Friday, October 9, 2009

Stephen Harper and American Style Evangelism

As much as the horrendous Religious Right movement has soured me on Christianity, I do feel that the majority of churches play a very important role in our society, and certainly not just Christian ones.

In small communities they bring people together, promoting a message of family, that is not confined to blood relations. They look out for each other and invoke a spirit of belonging.

I'm not anti-religious by any means, and respect any spiritual beliefs that inspire decency and compassion. But these new American style mega-churches and para-churches that seem to be springing up all over, actually threaten the existence of the small churches that put people first.

Most promote the idea that personal wealth is the key to eternal salvation, so can justify their leaders' lavish lifestyles. Apparently, they have been ordained by God to live in mansions and drive Mercedes.

But they also take money out of the smaller churches, as people are driven to the theatrical, professionally run services, that often operate more like a franchise than a place of worship.

Of course, we can argue that all denominations have their wealth, but this style of evangelism, that thankfully doesn't represent most evangelists, is more about money and self righteousness, than piety and service.

They have also become heavily involved in politics, and while they try to overturn laws that don't fit into their religious beliefs, especially when it comes to abortion and homosexuality; they have also become dangerously involved in foreign affairs; as we've seen with the Council for National Policy and Christians United for Israel. They promote nuclear war to fulfill a biblical prophesy, and alarmingly have found a voice in the Reform-Conservative Party.

The Walrus published an article Stephen Harper and the Theo-Cons, and below is a description of Harper's church; the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Apparently, especially in the U.S. they have become like the Walmart of ministries, because when they move into a community, it's usually at the expense of small community churches. CMA doesn't appear to promote the personal wealth notion, but are still a powerful and wealthy organization, with a narrow-minded view of the world.

Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons
The rising clout of Canada’s religious right
The Walrus Magazine
by Marci McDonald

The Christian and Missionary Alliance

Fifteen minutes east of the Parliament Buildings, far from the neo-Gothic limestone of official Ottawa, the faded storefronts and fast-food joints along Montreal Road testify to working-class life in the capital.

Just around the corner on Codd’s Road, next to Halley’s Service Centre, a curbside sign announces East Gate Alliance Church, the unlikely evangelical congregation that Harper attends.

The single-storey brick building still resembles the public school it once was. Stout colonial pillars have been tacked onto the front where former classrooms now house half a dozen ethnic congregations. Inside the airy sanctuary, there are no pews—only rows of stackable metal chairs beneath a simple cathedral ceiling. The pink walls, punctuated by pink blinds topped by skinny chintz swags, are the only nod to decor. No stained glass or gilt icons detract from the stark wooden cross above the stage.

On this particular Sunday, East Gate’s star parishioner is miles away, but it seems no wonder that a man with a passion for secrecy would choose this house of worship, light years from the media’s prying eyes.

As members take their seats, few of the men sport jackets or ties, and kids race through the aisles to the chords of a grand piano. Suddenly a band strikes up, complete with a drum and guitars, and a young woman with a hand-held mike leads hymns whose rousing lyrics are projected onto the back wall. Halfway through the service, Pastor Bill Buitenwerf, who prefers a dark shirt and tie to his clerical collar, finally lopes to the pulpit, counselling his flock not to lose heart when the forces of darkness close in.

“There’s moral degradation everywhere,” he begins, rhyming off a list of evils, including abortion, which he plans to protest at a right-to-life rally on Parliament Hill later that week. “It can be discouraging when we try to make a difference in our government,” he says, then catches himself. “Now, I’m not saying anything about our current government.”Buitenwerf’s sermon is no barn-burner.

Occasionally during a hymn, scattered worshippers lift their arms skyward, palms raised in praise, but this isn’t some emotive, revival-style service, studded with ecstatic sobs and hallelujahs. East Gate is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, founded in 1887 by a Prince Edward Island–born preacher named Albert Simpson. Infused with a zeal for faith healing and more aggressive evangelizing abroad, Simpson’s breakaway sect was part of what divinity scholars call the holiness movement, which agitated for a return to Methodism’s reformist roots.

Now, with more than four hundred thousand members in two thousand churches across the continent, it’s considered squarely in the evangelical mainstream. According to its Statement of Faith, adherents believe the Bible is “inerrant” and the Second Coming is “imminent.”

Women are still not accepted for ordination, and a position paper on divorce does not mince words on a related matrimonial subject. “Homosexual unions are specifically forbidden,” it decrees, “and are described in Scripture as manifestations of the basest form of sinful conduct.”

Buitenwerf admits that the prime minister isn’t a regular attendee these days, but for many the surprise is that he shows up at all. For more than a decade, the man who remains an enigma to all but a trusted inner circle has kept his religious identity largely under wraps.

Then last year, Lloyd Mackey, the Ottawa correspondent for a Christian news service, blew his spiritual cover. In a slim, rambling volume entitled The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, Mackey traced the Conservative leader’s odyssey from the blithe stolidity of the United Church in suburban Toronto where he grew up to East Gate’s makeshift metal pews.

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