Front Burner33:52Inside the fundamentalist Christian movement that wants to remake Canadian politics
Warning: This story contains anti-trans comments and deals with suicide.
On a recent Sunday morning in Waterloo, Ont., pastor Jacob Reaume gripped a lectern and issued a warning to his congregation.
“A Christless existence leads to the dark, hopeless abyss of death,” he told around 200 people at Trinity Bible Chapel, an evangelical church on the outskirts of the city.
Much of the sermon, delivered last December, was devoted to a trans student at a Christian university in nearby Hamilton who had died by suicide a few weeks earlier.
“If you’re going to live a lie to the point where you’re willing to mutilate your own body, it’s going to send you into dark despair,” Reaume said.
He then used a slur to refer to trans people.
Trinity Bible is one of the most prominent churches in a fundamentalist Christian movement that has gained momentum in Canada, initially by challenging pandemic public health restrictions.
This movement is now increasingly involved in electoral politics, advocating for conservative social and political policies based on literal interpretations of the Bible.
Liberty Coalition Canada, a conservative Christian advocacy group, is trying to raise $1.3 million to recruit hundreds of Christian politicians and campaign staff to run at all levels of government.
In a document marked “please keep classified” that was obtained by CBC News, the group says its ultimate goal is “the most powerful political disruption in Canadian history.”
Working alongside Liberty Coalition Canada are dozens of churches across the country, a number of small media outlets and at least one well-funded think-tank.
While theological and political differences exist among them, many supporters of this movement share a vocal opposition to LGBTQ rights and other social justice causes.
Several Canadian pastors in the movement also have ties to a controversial branch of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. known as reconstructionism.
Scholars say reconstructionist ideals — often linked to Christian nationalism, the idea that the United States is a Christian country — are influencing how some Canadian evangelicals are responding to issues like legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and added protections for gender minorities.
“Some Christians in Canada over the last 10 years have begun to push back,” said John Stackhouse, a professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B.
Pastors defying pandemic rules
Liberty Coalition Canada was formed in early 2021 by Michael Thiessen, a pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Alliston, Ont., who broke with that church over his public opposition to public health measures in place at the time.
Thiessen helped draft a statement — known as the Niagara Declaration — that argued limits on religious gatherings were a violation of church sovereignty.
Nearly 300 mostly Protestant churches and organizations across Canada, including Trinity Bible, signed the declaration. Liberty Coalition emerged as an effort to consolidate that wave of opposition and defend the rights of Christians.
“One of our concerns over the past couple years is the apparent power grab by the state to exercise absolute authority over all of life,” said Aaron Rock, one of the authors of the petition and pastor at Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ont.
Rock declined to be interviewed in person or over the phone. He spoke to CBC News by exchanging voice memos with a journalist.
“Where the state crossed the line for us was in their attempt to control the ministry and worship of the Christian church,” he added in a voice memo.
Thiessen, Rock and Reaume were among several pastors in Canada who were charged with defying public health rules by holding large gatherings at their churches in 2020 and 2021 (some of the charges against Rock were later withdrawn).
Reaume’s church celebrated these pastors at an event in Waterloo, Ont., last fall called the Church at War conference, where governments were labelled as the “anti-Christ.”
As governments began to remove pandemic restrictions, Liberty Coalition Canada shifted its focus to controversies that pit progressive and conservative values against each other on issues ranging from gender and sexuality to racism and the environment.
In recent months, the organization has emphasized its opposition to LGBTQ rights.
It is raising money to support legal action brought by an Ontario high school student who was suspended for organizing a protest against his school’s gender-neutral bathroom policy and who has since appeared at several anti-trans demonstrations.
During a recent Liberty Coalition podcast episode, for example, a host referred to the LGBTQ “world view” as “satanic” and a “godless death cult.”
The host, Kingston, Ont., pastor Andrew DeBartolo, said the “rainbow mafia” was seeking to “brainwash children.” His co-host, Matthew Hallick, described queerness as “sexual perversion.”
Training for candidates
Liberty Coalition Canada claims to have helped 110 Christian candidates in municipal and school board elections last year in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
It says 16 of those 110 candidates were elected in 2022, but this number is difficult to verify because the group did not respond to a request to see a full list of names.
Of the candidates who are known to have had Liberty Coalition’s support, many campaigned against efforts to deal with systemic racism and opposed teaching students about gender minorities.
CBC News previously revealed Liberty Coalition Canada supplied training in August for several dozen of these candidates.
The two-day event in Mississauga, Ont., included a talk by Bridget Ziegler, a conservative education activist from Florida.
Ziegler co-founded Moms for Liberty, a lobby group that drove support for state legislation — dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay — that bars schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in younger grades.
The internal Liberty Coalition document obtained by CBC News suggests it is entertaining even grander ambitions for the future.
“Over the next few years, I want to systematically manufacture 10,000 new Christian political candidates across Canada,” says the document, which was written by Michael Clark, director of advocacy for the Liberty Coalition.
Clark also writes that he wants to align Canada’s laws with “biblical principles.”
