Concerns about the religious right overstated

If you’re familiar with Frances Russell’s columns in the Winnipeg Free Press, you’ll know that she’s definitely not a fan of Prime Minister Stephen Harper or his Conservative government.

She’s even less fond of the party’s socially conservative sub-sect, a group with which Harper — who is an evangelical Christian — is likely to sympathize with.

In the Feb. 10 edition of the Free Press, Russell wrote:

All of these actions underscore the power and influence the religious right enjoys within the Conservative party. Last December, the Toronto Star’s Linda Diebel reported that two pillars of the movement — evangelist Darrell Reid of Focus on the Family and Christian educator Paul Wilson — now hold key positions in Harper’s PMO, Reid as Harper’s deputy chief of staff and Wilson as director of policy.

Concerns that the religious right might be using the Conservative Party to bring a hardline social agenda to Canada are nothing new. More than three years ago, Marci McDonald wrote a lengthy essay in The Walrus, titled “Stephen Harper and the Theo-Cons”, exploring the role of Christian conservatives within the Conservative Party.

There are also memories of the former Reform Party/Canadian Alliance, which contested the 1988, 1993, 1997 and 2000 elections on socially conservative platforms. The Canadian Alliance (as the Reform Party was known after 2000) merged with the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003 to form the modern-day Conservative Party.

Are the fears that we’ll eventually be subjected to the same “culture war” as the U.S. has been over the past 30 years realistic? Or is this all just a big misunderstanding?

Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote in the American Review of Canadian Studies journal this past December that “…we should not assume that Canada will see anywhere near the visibility and influence of the American Christian Right.”

In the article, titled “Bush/Harper: Canadian and American Evangelical Politics Compared” (and in a 2004 paper), Malloy noted that Canada and the United States have vastly different political systems and religious traditions, and cited research from 2002 showing that Canada’s evangelical community (10% to 12% of the population) is much smaller than it is in the United States (25% to 33% of the population).

Malloy also noted that, within Canada, the Christian Right is weaker than more moderate Christian groups, and that the relationship between Canadian and American religious conservatives is “weak and highly overstated”.

The available evidence tends to support Malloy’s conclusions.

Take the following graph for example. This was taken from the 2005-06 wave of the World Values Survey , in which both Canadians and Americans were asked a wide range of questions about their lives and how they view the world. Among those Canadians and Americans who said that religion was a “very important” part of their lives, religious Canadians showed themselves to be considerably more liberal than their American counterparts:

• Religious Canadians had considerably more positive opinions about women’s organizations and environmental protection groups.

• Religious Canadians were more likely than religious Americans to say that they were happy with both their lives and their households’ financial situation.

• Religious Canadians were much more likely than religious Americans to say that government assistance for the unemployed is an important part of democracy, and that they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to increase foreign aid commitments. Religious Canadians were also slightly more likely to see themselves as world citizens.

• More than one-half of religious Canadians said that having a strong leader is a “very bad” thing for a country, compared to one-third of religious Americans.

• Religious Canadians showed themselves to be less hung up over gays and lesbians than religious Americans.

• Religious Canadians were apprehensive about the idea of people with strong religious beliefs running for public office, and were less likely than religious Americans to be members of a political party.

Canada simply does not provide much fertile ground for social conservatives to set up the political network that they’ve set up for themselves in the United States. The U.S. religious right was, first of all, a beneficiary of America’s huge population: all that a political movement needs to clear $10 million in annual revenues is to convince one person in 3,600 to donate $10 per month to the cause. The same success rate in Canada would bring in just $1.13 million in revenues — which would leave far less for lobbying and campaigning after overhead costs are covered.

The fact that religious Canadians are more likely to be happy with their lives and with their household finances than religious Americans is also important.

“The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said. “I do not mean that if you are good, you will be happy. I mean that if you are happy, you will be good.”

People who are content with their lives are notoriously difficult to recruit into revolutions: if you’re happy with your life, why would you hold a grudge against women’s movements, environmentalists, immigrants, homosexuals, east coast elitists, west coast elitists or the liberal media?

If relatively liberal religious Canadians don’t provide a strong base on which the religious right can grow, then what about the Conservative Party?

