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The image of Stockwell Day as a righteous slayer of liberal demons is an impressive one. But do we really know Stockwell Day, the lay pastor who would be prime minister?

Mr. Day has billed himself as a problem-solver and coalition-builder who will revitalize Canadian democracy. But this claim doesn't quite jibe with a demonstrated weakness to play God's partisan. Over a 15-year political career, Mr. Day has emerged as a champion of the religious right in Canada: In Alberta, he has campaigned to limit the gains of the Vriend civil-rights case (the case that forced Alberta to update its civil-rights code to protect homosexuals); he has attempted to defund abortions; and he would increase private-school funding for religious schools.

Clearly, there is a lot riding on Mr. Day's ability to sell himself as an ordinary Canadian. But what unsettles many Canadians is that Mr. Day is not simply a moralist, but a man of action. Unlike Preston Manning, who endured some undeserved abuse for his closely circumscribed religious views, Mr. Day has, on occasion, veered toward theocracy.

"I believe in the separation of church and state," he reassured Canadians in April. Back in 1984, it was a different story. "God's law is clear," he told a reporter from Alberta Report magazine. "Standards of education are not set by the government, but by God, the Bible, the home and the school."

At the time, Mr. Day was representing a group of 15 unlicensed Christian schools that had chosen to fight government efforts to impose controls on educational jurisdiction of any kind, including the regulation and approval of curriculum. At the time, an Alberta Report story quoted Mr. Day as saying: "If we ask for [the Education Minister's]approval, we are recognizing his authority."

Mr. Day recently argued that his 1984 comments were taken out of context, that he was merely representing the views of his fellow Christian-school advocates. What was the context?

Like many leaders on the religious right, Mr. Day began his political career as an advocate for independent Bible schooling. The 1980s were a heady time: Christian activists launched legal and political challenges across the United States to eliminate government involvement in the curriculum and operations of private Bible schools. Some of the largest battles, including a high-profile 1981 showdown at a Nebraska school, were fought for the same schooling program -- the Texas-based Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) -- that Mr. Day administered at his own Bible school in Bentley, Alta.

It didn't take long for American disputes to travel north. As The Edmonton Journal reported last May, Mr. Day won an intense, two-year battle in 1985 against Alberta's Ministry of Education while serving as school administrator for the Bentley Christian Centre. One former bureaucrat recalls that at a public task force to review Alberta's education act, "Mr. Day organized a protest which included numerous placard-waving individuals who seriously disrupted the meeting to the extent that private-school issues took precedence over other important matters."

In the end, the Bentley school won tacit recognition, although, according to former bureaucrats, it had operated illegally since 1979 when Mr. Day launched it as an ACE school. (Last June Mr. Day claimed, "The school was never illegal, not for one hour.")

Mr. Day's activism followed closely on the heels of the 1982 Keegstra affair, when a teacher from nearby Eckville was discovered to have taught anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to his students. The Keegstra controversy led to a government survey of schooling, chaired by former senator Ron Ghitter. In 1985, it found cause for concern with the general curriculum adopted by Bentley and other Alberta religious schools. While Mr. Ghitter's inquiry did not review lessons taught at specific schools such as Bentley, it found that the ACE program harboured "a degree of insensitivity towards blacks, Jews and natives."

At the time, Mr. Day was quick to insist that the teachings at the Bentley Christian Centre were neither anti-Semitic nor intolerant. "That is totally inaccurate and slanderous," he told one reporter in 1985. "We refer to the Jews as the Chosen People -- the materials are against anti-Semitism."

Mr. Day was correct in that fundamentalists generally advocate and teach Zionism as an expression of Biblical prophecy. A principal tenet is that a Jewish-occupied Israel will survive the destruction of Armageddon -- which, in turn, will herald the lasting peace of Christ's Second Coming. However, while Jews are designated as the Chosen People, there has often been an undercurrent within certain fundamentalist circles arguing that Jews believe in an imperfect faith -- "spiritually blind and desperately in need of their Messiah and Saviour," Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell said in 1980.

Behind the ACE program was a separatist religious ideology arguing that, on the basis of divine law, Christian institutions should supplant those of democratically elected governments. "The elimination of public education sounds irresponsible," wrote Donald Howard, founder of ACE, in his 1979 manifesto Rebirth of Our Nation, "unless one realizes that it is less than 100 years old, and it has not proven successful. Only our Gracious Lord knows how much responsibility must be placed upon the present humanistic governmental system for its subversion."

Robert Friedland, former regional director of the Alberta Human Rights Commission and former Alberta Report staffer, surveyed Alberta ACE material in 1984 and found a series of unusual passages within several student textbooks and manuals. In a 1984 Edmonton Journal article, he quoted one social-studies course at the junior high-school level: "As more and more people became ungodly," it argued, "the public-school teachers were not always Christian people and therefore taught evil things." Another passage asserted that democracies "represent the ultimate deification of man, which is the very essence of humanism and totally alien to God's word."

Mr. Friedland also quoted the now-famous ACE question that ambushed Mr. Day during the final Alliance leadership debate: "The Jewish leaders were children of their father, the devil (true or false)?" It was an unfair question because Mr. Day has never been quoted as saying anything remotely anti-Semitic, nor is there proof of such material being taught at his Bentley school. (The question itself was originally lifted from a quotation in the New Testament.) But why ACE chose this particular Bible passage remains a mystery. And by what criteria did ACE's Texas programmers add the far-right, anti-Semitic manifesto, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, to its current list of high-school recommended reading?

In fact, Mr. Day has yet to explain how the Bentley school managed to exclude itself from the sort of intolerant materials that have turned up in other places. Between 1979 and 1985, was there a special Bentley program?

Mr. Day should answer for his past partly because he continues to make religious education an important part of his platform. From his early days as an activist, to successful efforts to increase private-school funding in Alberta, to his recent promise to fund private religious schools across Canada, Mr. Day has made private schooling a priority. He'll need to convince voters that his plan for Canada will not follow the strident "God's-law-is-clear" ethos that, in an earlier era of religious activism, turned schools into battlegrounds that divided families and communities along matters of faith and morality. Gordon Laird is the author of Slumming It at the Rodeo: The Cultural Roots of Canada's Right-Wing Revolution (Douglas & McIntyre, 1998).

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