Obama, McCain and Canadian religious politics

By Dennis Gruending

barack_obama_300.jpgThe electoral marathon between Barack Obama and John McCain has provided a unique opportunity to compare and contrast how Canadians and Americans approach religion and politics. What is striking about the American campaign is the extent to which religion intrudes into the political sphere. Obama and McCain made only one joint television appearance prior to being nominated by their parties in the summer of 2008. They were interviewed not by an anchor for a major news network, but by Pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback mega church in Orange County, California. There were more than 5,000 church members in the audience and an unknown number of others watching the live broadcast at churches around the country.

Obama talked about his certainty that “Jesus Christ died for my sins, and I am redeemed through him.” McCain indulged in less God talk but did describe an encounter with a Vietnamese prison guard who discreetly revealed himself as a Christian when McCain was a prisoner of war. “For a minute there,” McCain said, “ there was just two Christians worshipping together.” John F. Kennedy, when he was a presidential candidate in the 1960s, said that, “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair.” Kennedy was a Catholic trying to allay fears being stoked by the Republicans that he would take his orders from the Vatican. Kennedy also said, “I believe in an American where the separation of church and state is absolute.” American politics have obviously changed since Kennedy’s time, as the pilgrimage to Saddleback would indicate.

With only a few exceptions, Canadian political leaders have dealt with their faith in a very different way. We know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an evangelical Christian but he is extremely guarded in what he says about his convictions. Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning says that evangelicals dare not speak about their faith publicly for fear of being ridiculed. Perhaps, but there is a long tradition of discretion among Canadian leaders when talking about their faith, or lack of it. They have understood how religious divisions could stir up controversy and ill will in a country where Anglophone Protestants and Francophone Catholics had to coexist. Wilfrid Laurier made a celebrated speech in which he stared down those (including bishops) who supported the creation of a “Catholic” political party in Quebec in the 1870s.

I am researching former prime ministers for a book that I am writing on political speeches. One can read stacks material on Sir John A. Macdonald without finding any comments by him about religion. The Quebec bishops and clergy regularly pilloried Laurier as a liberal and a revolutionary. He continued to attend mass but refused to be drawn into any public discussion about his personal religious convictions. We know that Lester Pearson’s father was a Methodist minister, that John Diefenbaker was a devout Baptist, that Pierre Trudeau, to the surprise of many, was a committed (but private) Catholic. CCF-NDP leader Tommy Douglas was an ordained minister who continued to make hospital visits even after becoming premier. All of these people chose to say very little about their faith although they were no doubt motivated by it.

It is difficult to imagine anyone in Canada summoning political party leaders, as Pastor Rick Warren did, to appear at an evangelical church to be interviewed. The reasons are both cultural and demographic. In Canada, evangelicals comprise only about eight to 10 per cent of the population, compared to 20 to 30 per cent in the U.S. Catholics in Canada account for more than 40 per cent of the population but it is also difficult to imagine a bishop interviewing the leaders. The task is much better left to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge or CTV’s Lloyd Robertson.

Much has been made in the American media about a new evangelical leadership coalescing around Pastor Warren and others. In the past 18 months, I have read articles with titles such as “The Evangelical Surprise” or “The New Evangelicals” in major U.S. magazines and newspapers. The thesis is that a new generation of leaders is replacing religious hardliners such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson. The new group is said to want to move away from the cultural wars and from a strict preoccupation with issues such as same sex marriage and abortion.  They want to add to those staples of the religious right their concerns about poverty, AIDS and climate change. There have been toxic battles within the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention over these questions. The emerging leadership is also said to be uncomfortable with the unwavering support provided by evangelicals to the Republicans since the days of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

The desire to become less vitriolic in posture, more inclusive on issues, and less predictably Republican was largely the result of disappointment with George W. Bush and the lack of a candidate of choice among Republican candidates for the presidency in 2008. Many evangelical leaders were lukewarm toward John McCain but much of that changed when he named Sarah Palin, a right wing Pentecostal, as his vice-presidential running mate. White evangelicals gave Bush 78 per cent of their vote in 2004 but it appeared that vote would soften in 2008. Palin’s appearance on the ticket appeared to solidify that vote again and it has ended, at least for now, most talk of a new evangelicalism concerned with a broader set of issues. A Pew Research Centre poll taken from October 23-26 reported that Obama was surging ahead across most voting blocs, but that McCain continued to lead among white evangelical Protestants by a margin of 65 to 22 per cent.

