Explaining Alberta’s and Calgary’s Evangelical Reputation
It’s not uncommon to hear of Alberta described as Canada’s “Bible Belt.” My home province has been labeled in the Canadian popular understanding as a bastion of religious fundamentalism. Like many popular assumptions, this particular belief usually isn’t examined very closely; most folks take it for granted.
But is it true? Is Alberta the “Bible Belt” of the Frozen North, and is the “cowboy capital” city of Calgary the “buckle” that holds it all together? It’s actually an important question for Canadian Christians to answer. Alberta is growing in both population and economic power within the Canadian federation, especially compared to older parts of the country like Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. But the reputation of Alberta as an enclave of evangelicals raises the possibility that evangelical churches, denominations, and mission agencies, when considering where to allocate scarce resources for church planting and strengthening, may consider Alberta to be “less of a priority” than other seemingly “less evangelical” parts of the country. Missionaries may opt for other provinces; church planters may decide the need is greater in cities other than Calgary or Edmonton or Red Deer or Lethbridge.
My aim in writing this is to show that, despite its reputation, Alberta is not Canada’s Bible Belt, and Calgary is certainly not the “buckle” of any such belt.
I’m (deo volente) currently planning three articles in this series. This is the first article in a multi-part series. In this first article, I’m going to look at why Alberta has this reputation as Canada’s “Bible Belt,” examining the cultural and (particularly) political factors that have influenced this view of the province by Canadians.
(Update, 23 November: because of an interesting comment below, I wrote a second article examining in more detail the case of “Bible Bill” Aberhart and the 1935 Social Credit election victory, and clarifying my main argument.)
In a couple days, in my
second third article, I’m going to offer some sobering statistics and real-life examples that show that Albertan evangelicals, and particularly those in Calgary, are not nearly as well-off as popular assumptions might lead one to believe. The final article will have some thoughts on where I actually think Canada’s “Bible Belt” is, and some concluding remarks.
Here’s the other articles in the series; I will add to this list here as I post them on the blog:
I’ll apologize at the outset both for the length and the historical and political emphasis of this series. Understanding Calgary’s (and Alberta’s) reputation as an evangelical hotbed requires some historical analysis, and I hope it is enlightening to many.
A UNIQUE LOT
Some readers may already have been taken aback by my statement above that I don’t think Alberta and Calgary in particular are any kind of evangelical redoubt. If we aren’t the “Bible Belt,” why does everyone think we are?
Albertans, and especially Calgarians, are a rather unique lot in Canadian culture. We have unique resources; the home of Canada’s oilpatch, Alberta has become incredibly wealthy even compared to other parts of the country. We have unique, uh, interests: Alberta boasted the world’s first UFO landing pad, and the town of Vulcan, south of Calgary, has built an entire tourist industry based on the happy (for them, anyway) coincidence that Star Trek’s Mr. Spock hailed from a world of the same name. And we have unique politics: in a nation generally leaning centre-left on the political spectrum, Alberta has a uniquely conservative and stable political climate. Having voted for only three changes of government in more than 108 years, and with the currently governing Progressive Conservatives (PCs) closing on 43 uninterrupted years in power, Alberta has a tradition of one-party rule that banana republics the world over can only gaze upon with envy. Moreover, in each case the political change came from the right: a populist farmers’ movement tossed Alberta’s first Liberal government in 1921, the right-wing Social Credit movement swept aside the United Farmers in 1935, and the PCs overthrew the Socreds in 1971.
So there are some reasons internal to Alberta politics, that have contributed to this reputation. We’re not like the rest of the country, and we’re conservative to boot. But my belief is that the primary reason for our Bible Belt reputation isn’t so much found in Alberta itself, but in the assumptions that undergird the perspectives of those in the rest of the country.
THE TORONTO-MONTREAL BIAS IN CANADIAN CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
As background for readers from outside our country: more than half of Canada’s population lives in another “belt” stretching from Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario—a belt that contains the urban centres of Toronto and Montreal. This “belt” has always been the political and cultural powerhouse of the Canadian federation. Even as hard economic times have been shifting Canada’s economic engine to the resource-rich Western provinces, the fact remains that urban Ontario and Quebec still hold the bulk of federal parliamentary seats and are home to Canada’s most powerful media companies and cultural industries. Compared to cosmopolitan and progressive Toronto, Calgary seems a bastion of traditional Protestantism; compared to post-Catholic secular Montreal and Quebec City, Calgary is a hotbed of religious fervor!
