Straitlaced No More: Alberta’s Moral Decline
So far in this series, I’ve asserted that Central Canadian bias, combined with the outsized prominence of individual Alberta evangelicals in Canadian politics, is the main reason for Alberta’s mythical reputation as a “Bible Belt.” I then looked at statistics which prove that, far from being an evangelical hotbed, Alberta is one of the most secular places in the country and its major cities some of the most unchurched in English Canada. Last time, I went on to give three examples of the theological decline of Alberta’s evangelicals in order to show that the church in Alberta is, in fact, in doctrinal trouble.
Still, the popular view of Alberta as Canada’s evangelical heartland is hard to break. It’s easy for many Canadians to assume that, because Alberta has for decades been reliably politically conservative in its provincial and federal politics, Alberta’s culture is therefore more heavily influenced by Christianity than others in Canada. So it’s possible that someone might read what I’ve argued so far, and say: “Well, okay, maybe the church has fallen on hard times, but it’s not all bad—Alberta’s still very conservative and friendly to Christian values, isn’t it?”
Well, no, actually, it isn’t. Not only is Alberta NOT an evangelical heartland—it’s no bastion of morality and ethics, either.
So, the focus of this article is to examine a parallel decline in the friendliness of Alberta’s culture to Christian values. In other words, I’m saying that those expecting Alberta’s broader society to reflect a more “Christian” culture, due to its being an alleged “Bible Belt,” are in for a sore disappointment.
By the way: my fear—and one of my motivations in writing this series—is that Alberta’s unjustifiable reputation as an evangelical hotbed may encourage some Christians, who are considering entering or supporting ministry in Canada, to look elsewhere than Alberta for places to serve or give, thinking that we’re somehow better off and therefore should be “less of a priority.” No, we need all the help we can get! So I think it’s important to show that the diminished evangelical witness of Alberta’s churches has been, I believe, paralleled to a degree in the extent to which Alberta’s culture is abandoning traditional Judeo-Christian values.
A HOTBED…OF SEXUAL IMMORALITY
It’s sad enough that in our sick and twisted world there are websites dedicated to destroying marriages by promoting adulterous liaisons; it’s even sadder that Canadians, in particular, appear to embrace them. Well, one particularly grim indicator of Calgary’s actual level of morality is the fact that according to one such adultery-promoting website, Ashley Madison, Calgary is the third-most “cheater-friendly” city in Canada, after only Ottawa and Saskatoon. Moreover, half the cities in their “top ten” were in allegedly conservative Western Canada, and two were in “Bible Belt” Alberta (Edmonton is the other one). For those unfamiliar with Canadian demographics, Western Canada does not have even close to half of the nation’s population, and Alberta barely counts one in ten Canadians, much less one in five! So both of those figures are far out of proportion to those regions’ share of the national population.
The sexual dissolution of Alberta’s culture impacts even Calgary’s famous Stampede, which is marketed as a wholesome family event. Now, it’s true that for the most part the fair grounds, exhibits, and competitions are family-friendly; I take my own kids most years. However, the “party culture” that has sprung up in Calgary around the Stampede is anything but. For ten days in the summer, Calgarians “let their hair down” and indulge en masse in adolescent partying. I used to manage a downtown hotel near the Stampede grounds, and while Stampede is a reliable moneymaker for Calgary’s hospitality industry, we came to dread the week from a customer service perspective, knowing that ten days of damaged rooms, inebriated twenty-somethings hollering in the hallways after midnight, and guest complaints awaited us. Aping Las Vegas, a common saying in Calgary during the festival is “What happens at Stampede, stays at Stampede.”
This Stampede “party culture” has been growing in infamy. After hearing some of their interns swapping Stampede stories of young females being pressured into playing sexually suggestive party games at corporate Stampede parties, and young men into attending events catered by topless waitresses, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation conducted a panel exploring the ethical implications of Stampede party culture, especially for businesses. T-shirts have been sold printed with the phrase, “It’s not cheating, it’s Stampeding”; not too long ago, a prominent Calgary boutique hotel, as a publicity stunt, ran a cheeky marketing campaign offering to allow guests to check their wedding rings at the door–and get a spray tan application to cover the finger’s tan line. This Winnipeg newspaper story, chillingly titled “Debauchery… Divorce, Disease,” reveals some shocking statistics. Stampede, for too many married Calgarians, presents an opportunity to see if things really are “greener” on the other side of the fence. As a result, within about six weeks after Stampede, the number of people calling a prominent local divorce mediation firm spikes by 30 percent. Sadly, Calgary police estimate that during the ten days of festivities, the number of prostitutes in Calgary doubles.
