By Dennis Gruending
Stephen Harper and the Conservatives won election in Canada with a minority government just over two years ago. The vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in that election. The question now is whether that was a blip or an emerging reality in Canadian political life.
Andrew Grenville, then a senior vice president with IPSOS-Reid, conducted a web-based poll of 36,000 voters on Election Day — January 23, 2006. He found that 64 per cent of weekly Protestant church attenders voted for Conservative candidates. By definition, the majority of those Protestant voters were evangelicals because they are much more likely to attend church weekly than are mainline Protestants. In contrast, Grenville reported that Protestants who attend once a month or less showed no real change in their voting habits. “As usual about 45 percent voted Conservative — that shows no great affinity for the new right.”
Grenville also found that for the first time in recent memory, more Catholics who are weekly church attenders voted for the Conservatives (42 per cent) than for the Liberals (40 per cent). Traditionally, there is something about being a Catholic that has predisposed voters to support Liberals. If that golden chain is broken, as it was in 2006, the results could have a profound influence on future Canadian elections.
There was once serious scholarship about the relationship between religious affiliation and voting preference. But most academics and journalists came to believe that secularism reigns and that organized religion, not to mention private religious conviction, has become largely irrelevant in influencing voting or any other behaviour. But interest is reviving. A group of Canadian academics has collaborated in a project called the Canadian Election Study (CES) to explain how people have voted and why in the past four federal elections. The investigators, among others, include AndrÃ© Blais of the University of Montreal and Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University.
Speaking in 2005, Blais said that religious cleavage remains important in Canadian elections and it has not significantly weakened over time. He said, as well, that the core strength of Liberals outside of Quebec consistently “hinges on the support of Catholics and Canadians of non-European origin.” Blais added that no one knows why Catholics have traditionally provided their support to the Liberals.Â Jokingly, he suggested “the creation of a special prize for the individual or team that solves the mystery.”
Blais and his CES colleagues found that 54 per cent of Catholics supported the Liberals in the Canadian election of 2000. But the CES researchers noted a slippage in the Catholic vote for Liberals in the 2004 election, which reduced the party to minority government status.
There is also something about being an evangelical Protestant that predisposes support for the Conservatives or for other right wing parties such as Social Credit. With the arrival of Preston Manning and the Reform Party in the late 1980s, evangelicals had a new option. Religious historian John Stackhouse wrote that, “Not one but two political parties (Reform and Christian Heritage) were formed with evangelical support in the late 1980s and fielded dozens of candidates in the federal election of 1988.” Manning is an avowed and proud evangelical Christian. Reform and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, have struck a continuing chord with evangelicals.
After the 2004 election, the Canadian Election Study researchers reviewed the elections of 1993, 1997 and 2000. They were struck by the extent to which the Reform-Alliance and NDP votes were polarized along fundamental ideological lines. “The NDP did best among secular voters who take liberal positions on issues relating to sexual mores and lifestyles, while the Conservatives fared best with moral traditionalists,” the CES researchers reported. “Given the importance of Christian fundamentalism in Conservative voting, the 2004 election could mark, not the return of brokerage politics, but a foreshadowing of the cultural divisions that are appearing in U.S. elections.”
In the U.S., white evangelical Protestants comprise the single most loyal constituency for the Republicans. Their vote held even in the mid-term elections of 2006, when the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Republican candidates received support from 54 per cent of voters who identified themselves as weekly churchgoers and from 70 per cent of white evangelicals, just slightly less than the 74 per cent who supported Republican candidates in 2004.
The CES researchers also focused on the “gender gap” in the 2006 election. They found that women were less likely to vote for the Conservatives than are men. But the 2006 gender gap would have been even wider had it not been for the vote of religious women. “Clearly,” the CES researchers wrote, “any understanding of the gender gap in Conservative voting has to take account of the powerful effect of being a Protestant who believes that the Bible is the word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” The research team also concluded that “being a Protestant fundamentalist is the single most important predictor of a Conservative vote in our models. Like the party’s western base, this is an important element of continuity between the Alliance and the new Conservative party.”
The support of Canadian evangelicals for right wing parties comes as no surprise to political scientist David Laycock. “With their evangelical Christian leaders,” Laycock wrote, “Reform and the Alliance have also appealed to social and moral conservatives uncomfortable with what they have seen as an over-secularized society. Such voters have worried about the threats both to the traditional family and to citizens’ sense of personal responsibility that they attribute to the modern Canadian welfare state.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are courting evangelicals, Catholics, and Jewish voters to join their political coalition and it has begun to alarm other parties. The New Democrats, for example, have created a Faith and Justice Commission in an attempt to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf. The social gospel tradition lives on in people such as MP Bill Blaikie, a United Church minister, and social Catholicism continues to be represented by MPs such as Charlie Angus, Joe Comartin and Tony Martin. But that flame is burning only weakly in contemporary Canada.
MP Martin told the Faith and Justice Commission in December 2007 that there is a faith-based social justice initiative building in the U.S. “They recognize that all of their big movements, including the civil rights movement, have been rooted in religious traditions, he said. “We have to try and do what they are doing.”
Canadian trends often lag behind those in the U.S. The American religious right has been an important political player for the past 30 years. Religious conservatives in Canada areÂ on their way to doing the same thing. But progressive Christians, in Protestant, Catholic, and even some evangelical congregations, are struggling to have their voices heard as well.