The Harper Index

Religious conservative vote is becoming an electoral factor in Canada

Sixty-four per cent of weekly Protestant church attendees voted Conservative in the last election, the question is whether such votes are blips or an emerging trend in Canadian politics.

Canada Christian College President Charles McVety  is a longtime Harper supporter and advisor - CCCby Dennis Gruending

The vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a deciding factor in the election of a Conservative minority government in January 2006. The question now is whether that pronounced religious vote is a blip or an emerging reality in Canadian political life.

Andrew Grenville, a senior vice president with IPSOS-Reid in Toronto, led a survey of 36,000 voters via the internet for CanWest/Global on Jan. 23, 2006, the day of the general election. Grenville wrote about those results in the March-April 2006 edition of Faith Today, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He found that 64 per cent of weekly Protestant church attendees 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 mainline Protestants.

"In the predominantly English speaking parts of Canada, Protestants who attend church weekly embraced the Conservatives with a fervour never seen before," Grenville wrote. "Clearly, a line has been crossed and a population mobilized."

Grenville also found that, for the first time in recent memory, more Catholics who are regular church attendees voted for the Conservatives (42 per cent) than for the Liberals (40 per cent). This is significant because Catholics comprise almost half of the Canadian population. Catholics have always had a habit of voting Liberal and if that golden chain is broken, as Grenville says it was in 2006, the results could have a profound influence on Canadian society.

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. Writing in 1974, political scientist William Irvine said that the persistence of religious affiliation as a factor in voting behaviour had come to be treated by academics "as a moderately interesting, but strikingly peculiar, house guest who has overstayed his welcome." That house guest may have been shown the door, but it would appear he that he has returned-if ever he left.

Interest in the connection between religion and voting behaviour 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 André Blais of the University of Montreal and Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University. Their excellent work, at least that relating to religious affiliation and voting, has not yet registered in the media or popular consciousness.

Blais spoke at the 2005 annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association. He said that religious cleavage remains important in Canadian elections and it has not significantly weakened over time. He summarized years of research by various academics, saying 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 such strong support to the Liberals. Jokingly, he suggested "the creation of a special prize for the individual or team that solves the mystery."

Blais does not claim that Canadians are blindly captive to their religion or that they are incapable of distinguishing between the merits of different parties. But there is something about being a Catholic that has predisposed voters to support Liberals. Catholics have traditionally lent similar support to Democrats in the U.S. although they shifted much of that support to George W. Bush and the Republicans in the 2000 election.

Blais and his colleagues found that in the Canadian election of 2000, 54 per cent of Catholics (and 72 per cent of Canadians of non-European origin) voted Liberal, and this in a contest that featured five competing parties. But the CES researchers began to see a slippage in the Catholic vote for Liberals in the 2004 election, which reduced the Liberals to minority status. The CES researchers claim, unlike Grenville, that in 2006 Catholics remained "more likely" to prefer Liberals to Conservatives but "were not the bedrock of Liberal support that they were during the years of Liberal dominance."

There is also something about being an evangelical Protestant that predisposes voters to support the Conservatives or fringe 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, Blais, Gidengil and their fellow 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. 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." This was an observation, verging on a warning that something new has arrived in Canadian politics.

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.

When the CES researchers dissected the 2006 election results, they focused, in part, on the "gender gap." They found that women were less likely to vote for the Conservatives and more likely to vote for the NDP than are men, a trend that had also described voting patterns for the Reform and Alliance parties in previous elections. But the 2006 research also found that the 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."

Tellingly, 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."

These trends have been building for years but have gone largely unnoticed by pundits and the academe. The religious right is on the rise in Canada. Evangelical Christians remain a religious minority but they are growing in power and political influence. Mainline Protestantism, as represented in the United, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches, has been in decline. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals, who once disliked and mistrusted one another, are now engaged in a growing collaboration. Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, publicly funded childcare and a resistance to various social programs.

The Harper Conservatives are assiduously courting evangelicals and Catholics (as well as Jewish voters) to join their political coalition and it has begun to alarm other parties. Even the New Democrats, who long ago drifted away from their religious roots, are attempting to mobilize a religious constituency on their own behalf. The social gospel tradition lives on in people such as MP Bill Blaikie and Saskatchewan's Premier Lorne Calvert, both United Church ministers, but that flame burns weakly in contemporary Canada. Progressive Christians - in Protestant, Catholic, and even some evangelical congregations - have been marginalized in recent years and are now struggling to have their voices heard by politicians and the Canadian public.

Canadian trends often lag behind those in the U.S. The American religious right has been an important political player for the past 25 years. The movement has consolidated and grown in its sophistication during that time. Religious conservatives in this country are well on their way to doing the same thing. They have a sympathetic ear in the Harper halls of power and a wide swath of the evangelical movement is both pleased and comfortable with the Conservatives in office. The religious and cultural wars that have enveloped the United States since at least the time of Ronald Reagan have arrived in Canada and they may well intensify.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa author and former NDP member of Parliament from Saskatchewan. He may be contacted at dennis.gruending@sympatico.ca. This article originally ran in The Hill Times on September 3, 2007.

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