Stephen Harper and evangelical voters, election 2008

By Dennis Gruending

harper_evangelicals.jpgAn exit poll conducted by Ipsos-Reid following the January 2006 Canadian election indicated that, outside of Quebec, people who attend regularly at evangelical churches were four times more likely to vote for the Conservatives than for Liberals or the New Democratic Party (NDP). This result was markedly different from that of Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose vote was divided much more evenly among the parties. A question in these waning days of the 2008 campaign is whether evangelicals will continue to provide overwhelming support to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. Evangelicals account for only eight to 10 per cent of the population but their vote could well be important in close election races, particularly in suburbs and smaller cities. A second significant question is how Catholics and mainline Protestants will distribute their vote.

Professor Barry Kay, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, says the large sample in the Ipsos-Reid poll makes it a useful analytical tool. The poll was able to show, for example, that the vote among mainline Protestants in the United and Anglican churches was similar to that of Catholics. Those Catholics who were frequent church frequent attenders gave 36 per cent of their vote to the Conservatives, 34 per cent to the Liberals and 24 per cent to the NDP. In the United Church, the numbers were 38 per cent, 34 per cent, and 23 per cent respectively. Interestingly, Catholic, United Church and Anglican adherents voted for the Conservatives in roughly the same ratio as the voting population as a whole. The vote by Catholic, Anglican and United Church adherents for the Liberals and the NDP was actually four to six percentage points higher than it was among voters as a whole.

The results among evangelical voters, however, were radically different. “It is among the smaller churches, many of them more conservative doctrinally,” Prof. Kay writes, “where there is a much stronger trend to voting Conservative, by proportions approaching 4 to 1 Conservative to Liberal in 2006.”  Among evangelicals, 63 per cent voted for the Conservatives, compared to 16 per cent for the Liberals and 17 per cent for the NDP. Prof. Kay said in a telephone interview that polling in both the U.S. and Canada has shown consistently that most evangelicals vote for the Republicans or the Conservatives. Polls undertaken by the Pew Forum, an American research institute, show that in the U.S. white evangelicals are the single most supportive constituency for the Republicans.

A flurry of American media stories in 2007 and early this year reported on divisions and a changing of the guard among evangelicals in the U.S. An emerging group of leaders wanted to embrace issues such as poverty and climate change in addition to the old staples such as abortion, same sex marriage, and the teaching of intelligent design (creationism) in schools. But Pew now reports that any such movement appears to have stalled. “The selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate and Catholic bishops’ criticism of Joe Biden’s comments on when life begins have increased the attention paid to culture war issues,” Pew says in a recent posting.

In this country, the largest evangelical organization is the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The EFC’s election kit pays attention to matters such as poverty and climate change, even as it maintains its traditional emphasis on issues such as abortion. There is no hint of nuance among other organizations, however, including the Canada Family Action Coalition, Campaign Life and a group called Defend Traditional Marriage and Family. They continue to insist that the issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and same sex marriage, are “non-negotiable” and should be ranked above all others in the political debate. It’s worth noting that these organizations are not members of the EFC.

Mr. Harper sees evangelicals and the religious right as essential to the conservative coalition that he wants to build. He has courted them by chopping women’s programs that many of his supporters considered feminist; shelving a universal child care program negotiated by the previous Liberal government and provincial-territorial leaders; allowing several private members bills to come forward regarding abortion; and presenting legislation to censor publicly-supported film projects that the government deemed morally offensive. These moves have, in turn, alienated Canadians who profess no religion, and many others who profess a more moderate and inclusive religious faith than that of religious conservatives. This is hurting Harper politically so he has taken to sending mixed messages. He promised during this campaign that he will not introduce or allow new legislation recriminalizing abortion. Following his recent ill-advised goading of the arts community, he has promised to withdraw his film censorship legislation.

If one is to believe right wing newspaper columnists and pundits, many religious conservatives feel betrayed. Rev. Alphonse de Valk, the editor of a magazine called Catholic Insight, says that Harper should be defeated in his riding and removed as Conservative party leader. David Warren, a self-described socially conservative columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, calls Harper “gutless” and predicts “there are several million electors of genuine conservative tendency who feel disenfranchised, and hesitate to vote for him even when the alternatives look worse.” This expressed disappointment could soften the social conservative and evangelical vote for the Conservatives on October 14. Religious conservatives may well conclude, however, that despite their disappointment with Harper the Conservatives remain a better option than the rest.

Churches that belong to KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition, are urging their members to focus on questions of social and economic justice. The organization has issued a four-page election resource kit that highlights poverty, aboriginal rights, peace and the environment, particularly climate change. KAIROS includes mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Catholic bishops, Quakers, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. They easily comprise a larger group than do the evangelicals, a gentle sleeping giant if you will. KAIROS makes no partisan declarations, but a close reading of the KAIROS election kit provides little succour for the Conservatives.

It is also possible that the frightening financial crisis will cause voting shifts that had not been anticipated. Ipsos-Reid is planning an exit poll of 15,000 voters following the election on October 14 so we will soon have new information about the relationship between our religious convictions and our voting preferences. If you have any information or even educated guesses about how the religious vote is likely to play out on October 14, please write about it in the Comments section below.

One thought on “Stephen Harper and evangelical voters, election 2008

  1. Hi Dennis,

    What you miss in your article is that the vote of evangelicals had a huge swing from previous elections, including the election of 2004. In 2004 there was only an six point difference in evangelical support between the conservatives (48%) and the liberals (42%). There were three factors that led the huge shift in evangelical support in 2006.

    1. The sponsorship scandal in general resulted in a general move from the liberals to the conservatives in the overall populace.

    2. The liberals vilifying the conservative MPs who were running for the conservatives.

    3. The issue of gay marriage was a key election issue in 2006.

    I think that any effort by liberals to remove these factors will result in a much typical split in evangelical votes that we saw in previous elections.

    Mike Bell


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