The document was available to the roughly 500 participants of a religious conference at Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ont., last December.
Liberty Coalition Canada was among several groups that set up booths in the exhibitors hall at the conference.
Unaware he was speaking with a CBC News journalist, an individual at its booth handed over a copy of the document, saying it was “a plan to help Christians infiltrate the political system.”
Clark declined an interview request from CBC News.
But Rock is open about the goals of the Christian political movement of which he sees himself a member.
“We would want to see people elected to office, and installed in the academies of our country, and in our legal system … who aren’t ashamed to consult God’s eternal laws when it comes to the decisions that they make,” he said in a voice memo to CBC News.
Controversial branch of Christianity
Through its podcasts and fundraising efforts, Liberty Coalition Canada appears to be seeking a broader audience for Christian reconstructionism, an austere form of evangelism that seeks inspiration from the Old Testament to guide modern government and culture.
“What you have with the Niagara Declaration … is a form of Christian reconstruction,” said André Gagné, a professor of theology at Montreal’s Concordia University.
In speeches and podcast appearances, Thiessen, the coalition’s founder, often invokes thinkers (Cornelius Van Til) and concepts (theonomy, presuppositionalism) that are central to the reconstructionist movement.
He has also participated in several events that are hosted by organizations and figures that experts associate with reconstructionism.
Stackhouse, the Crandall University professor, studies evangelical Christianity and estimates reconstructionists account for a small minority of Canadian evangelicals.
“It’s on the fairly strong right wing of Calvinism or Reform Christianity,” Stackhouse said.
“This is what I would call the fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity.”
Separate from mainstream evangelicals
Reconstructionists stand apart from mainstream evangelicals in Canada who have largely accepted the country’s religious pluralism and are less interested in pushing biblical values in every corner of society.
“We are very conscious that we are a minority,” said Rick Hiemstra, research director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the country’s largest association of evangelicals.
“Christendom as an idea is past and our relationship with the rest of Canada needs to be different than what it was in the past.”
Experts say reconstructionists, on the other hand, see increasing tolerance for minority rights and other progressive policies as an attack on Christianity that will lead to the decline of Western civilization.
“[Reconstructionists] feel they should preach what they call the entire council of God,” Gagné said.
“So if God says in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin, they feel they shouldn’t be censored for preaching that.”
Ties to controversial U.S. figures
Scholars usually trace the origins of reconstructionism to R.J. Rushdoony, a religious thinker who rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1970s.
Rushdoony believed that modern societies should be organized around the Ten Commandments. He advocated capital punishment for homosexuality, adultery and abortion.
His teachings had a profound influence on the Christian right. He is often credited with convincing other evangelical leaders in the U.S. of the need to oppose legalized abortion, launching the decades-long — and ultimately successful — effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
More recently, reconstructionism in the U.S. is often associated with Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and its controversial pastor, Douglas Wilson.
Wilson preaches what one scholar has called “extremely muscular Christianity,” which champions traditional models of masculinity and calls on believers to build their own parallel society to avoid the evils of modern secular culture.
“[In] his most recent writing, Wilson has no qualms about describing his goal as ‘theocracy,'” writes Crawford Gribben, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, in his 2021 book Survival and resistance in evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest.
Wilson’s ideal society, according to Gribben, would be run along biblical lines: same-sex marriage and abortion would be illegal; men would be in charge and women would be at home with the children.
Wilson is also known for having romanticized slavery in his earlier writings and denigrates the LGBTQ community. Last year, he called trans people “mentally ill.”
His church in Moscow operates its own school system and has extensive publishing and media interests. Its stated goal is to make Moscow “a Christian town,” a project that has attracted at least several hundred people to migrate to the area.
Looking for Canadian support
Members of the Liberty Coalition may not share that goal, but they have visited Moscow and do maintain ties with leaders of Wilson’s church. The coalition’s podcasts are hosted by a website run by members of the Christ Church community.
Gabriel Rench, a prominent member of the Christ Church community, attended the Church at War conference at Trinity Bible. Reaume, in turn, preached at Christ Church earlier this year.
Wilson has encouraged Canadian Christians to follow his lead.
“Jesus Christ commanded Christians in Canada to have as the direct object of all their missionary endeavours the evangelization and conversion of Canada,” Wilson said in 2019.
“So the goal is for Canada to become Christian. And, if you know your history, for Canada to become Christian again.”
Wilson made the comments during an event at the Ezra Institute, a conservative Christian think-tank in Grimsby, Ont.
The institute is located in a mansion on a 9.7-hectare gated property, where it hosts regular talks, conferences and training sessions, many of them headed by the institute’s founder, Joseph Boot. It also publishes books, a magazine and its own podcast.
“The Ezra Institute [and] Joe Boot’s own work do represent Christian reconstruction,” said Stackhouse, pointing to Boot’s PhD studies and published work as evidence.
On social media and in his writings, Boot has made a number of anti-LGBTQ statements, including comparing gender-affirming care to “slavery” and claiming that trans athletes are “pretending.”