A significant factor in this difference is demographics. Alberta, like the other Western provinces, has a proportionately larger rural population than Ontario; furthermore, Alberta’s rural population only dropped below Quebec’s as a percentage of the population starting in 1981. Rural populations tend to be more socially conservative and religious than urban ones, and so simple demographics play a role in enhancing Alberta’s reputation as a religious enclave. Reinforcing this difference is the fact that even within Ontario and Quebec, regions outside these large cities often feel rather alienated. For example, the mood in Northern Ontario toward the seat of power in Toronto has at times been so sour that folks in the region have muttered about separating from the rest of the province. Quebec nationalism (and sentiment in favour of Quebec independence) has always been much stronger in areas outside more cosmopolitan and (relatively) anglophone Montreal, to the degree that residents of the Montreal area have considered secession from the rest of Quebec in the event of the province’s separation from Canada.
If even within their own provinces, these cities are cultural “worlds unto themselves,” it is unsurprising that sharp differences of values and perception might exist between Alberta and the Toronto-Montreal cultural and political “nexus.” My argument is that the perception (and, indeed, the very worldview) of Canada’s political and media elites is colored by their own location in urban Central Canada, and by the post-Christian and postmodern assumptions and values that are increasingly taken for granted in urban Ontario and Quebec. The perception of those elites, in turn, heavily influences Canada’s national media coverage, entertainment, and political discourse. Since Alberta and Calgary in particular do not fit the assumptions and values of Central Canada’s elites very well, their perception of conservative and religious tendencies in Alberta and Calgary are easily magnified into the image of a “Bible belt.”
ALBERTAN EVANGELICAL IMPACT ON CANADIAN FEDERAL POLITICS
That perception has only been reinforced by the political history of Canada. Traditionally, Western Canadians have felt alienated and somewhat ignored or exploited by the Ontario-Quebec political nexus, and consequently have viewed the mainstream political parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives) with some suspicion. Periodically, this alienation has boiled into political revolt, expressed historically through the creation of new political parties. (For American readers, these populist revolts in Canadian political history bear interesting similarities to the current Tea Party revolt within the Republican Party in the United States).
Interestingly enough, these populist parties and movements have not only invariably begun or been based in Alberta, but they have also, significantly, been prominently led by evangelicals. Three noteworthy examples I’ll look at are the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the Social Credit movement, and the Reform movement.
In 1932, the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was formed in Calgary under the leadership of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher named J.S. Woodsworth, and it initially flourished largely in Western Canadian parliamentary ridings and provincial legislatures. Building from that foundation, the CCF and its socialist successor, the modern New Democratic Party, has exercised a deep influence on Canadian politics ever since. One outstanding example that both Canadians and Americans would both be at least casually aware of is the modern Canadian institution of single-payer government-run medicare. What many conservative and evangelical Americans may be surprised to learn is that Canadian medicare owes its existence largely to the efforts of a Baptist minister named Tommy Douglas, who led the CCF to implement it in the western province of Saskatchewan only later to be imitated in the rest of the country.
Based on the monetary teachings of British theorist C.H. Douglas, the conservative Social Credit movement in Canada began in Alberta and first swept to power in that province’s 1935 election under the leadership of the charismatic (in both senses of the term!) Baptist minister William “Bible Bill” Aberhart. Alberta’s seventh premier, Aberhart served until 1943 and actually ran a Bible radio program—even when in office! (An interesting historical note is that Aberhart was once principal of the Alexandra School in which, many years later, we at Calvary Grace Church met until 2012). His successor as premier was another evangelical and the first graduate of Aberhart’s “Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute,” Ernest Manning, who led Social Credit to seven consecutive election victories and cemented Alberta’s modern political tradition of one-party rule.