Evangelical churches in Canada lack the critical mass of those in the U.S. and have been less able, perhaps less willing, to become as deeply involved in a right wing political coalition. There is in Canada no apparent parallel to the divisive debate among evangelicals in the U.S. about whether to focus on a broader set of issues. A kit prepared by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada for the 2008 federal election dealt with tried issues such as abortion but also posed questions about climate change and poverty. Yet in recent elections Canadian evangelicals have been almost as ardent in support for the Conservatives as their American counterparts have been for the Republicans. In the January 2006 election, 64 per cent of evangelicals supported the Conservatives, compared to about 16 per cent who supported each of the Liberals and New Democrats. The Ipsos-Reid polling company promised to  undertake an exit poll following the 2008 Canadian election. We will soon know whether the vote among evangelicals in Canada this year mirrors that in the United States.

4 thoughts on “Obama, McCain and Canadian religious politics

  1. Kevin Phillips, in his magisterial book American Theocracy, nicely chronicles the history of evangelical involvement in American politics. As you note Dennis, the interesting divide this time is essentially over the meaning of Christianity in political terms. Major segments of the US evangelical community are biblical literalists laced with a fascination with apocalyptic scenarios. Anticipating the end times, they have little trouble endorsing an anything-goes free market, environmentally indifferent economic regime because what takes place in the here and now is of little consequence. There has been a retreat from and even revulsion with this stance by many fundamentalist-leaning Christians unable to ignore Christ’s anti-materialism, egalitarianism, and antipathy to greed. The lesson, I think, is that loose coalitions of intellectually rigid people are unlikely to hold up over time. Absolutist thinkers are rarely able to sustain a tolerant and inclusive political stance – even toward each other – because their beliefs are so entrenched. Cracks will inevitably show. Their ostensible unity is hard but brittle. Thank God!

    Comment from Dennis: Thanks Steven. I have read American Theocracy, published in 2006, and it is very good. In addition to religion, Phillips writes in this book about the oil crisis, the national debt and America’s “borrowed prosperity” — issues that have come home with a vengeance.  


  2. I had understood that one of the biggest changes in US politics over the past decade or so was not simply the intense involvement of evangelical Christians but the fact that the single issue push – primarily abortion – had assembled a voting coalition between right wing Catholics, Jews and evangelical Christians that broke down a traditional Democratic / Republican split.

    Is there any evidence that the move away from abortion and single issue politics by the evangelical Christians has weakened the coalition?

    Also, unless I have missed it, the Catholic Church appears to have backed off its emphasis on a single issue approach. Last election it was Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope) who authored the letter that led to John Kerry being refused communion (a move copied in Canada).

    Comment from Dennis: Thanks Daniel. I think it remains to be seen if evangelicals in the U.S. have broadened their agenda from a few issues such as abortion and same sex marriage to include other questions such as climate change and poverty. That struggle is still occurring within their organizations. There is also a competition occurring among Catholics. Bishops from Scranton, Pa., Dallas, and Forth Worth have ordered their priests to read out letters in church that say some activities, such as abortion and same sex marriage, are “intrinsically evil” and more important than any others. They say these issues are “non-negotaible” and that Catholics cannot vote for candidates who do not follow the church’s teaching. I lack the informaton to know if there are other bishops who have taken similar actions. This time around liberal Catholics, organized in groups such as Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance, have prepared alternative election guides emphasizing a broader spectrum of the church’s social justice teachings. The national bishops’ conference seems (wisely) to be more nuanced this year than they have been in the past, when they all but told Catholics to vote for George Bush. I would be interested to receive comments here from any readers who have information about the activities of either Catholics or evangelical groups in the American election.            


  3. Nicely written post. I had wanted to write a similarly themed one myself. Would you mind if I posted it at Eclectic Christian?

    Note from Dennis: I would be pleased if you post the piece. Please give me credit for it, and I would appreciate if you would mention my blog address.


  4. although I have not yet finished reading your entire body of work; what I have read,particularly as it pertains to U.S. political scene, is articulate and very germane to our 8 year nightmare under george W bush. Fortunately the Evangelical Right has been marginalized in the 2008 election.


Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: