On May 2, 2011 Canadians held a federal election that provided Stephen Harper and the Conservatives with a majority government. I wrote a piece for my blog at the time reviewing the election through a religious lens and making some predictions about how Harper might act with a majority. That blog entry also became the first essay in a book, called Pulpit and Politics that was published in October 2011. Take a look at my analysis and predictions below and decide how accurate they have been. (I mentioned, for example, that we might expect Conservative backbenchers to continue bringing forward private member’s bills and motions that could curtail a woman’s right to abortion – that happened again just this week).
Stephen Harper has won his long-coveted majority government, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by Ipsos Reid on May 2 yielded some predictable results based on the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises.
One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a figure far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.
Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal, or Bloc Quebecois Parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.
Catholics had moved to the Conservatives in significant numbers in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but that trend may now be in question. Of course, a big story in the 2011 election was the huge losses endured by the Liberals. They had long been the party of choice for Catholics in Canada, but their poor overall performance in the 2011 election was also reflected in the party’s results among the Catholic constituency. The Catholic vote is now up for grabs and the stakes are high. Catholics constitute more than 40 per cent of the Canadian population.
A third observation based on the Ipsos Reid exit poll is that the Conservatives did well among Jewish voters in the 2011 election but that they did poorly among Canadian Muslims. Among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and only 16 per cent who voted NDP. The Harper government has courted Jewish voters by offering uncritical support for Israel, replacing the more balanced policy toward Israel of previous Liberal administrations.
Jewish voters have in the past been strong supporters of the Liberals, but Conservatives have been eating into that support for several elections. It is worth noting, however, that Jewish voters are not of one mind because almost half of them did not vote Conservative in 2011.
There is another reason for the Conservatives to be cheerleaders for Israeli government policies. A committed fringe element of Christian fundamentalists is the Christian Zionists, who believe that Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled by the creation of Israel and its hegemony in the Middle East. In supporting Israel’s government, the Conservatives play to both Christian fundamentalists and some Jewish voters. Early during the election campaign a series of gatherings occurred in four Canadian cities. They were thinly disguised political events and featured former Conservative MPs Stockwell Day and Jim Abbott among their guest speakers, and they supported Israeli government actions at every turn.
Conservatives and Israel
We can expect more of the same from the Conservatives regarding Israel. Following the election in May, Prime Minister Harper stood alone among G8 leaders meeting in France in his opposition to the release of a joint statement calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 Six-Day War.
Harper is isolating Canada internationally and he also forfeits the vote of Muslim Canadians, but that is a price he appears prepared to pay. Among those Canadian voters who identified as Muslims, only 12 per cent voted Conservative. Significantly, 46 per cent of them voted Liberal in an election where the party’s vote dropped to historic lows.
The NDP received 38 per cent of the Muslim vote, and presumably the party will attempt to improve on that performance. There are three times as many Muslims as there are Jews in Canada, but the Muslim groups are not as well established and influential as those of the Jewish population. Christians, of course, account for the bulk of the Canadian population. Statistics Canada reports that more than 75 per cent of Canadians identify themselves as Christians.
A fourth observation regarding the Ipsos Reid exit poll deals with the growing political polarization between voters who identify as religious and those who say they have no religion. The Conservatives drew the support of 50 per cent of those voters who said they attended a church or temple at least once a week. The NDP received the support of only 24 per cent of that group.
Many polls taken at different times in both Canada and the US indicate that regular church attenders are more likely to vote Conservative (or Republican) than are people who attend a church less often. The reasons why would merit a chapter on their own but likely mean that people in closely knit groups tend to influence one another in voting behaviour, in this case in a conservative direction. On the other hand, the NDP won the vote of 42 per cent of the “no religion” group of voters in the 2011 election, while the Conservatives received only 27 per cent of that vote.
The coming polarization promises to be both religious and political. The NDP is a social democratic party that trends to the left of the Liberals and certainly to the left of the Conservatives. It has a strong base among people who profess no religion, as well as considerable support among those religionists — Protestant, Catholic, and other — who attend church less often. The Conservatives have strong support among frequent attenders, particularly Evangelical Protestants, Christian fundamentalists, and Jews.
Some suggest that Harper is more of a social than a religious conservative. He promised during the 2011 campaign that he would not allow the abortion debate to be reopened and he appears to have put the issue of same-sex marriage behind him in the previous Parliament.
It is worth noting, however, that Conservative backbenchers continued to bring forward private member’s bills that could curtail a woman’s right to abortion. We can expect religious conservatives to keep applying pressure, even as they continue to support Harper as their preferred alternative.
I received, by way of example, an automated telephone call late in the campaign from Jim Hughes, chairman of the Campaign Life Coalition, asking me to support the Conservative candidate in an Ottawa riding. Shortly after the election in May, a National March for Life event drew about 10,000 people to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Their clear message to the Harper government was that the abortion debate is on again.
No action on poverty
Religious progressives should not expect to see action from this government on abolishing poverty, mitigating climate change, or pursuing nuclear deterrence, which are issues promoted by some mainstream religious groups. They, too, will have to decide on their strategies. The next four years promise to be intense, and progressives — religious and secular — will have to decide how to respond if, as expected, Harper attempts to move the country sharply to the right.