By Dennis GruendingÂ
Stephen Harper is poised to call a fall 2008 election whether Canadians need one or not. Pollster Andrew Grenville said that in 2006 the vote of evangelical Christians and Catholics who attend church services on a weekly basis was instrumental in the election of a Conservative minority government.Â Mr. Harper,Â MP Jason Kenney and others have continued to work assiduously to build a coalition of conservative Christian and Jewish voters. It will be interesting to monitor the messages of churches and various religious organizations in the coming campaign, and to see whether people in the pews take the advice of those who claim to lead them.
I have received some informative commentsÂ that urge caution about polls and what is read into them. Bill Stahl, a sociologist from the University of Regina, writes: â€œIt is true that the Evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly support the Tories, just as they supported the Alliance.Â What is different from the US is that in Canada Evangelical Protestants make up only 8% of the population, as opposed to 40% in the US.Â There just aren’t enough Evangelicals in Canada to play the same kind of role as they do in the US.Â That does not mean they cannot play a decisive role in an otherwise close election, but since they have voted overwhelmingly for the Alliance/Tories for some time they are not a place where the Tory vote is going to grow.Â They maybe locally important, but national elections are decided by others.â€
Marc Zwelling, president of Vector Research in Toronto, also cautions that some observers read too much into the evangelical vote. â€œYouâ€™re talking about a slim slice of the electorate. I am not convinced the religious right in Canada â€“ being concentrated in a few ridings, probably â€“ will have that much influence in federal elections.â€ Zwelling had this comment on the Catholic vote: â€œThe Conservativesâ€™ recent support from Catholics seems to be an artifact of the Conservativesâ€™ growing support in Quebec â€“ you get Catholic voters when you do better in Quebec but probably not because theyâ€™re Catholics.â€
With those cautions in mind, letâ€™s turn to what churches and religiously based organizations might say and do during the campaign. There is a common perception in society that same sex marriage and abortion are the twoÂ issues that really matter for churches and religious organizations. The religious right has been successful in framing the debate about â€œfamily valuesâ€ around these two questions, and a few others. Mainstream organizations such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of CanadaÂ issued reasoned statements during the 2006 campaign, butÂ have invested much of their effort inÂ court interventions opposingÂ same sex marriage. Catholic clergy have denied full participation in the church to several Catholic NDP parliamentarians because of their partyâ€™s position on same sex marriage. Some Catholic bishops still threaten to deny the sacraments to any legislator who does not support the churchâ€™s position on abortion. No MPÂ has been sanctioned, however,Â for supporting aÂ war in AfghanistanÂ â€“ in fact, the bishops have had little of substance to say about thatÂ war.Â Â
There areÂ other religiously based organizations that can make no claim to be widely representative. The Defend Marriage Coalition distributed a pamphlet in churches during the 2006 campaign. It was a bogus â€œreport cardâ€ on the policies of the various parties, and alleged that Liberal and NDP candidates “support physician-assisted suicide”, and that the NDP “supports defences for the possession of child pornography”. The Conservatives, however, were treated gently.Â Defend Marriage includes groups such as Campaign Life, Real Women of Canada, the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Canada Family Action Coalition, which is led by Charles McVety of Toronto. These groups would all have been considered on the right wing fringe a few years ago but are now being courted by the Harper Conservatives.
The Conservatives have also been courting a Jewish constituency whose over-riding priority is to have Canada support Israel. Dr. Stephen Scheinberg, anÂ historian from Montreal and a former long-time officer of Bâ€™nai Brith, writes about how that organization hasÂ forged an alliance with the Christian right, including McVety, who is also the Canadian chair of a group called Christians United for Israel. Scheinberg writes that Bâ€™nai Brith hasÂ thrown its weight behind the Conservatives.
What will religiously based organizations â€“ mainstream and fringe â€“ have to say in the coming campaign? Those who talk about family values might want to revisit the ones outlined by Senator Barack Obama in his recent convention speech in Denver: â€œ… so many children to educate â€¦ so many veterans to care for … an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save … so many families to protect and so many lives to mend.â€
There are religious organizations in Canada proposing action on thoseÂ values but they have had trouble getting noticed. During the 2006 campaign, Anglican and Lutheran leaders urged their church members to question candidates closely about putting a priority on the needs of children and families living in poverty. The United Church raised environmental issues and those of peace. Citizens for Public Justice, a small but effective religiously based organization issued a special election issue of its magazine discussing what it really means to â€œvote Christianâ€. The publication talked about public responsibility, taxes, poverty, homelessness, the environment, fairness for aboriginal people and the treatment of refugees.Â
Thomas Frank, in his excellent book Whatâ€™s The Matter With Kansas?, writes about how the Republicans fight every election on family values but once elected they deliver only on neo-conservative economic policies. â€œCultural anger,” writes Frank, â€ is marshaled to achieve economic ends.â€Â
All too often religionists play along.