As this blog pointed out last August, there are some major differences in attitude between Conservative voters in Canada and Republican voters in the U.S.

On the eight issues where percentage differences were shown, there was an average of a 18 percentage point difference between Canadian Conservatives and U.S. Republicans, versus a 5-point average difference between Canadian Conservatives and U.S. Democrats, and an 8-point average difference between Canadian Conservatives and U.S. Independents.

In that sense, Canadian Conservative voters are more closely related to American Democrats and Independents than they are to the Republicans.

The Conservative Party will face changes in the years ahead that will push it even further away from the GOP as it exists today. As the following graph shows, based on results from the 2008 Canadian Election Study, younger Conservative voters born since 1965 showed themselves to have somewhat more liberal attitudes than older Conservatives:

• Younger Conservative voters are less bothered by bilingualism

• Younger Conservative voters are less likely to say that newer lifestyles are leading to social breakdown and to accept same-sex marriage

• Younger Conservative voters are less partisan — they seldom join or donate money to parties, and they’re more likely to keep their preferences to themselves

• Younger Conservative voters are even more likely to welcome government intervention in the economy

In short, these younger Conservative voters have much less affinity for the core values of the former Reform Party. As the older supporters of the former Reform Party move on into the last years of their lives and beyond, this younger generation will exercise a growing influence on the Conservative Party.

Finally, there is the reality that the Conservative Party won the 2008 election with the support of a substantial number of non-conservatives. Of those who voted Conservative in the 2008 election, the Canadian Election Study found, nearly one-quarter said that they usually consider themselves non-partisans or Liberals. The Conservatives’ electoral fortunes will continue to be shaped by the willingness of these non-conservatives to stay in the tent — which will make any ideological revolutions difficult to pull off.

With neither a strong base among religious Canadians nor within the Conservative Party (or any other federal party for that matter), the religious right faces limited growth prospects within Canada.

Even if the prime minister sees himself as an ally of their cause, every prime minister is ultimately just a temporary occupant of the job, the average life expectancy of a newly elected federal or provincial government being only nine years.

Given the differences in values between younger and older Conservative voters, it is reasonable to believe that the Conservative Party of the future will bear even stronger resemblance to the former Progressive Conservatives than to the former Reform Party/Canadian Alliance.

It’s also important to note that if people of faith were to exercise more influence in our politics, it would be in a much different way than we’ve seen in the United States.*

Religious Canadians have shown that their priorities include human rights and equality, protecting the environment and assisting the less fortunate — causes that Canadians from all walks of life except for the ideological fringes would feel comfortable supporting. Their Canada does not include the shrill partisanship or the bashing of “femi-nazis”, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, immigrants or the welfare state that has become par for the course among segments of the U.S. Republican Party.

They are, first and foremost, Canadians with Canadian sensibilities.

No one need to stay awake at night worrying about the possibility of a theocracy in Canada — which no one alive in Canada today will ever see in this country.

Nor need the participation of religious Canadians in our politics be feared. Governments do a better job when they hear from people from all walks of life, and Canada is a big enough and magnanimous country for everyone to express their differing views and then go have a beer together.


Sources: World Values Survey; Canadian Election Study 2008 (weighted by gender and province); J. Malloy, American Review of Canadian Studies, Dec. 2009

* – The U.S. religious right model does not export itself well. Religious right organizations in Australia, Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand have had only about as much success in those countries as in Canada, having been able to get some media attention and sufficient funding to keep a small operation running. Their influence, however, is no greater than any other lobby group, and pales in comparison to the influence that the religious right has in the United States.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Concerns about the religious right overstated

  1. unclebob says:

    I wonder if that lack of political activity within Canada’s evangelical community might be changing .
    When we see large chunks of particular tribes jumping in during a leadership race (local example Selinger/Ashton) perhaps other tribes may wade in also if for no other reason than to even up the outcomes.
    If the pastors of two or three large evangelical communities within Winnipeg gave their folks encouragement to dive in – WOW nothing like fervour on steroids.

  2. Disinterested Observer says:

    So, good on the theocratic right for keeping their paws off our national government, and good on Frances Russell for doing her best to keep it that way.

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