“Bible Bill” Aberhart and the Myth of Alberta as Canada’s Bible Belt
Clifford left an interesting and helpful comment on yesterday’s post explaining why Alberta is seen as Canada’s Bible Belt. I started writing a comment in response and it got long, so I think Clifford’s comment deserves a post of its own.
So, this is now Part 2. Next time, when I show why Alberta and Calgary are not at all an evangelical hotbed, will then be Part 3.
Clifford’s words are in italics.
Interesting article. I live in Alberta as well.
Thanks for reading!
I wanted to correct a statement in the article. You write:
“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. ”
The first Social Credit government in Alberta was not swept into power under the leadership of Bill Aberhart. In fact, Bill Aberhart did not run in the election when Social Credit was swept into power. It was only after Social Credit candidates won the vast majority of seats in the Legislature that Bill Aberhart ran in a bye-election in order to become the leader and Premier of the province.
Strictly speaking, you are correct. Aberhart was not officially the leader for the 1935 election, true. Aberhart was personally uninterested in being premier at the time, but more importantly, I think, no one expected the Socreds to win. That’s part of why Aberhart did not run in the election or stand officially as the party’s leader, but crucially, that’s why the Socreds had no formal leader at all during the campaign. When they won on August 22, they needed a premier, and so the Lieutenant Governor did, in fact, appoint Aberhart premier on September 3rd despite his not having a seat in the legislature. (So he ruled as premier for almost a year without a seat in the legislature!) You are correct, though, that it was only about a year later that he entered the legislature, having won the Okotoks/High River riding in a byelection by acclamation.
However, I need to point something out. A person might think, reading your comment, that Aberhart had nothing to do at all with the win, and that’s absolutely not the case. The Socreds’ establishment and election victory was very much attributable to Aberhart’s personal advocacy and organization.
While Social Credit in 1935 did not officially have any formal leader, Bill Aberhart was, nevertheless, informally the leader of the party. Aberhart had used his radio platform and influence for years to try to convince the UFA to adopt Social Credit ideas, and when that was definitively rejected in 1935, Aberhart led the charge to found the Social Credit party and had Social Credit candidates register to contest the election.
So, I stand by what I wrote; it’s fair to state that they “swept to power… under the leadership of… Aberhart.”
More info can be found at the Legislature website here, by the way: http://www.assembly.ab.ca/lao/library/premiers/aberhart.htm
This important fact changes the interpretation of the stunning Social Credit defeat of the UFA government in Alberta. You interpret William Aberhart’s victory as somehow demonstrating the Evangelical power in Alberta at the time, yet the government was elected without Bill Aberhart as it’s leader. In fact, I would argue, that Social Credit was elected to power because people were actually knowledgeable about Douglas Social Credit at that time in Alberta, and people actually desired it to be implemented.
Clifford, I think what you are trying to say is this: the fact that Social Credit won without having Aberhart standing for election proves that Alberta was voting for Social Credit’s platform and ideas, and NOT that it was voting for Bill Aberhart as an evangelical.
If my reading of your comment is right, then actually, I fully agree with you. The Socreds won because the electorate was genuinely convinced to give social credit theory a try. Alberta was not voting for an evangelical theocracy or anything like that. Social credit ideas were genuinely popular in Alberta at the time.
However, I think you have misunderstood what I am trying to argue. I’m not saying that the 1935 Socred win is a reflection of evangelical influence. My aim in writing this article and series is, actually, to argue the opposite–I’m saying that Alberta’s evangelical REPUTATION is actually a myth–and that it is, to a degree, the product of the prominence of several individual and influential evangelicals who held positions of political leadership in Alberta and federal politics. Actually, I attribute Alberta’s conservatism and political history more to its tradition of rural populism and its somewhat adversarial relationship with Central Canada than I do to the “evangelical vote.”
Ironically, you are, in a way, illustrating my point. In the article, I point out that INDIVIDUAL evangelicals have historically been very influential in the key political movements in Albertan and Western Canadian history. But you jumped from that observation to assume that I was therefore arguing that evangelicals as a BLOC were crucial, and that the election was a demonstration of evangelical political power.
That’s the very same assumption that, I am arguing, the elites in the national media and in broader Canadian society make, actually–they see Western, particularly Albertan, evangelical individuals exercising major influence over Western-based protest movements and assume that those individuals’ personal evangelical convictions are reflective of the religious convictions of Alberta as a whole. That’s one major reason why Alberta has the reputation of being an evangelical camp that it does. But, that’s bad logic. It’s incorrect to assume that simply because individual evangelicals are influential at certain points of history that it then means that evangelicals as a group are dominant, just as it’s incorrect to assume from Mitt Romney’s candidacy last year that Mormons dominate the Republican party. But, when it comes to Alberta, lots of people make assumptions like that.
That said, while my concern in the article and series is to correct an overestimation of evangelical influence in Alberta, it’s important not to commit the opposite error. The 1935 Socred win may have been a referendum on social credit ideas, but it’s unfair to imply that evangelicals therefore had little to do with it. Remember, there was no Internet in 1935; there weren’t even TV networks (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was not established until the next year). How, then, did the population of Alberta become acquainted with Social Credit ideas? Print and radio–particularly the latter. And it’s there that Aberhart’s personal leadership was, in fact, crucial–and where a legitimate evangelical contribution exists. Aberhart’s Bible radio program was used to advocate a Christianized version of Social Credit and to popularize it among Alberta evangelicals, from whence it spread among the population at large; his radio program also led to the creation of a network of study groups dedicated to learning Social Credit theory. And don’t underestimate the impact of Aberhart’s personal appeal to many evangelicals who had, up till then, supported the UFA; a key element of Social Credit’s victory was the collapse of the UFA as many supporters, evangelicals among them, shifted to Social Credit.
The Social Credit victory, then, was not a matter of evangelicals “flexing their political muscle” or Albertans voting for a Christian. It was, however, a case where evangelicals made key and timely contributions, “greasing the skids,” if you like. It’s all too easy to generalize and magnify the latter into the former. Again, it’s precisely that phenomenon that I argue has been a key factor in building and maintaining the myth of Alberta as Canada’s “Bible Belt.”
I would further support this thesis by the fact that when many of the MLA’s were disgruntled with what they perceived as Bill Aberhart’s reluctance to implement Social Credit monetary proposals, there was a back bencher revolt that almost pushed Bill out of power, and only by brining in Social Credit experts from England was Bill able to maintain power.
You are absolutely right here. In fact, at one point they brought Douglas himself over from England to help them, and even he was frustrated by the Aberhart government’s unwillingness to implement his ideas fully. Part of that “reluctance” to implement them was due to the fact that Aberhart had his own Christianized twist on the ideas; the divisions in the party were probably reflective of a difference between “Aberhartism” and the “pure” version Douglas had initially advocated.
Thanks for the thoughtful and irenic comment, Clifford!