Photographer: David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The easiest country to govern

Michael Coren on the churches aggressively resisting restrictions

An elderly friend, now very much a society matron, was introduced as a young woman to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Along with many of her female contemporaries, she had something of a crush on the handsome, charismatic Prime Minister who was so different from his rather dull predecessors. She muttered a breathless and gauche, “You govern the country so well.” He smiled and replied, “Madam, it’s an easy country to govern.”

It is really. Enormous, wealthy, safe, and social democratic. Quebec separatism has been an issue over the years, and there was even terrorism in 1970, but it was brief and extremely unusual. North America, not Northern Ireland. The country’s original sin is its treatment of indigenous people, and while progress has been made there is still so much to do, and the wound remains open.

It’s a different Trudeau in office now, and while Justin doesn’t have his father’s intellectual gifts, and has made more than a few errors, he’s been a reasonable Prime Minister and will likely be re-elected. In spite of what his critics may claim, he and his Liberal Party are centrists and pragmatists.

They have not, however, handled the pandemic well. Former governments removed the domestic capability to manufacture the vaccines that are now so vital, but even beyond that hinderance the Ottawa response was always more impressive in words than reality. The governments of the larger provinces have generally been as poor if not worse in their response, particularly all-important Ontario, and the rates of infection and failure to deliver vaccines have caused enormous harm. This is a country that constantly looks south and, smugly but justifiably, says a collective “Thank God we’re not American”. That Canada has now fallen behind the US in vaccinating its people is regarded as a national embarrassment.

Politicians are in contact with religious leaders, trying to find a middle way, because we realise we’re in this together

The government continues to be supported however, and there is still social stability. But cracks are appearing. Shop windows smashed along entire Montreal streets by younger people ostensibly opposed to yet another lockdown, hysterically provocative right-wing on-line media types being arrested, and most surprisingly of all, churches becoming internationally known for civil disobedience.

I’m a cleric, working in a large Anglican church just outside of Toronto. I can say with direct experience that the various restrictions on religious services have been understandable and necessary. Churches can meet, but social distancing and mask-wearing is required, and the vast majority of churches, of whatever denomination, have understood and complied. My particular church conducts its services on-line, and in fact our numbers have grown.

But then there are the others, those who see the evil hand of government behind most things in life. Some are in Ontario, one or two elsewhere, but the most high-profile have been in Alberta, which is generally regarded as the most politically conservative province in Canada.

Two churches in particular have aggressively resisted the pandemic regulations imposed by the provincial government – even though that government is conservative, contains many traditionalist Christians in its ranks, and is led by a right-wing Roman Catholic who has long been a darling of the Christian right. The church that has caught most public attention, including coverage on Fox News, is GraceLife Church in Edmonton. It was ordered closed in January for repeated violations of COVID measures, and then its Pastor, James Coates, was charged with repeated contraventions. He handed himself in to the police, and spent a month in prison, but the church continued to open. Christianity Today, arguably the most influential evangelical magazine in the world, ran the story with the headline “Canadian Pastor Jailed Over COVID-19 Violations.” You can imagine the effect that had on US Christian fundamentalists who already consider Canada a strange, left-wing aberration on their northern border.

From being just another arch-conservative but relatively obscure evangelical church, GraceLife now became the centre of attention for those who are only too eager to see conspiracies, religious persecution, and Marxist plots around every Canadian corner. The church remained full, the pandemic was ignored and often denied, and activists screamed Biblical verses promising the end times and the end of Justin Trudeau.

I’ve seen the oppression of Christians first-hand but this is soft, comfortable, ersatz-martyrdom

It was open defiance, and with all of the media attention it seemed that it was more about challenging the government than worshipping God. Finally, the police closed the church, and erected tall fences around its perimeter. Crowds assembled, and the fences were torn down. Now, far-right activists from across Canada are making their way to the place to show support, including some notorious homophobes and racists. Pastor Coates has said that he doesn’t want all of these people to come to the scene, while simultaneously giving interviews to the country’s largest right-wing media platform.

This certainly won’t bring down the government, but it may well lead to the eventual defeat of the Alberta Premier, who won the election with the support of the sizeable evangelical vote in the province. Many of them feel betrayed. It’s also a precedent, and example, for others, and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see a replication elsewhere in the country before too long.

It’s extremely difficult to see anything of the gentle rabbi Jesus in all of this, but then as GraceLife says in its doctrinal statement: “God’s holiness and justice demand that all sin be punished by death.” If anybody wonders how Donald Trump won the support of more than 80% of white evangelicals, and how people calling themselves Christian and allegedly following the Prince of Peace can scream abuse at opponents, storm the country’s capitol building, spew racism, and even use deadly violence, observe how even in usually calm, controlled Canada a faith of beauty can be a cloak for something horribly contrary.

The recipe is simple. Allege secular hatred of the church, misquote or cherry-pick scripture to justify extreme actions, and empower the variety of conspiracy theories that are infecting the body politic like toxins in a bloodstream. This isn’t, believe me, religious persecution. I’ve seen the oppression of Christians first-hand, have on my desk two spent bullets picked up from the floor of a Baghdad church after a terrorist slaughter, held fellow believers as they wept for their murdered family members. This is soft, comfortable, ersatz-martyrdom, and its boasts are outrageous.

Covid numbers are getting worse in Canada, we’re facing a very challenging summer, and churches are extremely necessary. I’m busier than ever with phone ministry, on-line services, listening to people, helping with food support, housing, loss, and pain. Politicians are in contact with religious leaders, trying to find a middle way, because we realise we’re in this together. Love God and love your neighbours as yourselves. That’s the central teaching, that’s the ultimate command, and if it requires temporary sacrifice then so be it. Nobody’s freedom to worship has been genuinely curtailed, but it is being put to the test – not by government restrictions, but by how we react to them, and to the challenges of a plague year. Some, it seems, are failing rather badly.

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