Stephen Harper, religion and 2008 election

harper_evangelicals.jpgBy Dennis Gruending 
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.  Mr. Harper, 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 comments that urge caution about polls and what is read into them. Bill Stahl, a sociologist from the University of Regina, writes: “It is true that the Evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly support the Tories, just as they supported the Alliance.  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.  There just aren’t enough Evangelicals in Canada to play the same kind of role as they do in the US.  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.  They maybe locally important, but national elections are decided by others.”

Marc Zwelling, president of Vector Research in Toronto, also cautions that some observers read too much into the evangelical vote. “You’re talking about a slim slice of the electorate. I am not convinced the religious right in Canada – being concentrated in a few ridings, probably – will have that much influence in federal elections.” Zwelling had this comment on the Catholic vote: “The Conservatives’ recent support from Catholics seems to be an artifact of the Conservatives’ growing support in Quebec – you get Catholic voters when you do better in Quebec but probably not because they’re Catholics.”

With those cautions in mind, let’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 two issues that really matter for churches and religious organizations. The religious right has been successful in framing the debate about “family values” around these two questions, and a few others. Mainstream organizations such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada  issued reasoned statements during the 2006 campaign, but  have invested much of their effort in court interventions opposing same sex marriage. Catholic clergy have denied full participation in the church to several Catholic NDP parliamentarians because of their party’s position on same sex marriage. Some Catholic bishops still threaten to deny the sacraments to any legislator who does not support the church’s position on abortion. No MP has been sanctioned, however, for supporting a war in Afghanistan – in fact, the bishops have had little of substance to say about that war.  

There are 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 “report card” 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.  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, an historian from Montreal and a former long-time officer of B’nai Brith, writes about how that organization has 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 B’nai Brith has thrown its weight behind the Conservatives.

What will religiously based organizations – mainstream and fringe – 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: “… so many children to educate … 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.”

There are religious organizations in Canada proposing action on those 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 “vote Christian”. The publication talked about public responsibility, taxes, poverty, homelessness, the environment, fairness for aboriginal people and the treatment of refugees. 

Thomas Frank, in his excellent book What’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. “Cultural anger,” writes Frank, ” is marshaled to achieve economic ends.” 

All too often religionists play along.



3 thoughts on “Stephen Harper, religion and 2008 election

  1. Most interesting, as usual.

    To my way of thinking, religion and patriotism are two ideologies that have been greatly abused by ultra right wing conservatives. Throughout the centuries they, especially religion, have been used to get popular support behind reprehensible actions. From the Crusades to the present wars for oil in the middle east, both ideologies have been abused to muster support for many of their causes by the ruling right wing elite.


  2. As a Catholic in the West, I think the hierarchy have been bamboozled by the Right. They hang around with wealthy business people and overlook how little the Conservatives respect Catholic principles on social justice, the environment, peace, capital punishment, etc. I find no scriptural (or Catholic) support for the appropriate level of taxes, which seems to be the major issue for the Conservatives. The hierarchy looks the other way on the big issues and tries to intimidate Catholic politicians who stray from their line on marriage or abortion. Where I live there is a lot of chatter in Church circles about “social values,” and I wonder if Marc Zwelling is right to attribue Catholic support for the Conservatives to Quebec.
    Keep up the good work.


  3. Dennis:

    An excellent article. I didn’t realize that Conservatives were that well organized in harnessing the religious right vote. It’s a carbon copy of what’s happening in the U.S. I was reading that Sarah Pallin belongs to a group of “dominionists” which are extremely right wing. They see nothing wrong with destroying those who oppose them. Absolutely total bigotry.


Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: