nice, short list of “fundamentals” anywhere in that set.)

Doubtless she relied on secondary sources, and that’s fine for a journalist to do, except that almost none of the standard scholarly books on American or Canadian evangelicalism show up in her notes. (No Noll, Marsden, Balmer, Rawlyk, or, yes, Stackhouse.) Instead, she has settled generally for fellow journalists’ alarmist accounts of the Religious Right in America plus the highly dubious work of Karen Armstrong, identified as a “scholar” but better identified as a fierce opponent of all orthodox religion who is generally not taken seriously by genuine experts in the academic study of religion. (Whom did Ms. McDonald ask for help in recommending background reading? They certainly let her down.)

Along similar lines, she sometimes conflates Dominionism/Christian Reconstructionism/Theonomy, the extremist version of Dutch Reformed thought promulgated by R. J. Rushdoony, with the mainstream Reformed/Calvinist concern to transform culture according to Biblical principles of justice and shalom, and both of those with a much more diffuse Canadian Christian nationalism that refers to “the Dominion of Canada” and Psalm 72:8. To be sure, many of her subjects mix this stuff up also, but she needs to keep them straight and help us understand both the differences among these outlooks and the problems that follow when they are confused (such as confusing a generic concern to influence Canada according to Christian principles with the extremist agenda of establishing a theocracy that would stone homosexuals).

Indeed, Ms. McDonald uses weird literary camerawork to zoom in on people she admits are on the fringes of evangelicalism only to widen out to include other evangelicals, Roman Catholics, “conservative Christians” and even Jews as if they’re all connected. But where are the basic definitions we need? What is fundamentalism or evangelicalism or Pentecostalism or charismatic Christianity? What is a “Christian Right” or a “Religious Right” versus simply orthodox Christianity or politically conservative religious people? Ms. McDonald never defines any of these key terms—not one of them—so we literally don’t know what she’s talking about.

And, alas, it sometimes seems that neither does she, not exactly. I wonder if she is so worried about everyone to her right who links politics with religion that they all count for her as being on the “religious right” and then she sees them as somehow linked into a “movement.” But “movement” is a technical term in scholarship denoting an actual historical something: a network of some kind with a defining outlook and a pattern of joint action. Ms. McDonald does find a movement, as I will agree further in my last post, but it isn’t—it can’t be—this wildly disparate listing of Canadians of such different stripes who are not tightly networked nor acting in concert.

In particular, the book’s title, introduction, and penultimate chapter would lead us to think that dispensational “end-of-the-world” theology is key to the Religious Right in Canada. But to say so is just laughable for Roman Catholics, most Protestants, and even large numbers of evangelicals (however you define that word) in whose faith this eschatology plays no part. Strangely, several of her chapters don’t mention Armageddon at all. So how is that to be taken seriously as the main analytical category of this “movement”?

Finally, Ms. McDonald’s book is replete with nontrivial claims that appear to be quantitative facts but for which she provides no sources. “Most psychologists,” she says, “dismissed the Toronto Blessing as a case of mass hysteria” (p. 125). But how would she know a thing like that? And “most” out of what group? Christian psychologists who are open to the possibility of a spiritual revival breaking out? All psychologists in the Greater Toronto Area who have heard of the Toronto Blessing? All members of the Canadian Psychological Association? The psychologists that she happens to have talked to?

Here’s another: “Harper has backed Israel with such fervour that veteran scholars and diplomats rank it as the most dramatic shift in the history of postwar Canadian foreign policy” (p. 310). This claim sounds pretty impressive, but who are these “veteran scholars and diplomats”? Her notes show precisely nothing. And would scholars and diplomats really say that? More dramatic than Pearson and the Suez Crisis? More than Diefenbaker’s argument with JFK? More than Trudeau’s distancing of Canada from the US, UK, and France? Maybe, but normally a journalist would back up such a major generalization with some authoritative quotations, but we get none here.

I have no interest in piling on. I reiterate that Ms. McDonald strikes me as a sincere, serious person. I criticize her book at length because it is my experience that criticisms of this sort need to be made at length or else defenders will accuse me of cherry-picking a few details. I have launched a very serious charge, saying that this book fails to meet the standards–or what ought to be the standards–of good journalism. So I have to put up or shut up.

In my next post, I will go on to assert that, beyond these matters of dubious information, the book is replete with transgressions of journalistic interpretation. But then I will proceed in my third post to aver that Marci McDonald is not a “paranoiac,” as some have called her. Yes, she’s making too much of some things, as I’ll try to show. But she has persuaded me that there is more genuine fire under all this smoke than I had previously thought, including some in the federal cabinet itself.



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