Another telling example of how tenuous social mores have become in Calgary was the scene on Calgary’s infamous “Red Mile” during the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames’ improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. As the underdog team won game after game, hockey fans spilled out into the streets, beers in hand and clothes falling off. Crowds encouraged young women to disrobe for their amusement and a website was even set up for pictures, leading to justifiable criticism that Calgary’s fans were exploiting the ladies.
And it’s not just a Calgary thing, either. When the Edmonton Oilers similarly reached the Cup Finals two years later, Calgary’s counterpart to the north not only imitated the “street party” atmosphere with their own “Blue Mile” (complete with the debauchery, of course), but its police had to deal with a remarkable amount of violence and property damage to boot.
Christians have always maintained that departures from the biblical teaching regarding sex–that sexual activity is designed by God exclusively for a committed, covenantal marriage relationship between one man and woman–would result in grave consequences for society. The sexual revolution has typecast chivalry as being “patriarchal” and, therefore, discouraged men from thinking of themselves as having a uniquely protective and responsible role in their relationships with women. Moreover, the sexual revolution and technology has diminished the physical consequences of extramarital sex, freeing men to indulge their natural–and sinful–tendency to objectify women through casual sexual encounters. A culture that encourages men and women–but particularly men–to view other human beings as merely means to a pleasurable end is a culture that has diminished the value of other human beings.
So it’s not terribly surprising, then, that Albertans–who we’ve already seen to be happily throwing off every and any social restriction on sexual activity!–are more prone to commit, and be victimized by, explicit or threatened sexual or relational violence. Statistics Canada reports that while more than one-third (39%) of Canadian women experienced at least one incident of sexual assault in their lifetimes, well over half of women in Alberta (58%) have had such an experience. Alberta women were more likely to be victims of stalking than women in other provinces (both of the charts below are originally from this report).
In 2004, Statistics Canada reported that the rate of spousal abuse against Alberta women was 10% – the highest in the country.
It’s not merely family and sexual crimes that are higher than normal in Alberta. More drunk driving charges are laid in Alberta (450 charges per 100,000 people) than in the rest of the country (national average was 262/100K). Now, it needs to be noted that this statistic could be partially attributable to more enforcement (i.e., maybe we’re better at catching them than the rest of the country); still, I’d be very surprised to learn that Alberta cops (as good as they are) are something like 70% more effective than those in other provinces!
A GATHERING STORM OF POLITICAL PERSECUTION?
It’s not just Alberta’s social culture that’s abandoning Christian values. Alberta’s political conversation is increasingly turning hostile to evangelical Christian beliefs regarding sexuality. One indication of this trend is the fact that Alberta’s Human Rights Commission has been used by homosexual activists to target Christians for publicly stating their beliefs. Despite international condemnation by both Christian and secular conservatives and libertarians, the Commission has not been reformed by Alberta’s Conservative government to prevent such abuse of the system, and Section 3 of Alberta’s Human Rights Act has not been amended to prevent suppression of free speech. The Alberta government’s stark refusal to move such reforms is all the more noteworthy given the fact that even Canada’s federal government responded to such abuse of the federal Human Rights Commission by amending its governing legislation.
It’s not just the bureaucrats of a quasi-judicial body that have shown such disdain for Christian belief. During our last provincial election campaign Alberta’s premier, Alison Redford, harshly criticized an evangelical pastor running for another party for past denunciations of homosexuality during his pastoral ministry. Her exact words were, “The fact that there are people who think that’s a legitimate perspective just absolutely blows my mind…. I think they’re shocking.” Let me restate: Her Majesty’s head of government in Alberta honestly thinks that what Christians (and the vast majority of non-Christians as well) have believed regarding human sexuality for the past two thousand years has suddenly become a totally illegitimate political viewpoint. The historical myopia and logical incoherence of her position aside, it’s another sign of how secular and post-Christian even Alberta’s allegedly “conservative” political discourse has become.
My point in recounting these tales is simple: since Alberta is no evangelical heartland, no one considering the state of the church in Canada has any reason to assume that Alberta is somehow a more Christian-friendly place than the rest of the country. In fact, Alberta society is demonstrating all the signs of a culture given over to secularism. Far from being “better off” than the rest of Canada, Alberta’s need of Christian outreach and mission work is no less than any other part of the country–and, arguably, may be greater than most.
So if you’re considering pastoral ministry, or if you are thinking strategically about places where you may serve the Kingdom or contribute to its work, please don’t count out Calgary, or Edmonton, or Red Deer, or Lethbridge, or anywhere else in Alberta just because “everyone knows Alberta’s the Bible Belt.” This province desperately needs the Gospel, and workers for the harvest. May God answer that prayer–and grant that more may offer that prayer in the first place.
In the next installment of this series, God willing, I’m going to expand somewhat on the theme I closed with above, and examine some of the practical needs of the evangelical church in Alberta.