THE REFORM MOVEMENT
Pierre Trudeau ruled as a Liberal Prime Minister of Canada until the early 1980s. Not only did his foreign policies irritate Canadian allies abroad in the United States and NATO, but domestically, his policies infuriated Western Canadians. (One enduring legend in Canadian political history is Trudeau’s train trip through Western Canada in 1982; people tossed tomatoes at his car in the Rogers Pass, B.C., egged his coach in Exshaw, Canmore, and the outskirts of Calgary, and a frustrated Trudeau famously “flipped the bird” to protesters in Salmon Arm, B.C.) Western alienation within the Canadian confederation reached a fever pitch, a rage only temporarily soothed by the 1984 landslide that replaced the Liberals with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. This alienation soon began to grow again, however, particularly because of Mulroney’s repeated actions calculated to placate the Quebec nationalist wing of his coalition, actions interpreted by Westerners as being at their expense.
Disgusted with both traditional Canadian political parties, a new political party called the Reform Party was formed in Western Canada. Not only did Reform elect its first Member of Parliament from Edmonton, Alberta, but its leader was the son of Alberta Socred leader Ernest Manning (remember him above?). The younger Manning, another evangelical Christian named Preston, was based in Calgary and would later led the Reform party to sweep Western Canada’s parliamentary seats, assume Official Opposition status, destroy the Progressive Conservatives as a political force, and split Canada’s conservative movement for more than a decade.
Stymied, however, in its efforts to appeal to Central and Eastern Canadians, the Reform party re-branded itself as the Canadian Alliance under the leadership of (yet) another evangelical, a former Alberta cabinet minister named Stockwell Day. (Day’s evangelical beliefs on creation and evolution were infamously ridiculed on national television by a Liberal party hack wielding a stuffed toy dinosaur). Later, in the early 2000s (still) another evangelical and former Reformer, Stephen Harper, was instrumental in uniting the Canadian Alliance with the Maritime and Central Canadian rump of the Progressive Conservatives, forming the current Conservative Party of Canada that has now won three consecutive federal elections.
ALBERTAN TIES TO THE UNITED STATES
Compounding the influence of these political facts has been Canadians’ perception of the historical connection Alberta has had with the United States. One of the earliest non-native settlements in Alberta was Fort Whoop-up, so named because its American proprietors had set up shop just across the border from the authorities in their own country in order to ply the local natives with whiskey (a factor that, among other things, contributed to the formation of what later became Canada’s famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Since the second half of the 20th century, the oil boom in Alberta has created strong economic ties between the province and the oil-rich evangelical and Republican heartland of the southern United States.
These economic ties have contributed to a significant interchange of culture and immigration in both directions between Alberta and the United States. Today, more Americans reside in Calgary (per-capita) than any other city in Canada (and by some accounts, any other city worldwide). Calgary’s famous Stampede, begun by an American named Guy Weadick, is a keynote event in professional rodeo, a sport also popular throughout the western United States, and draws thousands of American and international tourists each year. The mobility of families between Alberta and the United States has been recently illustrated by the examples of two famous politicians. One of the stalwarts of Albertan and conservative Canadian politics in the last twenty years was a man named Myron Thompson, a dual citizen of Canada and the United States and former U.S. Army soldier. Thompson was born and raised in Colorado and once tried out for the New York Yankees as a catcher, only to lose out to Yogi Berra! More recently, a minor scandal erupted in America when it was discovered that a conservative Republican Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz—again, an evangelical, and a Tea Partier to boot!—had been born in Calgary.
It’s important to stress the importance, in the Canadian cultural mind, of this connection of Alberta with the United States. In Canadian political discourse, “American-style” is an insult, and has been very commonly thrown at the policies advocated by both provincial and federal Albertan conservatives. In a country that, since the American Revolution, has defined itself largely by its differences from its southern neighbor, these associations between Alberta and the United States have resulted in Alberta being similarly associated in the public mind with the overt religiosity (at least as compared to Canada) of American culture and politics.
To summarize, then! Because of the unique political culture, demographics, and history of Alberta, because of the influential but biased perspective of a national political, cultural and media establishment rooted in a more secular and postmodern part of the country, because of the outsized impact Western-based and particularly Albertan evangelical Protestants have had in Canadian politics, and because of Canadians’ natural suspicion of American culture combined with the historically close ties Alberta has enjoyed with the more religiously and culturally conservative parts of the United States, Canadians have for years found it all too easy to generalize and assume that Alberta is a Canadian “Bible Belt” and Calgary is its “buckle.”
In other words, Alberta and Calgary are perceived to be more “evangelical” than they really are. However, the facts don’t support the reputation. More on that next time.