As part of the Ezra Institute’s activities, it is affiliated with a number of radical Christian thinkers in the U.S., such as Jeff Durbin, an Arizona pastor who believes women should be charged with homicide if they have an abortion, even if that means facing the death penalty.
Another institute fellow, Jeffery Ventrella, works for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy organization that is considered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The ADF, for its part, denies it is a hate group, saying on its website that it believes “all people are made in the image of God and that everyone is worthy of dignity and respect.”
As a registered charity, the Ezra Institute operates mainly through donations. Among its largest donors is a charitable foundation operated by John Hultink, founder of the online book wholesaler Book Depot, based in Thorold, Ont.
Since 2014, the Hultink Family Foundation has given the institute close to $6 million, according to Canada Revenue Agency filings.
The current CEO of Book Depot, Wilf Wikkerink, sits on the Ezra Institute’s board of directors.
In an email to CBC News, Book Depot said there are no financial connections between the company and the Hultink Family Foundation or the Ezra Institute.
“Book Depot sells books, and the religious affiliations of our team members and corporate directors in no way affects our core belief that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, despite opinions offered by some in the media that may indicate the contrary,” the statement said.
CBC News provided Hultink, who is listed as a director and vice-president of Book Depot, with an opportunity to respond to a list of questions.
Hultink did not respond to those questions. He replied with a statement that questioned the fairness of CBC News, the intentions of the journalist and whether the radio documentary that accompanies this story is an “exercise in anti-Christian hostility.” The statement can be viewed in its entirety here.
A lawyer representing Hultink later sent a further email to CBC News, saying his client “has never professed or upheld Christian reconstructionism as a theology.”
The Ezra Institute said it was unable to accommodate CBC News requests to tour its Grimsby facility or speak with a representative.
In a statement, the institute said it advances the “unchanging spiritual teachings” of the Bible on marriage and human sexuality.
According to the institute, these teachings include that “human beings were made male and female” and that marriage between a man and woman is the only permitted “form of human sexual intimacy.”
Rock, who is also a fellow at the Ezra Institute, framed his own vocal opposition to the LGBTQ community as an act of “love.”
“For me to permit you to, let’s say, live a lie or to believe something that isn’t true, because I don’t want to ruffle your feathers — [that] is the antithesis of love. That’s actually an act of hatred,” he said in a voice memo to CBC News.
Amping up conservative populism
While candidates backed by Liberty Coalition Canada have not had much electoral success so far, there are signs that hardline conservative Christians are growing more confrontational in Ontario, much to the alarm of LGBTQ groups.
“There’s been a strong, and I believe a successful, attempt to really limit the growth of LGBTQ+ communities in [Hamilton], influenced by the religious right,” said Jyss Russell, co-founder of speqtrum, one of that city’s few LGBTQ advocacy groups.
Many of these religious groups, Russell said, circulate disinformation about trans people, such as comparing gender-affirming care to “mutilation.”
“They’re using the exact same words and the exact same attacks that they did 30 years ago,” she said.
In December, several dozen people huddled together outside Hamilton’s city hall to celebrate the life of Bekett Noble, the trans student who died by suicide and whom the pastor at Trinity Bible Chapel mentioned in his sermon.
Noble had been studying at Redeemer, a Reformed Christian university in nearby Ancaster, Ont., where they ran an unofficial group for LGBTQ students.
“Why a Christian university would have a group for LGBTQ+ students is beyond me,” Reaume, the pastor at Trinity Bible, said in his December sermon.
LGBTQ groups feeling vulnerable
Noble’s death shook many in Hamilton’s LGBTQ community, even those who didn’t know them personally. It came at a moment when the community was feeling particularly vulnerable, Russell said.
LGBTQ advocates have been critical of the city’s willingness to co-operate with socially conservative Christian organizations while their own organizations have long struggled to secure consistent funding.
Hamilton’s LGBTQ community says it is also dealing with an increase in public displays of hate against its members.
Self-described street evangelists disrupted Pride events in 2018 and again in 2019, when clashes with counter-protesters led to several injuries and arrests.
In recent months, Hamilton and the surrounding area have seen a number of anti-drag protests.
The Canadian evangelicals inspired by reconstructionism are not responsible for most of these incidents, but they have allied themselves with the current wave of social conservative populism.
Both Thiessen and Rock took part in trucker convoy protests last year. This year several signatories of the Niagara Declaration have participated in, and organized, anti-drag demonstrations.
Given the electoral ambitions of groups like Liberty Coalition Canada and the financial resources of sympathetic conservative Christian organizations, LGBTQ advocates worry they are ill-equipped to confront the backlash against their community.
“People are trying to force us to go underground, just like we were underground before,” said Russell.
Noble’s death, Russell said, reminded her of why she originally got involved in activism. But it also prompted her to think about the broader structures behind the existing opposition to anti-LGBTQ rights in Canada.
“There is a whole other piece: all of those people that are propping up these institutions; these people that are funding these institutions; these people that are tithing to these institutions; the fact that these institutions are not taxed despite their actions,” she said.
“How are these mechanisms silencing us?”