By Dennis Gruending
The religious right in Canada is growing in power and influence but that development appears to be news to many political scientists and pundits. As mentioned in this space last week, I presented a paper on the religious right to a conference at the University of Western Ontario early in May (see http://www.pulpitandpolitics.ca/). In the United States, religious conservatives have been important political actors for the past 30 years and there is a good deal of research and writing about it. We in Canada have paid less attention. In fact, a number of respected academics believe that there is no identifiable religious right in this country, at least not in overtly political terms.
Some researchers argue that religious conservatives in Canada are gentler and less political than their political cousins south of the border. Others contend that religious conservatives spread their vote among political parties and that even if they didnâ€™t, there are not enough of them to make that much of a difference in the voting booth. Political scientist Jonathon Malloy of Carleton University is among those who make that argument. Itâ€™s time to revisit certain of these assumptions. Religious conservatives may account for only a minority of Canadaâ€™s voters and they are distributed among diverse denominations. But groups that are organized and committed can have a significant impact on public life, particularly in an era of fractured parliaments and minority governments. My conclusions are based upon not only upon what I have read, seen or heard but also upon my experience as a candidate in four federal elections and time spent as a Member of Parliament.
The growing influence of the religious right manifests itself in several ways, including religiously driven voting behaviour. A large exit poll taken on Election Day (January 23, 2006) indicated that the vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church weekly was a decisive factor in the election of a Conservative minority government. One can argue that a poll of that sort is only a snapshot, but there is also longer-term work being done as well. A group of researchers have collaborated in a project called the Canadian Election Study, investigating how people have voted in the past four federal elections. They have found that religious conservatives â€“ evangelicals and increasingly Catholics — have shown an inclination to support the Reform, Alliance and now the Conservative party. One informed journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery estimates that at least half of Stephen Harperâ€™s 98-member caucus are religious conservatives.
A second indicator of mounting influence is the growing cooperation among conservative Christians, particularly in evangelical and Catholic churches, based on a shared agenda anchored in opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, publicly funded childcare and other social programs. Derek Rogusky heads the socially conservative Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and the Family Canada. The group has been deeply involved in research, messaging and lobbying on a number of political issues, most notably the same sex marriage legislation. Rogusky says, â€œWeâ€™re seeing a real coalescing of between evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Weâ€™re starting to see them engage in issues much more than they did 10 years ago.â€
A third indicator of growing influence is the expanding network of advocacy and lobby groups aimed at influencing public policy and changing the intellectual climate in Canada. Many of these groups have come into being in the past four or five years. In Ottawa they include: the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (mentioned above); the Institute for Canadian Values; the National House of Prayer and 4 My Canada, self-described religiously conservative youth group. One can add to this Ottawa-based list a variety of other organizations across the country: the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy, the Work Research Foundation, Watchmen of the Nations; the Centre for Cultural Renewal; the Christian Family Action Coalition, led by Reverend Charles McVety of Toronto; and a group called Equipping Christians for the Public-square Centre, a St. Catharines-based organization that describers its members as â€œapologists for social conservative Christians.â€
A fourth indicator of growing influence is access by the religious right to those in the halls of power, particularly since the election of the Conservative minority government.Â â€œThereâ€™s a great sense of relief among many in these circles that the Conservatives are in power,â€ according to Doug Koop, the editor of Christianweek, a Winnipeg-based church newspaper. â€œFor the first time in 10 years Christians and people of faith that have cared about issues such as marriage and families are expecting to be heard on Parliament Hill, and not necessarily attacked for their values.â€ Not long ago some of these groups would have been considered on the right wing fringe but they now appear to be courted by the Harper government. This apparent cultivation raises questions about how much influence religious conservatives have with the prime minister. Mr. Harper may be more of a social than a religious conservative, although we are not sure about that. We do know that he is determined to embed the religious right in a political coalition that will put a Conservative majority government into power and keep it there.
There is little doubt that the power and influence of the religious right is growing. The question is whether this represents a blip or a longer-term trend. There is no way of predicting the future. Individuals and groups obtain influence by exercising social and political agency. Churches and religious organizations are not monolithic in their thinking and action. Progressive Christians — in Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical congregations — have been marginalized in recent years but are now struggling to have their voices heard by politicians and the Canadian public. Religion appears poised to play a larger role upon the public stage in the foreseeable future than has been the case for a good number of years but no one can easily predict the outcome.