Canadian evangelical voting trends

By Dennis Gruending

Don HutchinsonThere is much speculation about when we will have a federal election in Canada. Columnist Sheila Copps, a former MP, predicts that it will be before the snow flies. For who will people identifying themselves as belonging to a religion cast their votes? This is a question that most pundits and academics did not bother to ask for many years because they thought it was irrelevant, but that is changing. A new study called Canadian Evangelical Voting Trends by Region, 1996–2008 looks into the recent voting behaviour of evangelicals. The authors, Don Hutchinson and Rick Hiemstra are both associated with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).

The study begins on a defensive note, saying that some journalists and researchers borrow the concept of a “religious right” from the United States and apply it to Canadian evangelicals in an attempt to show that they form a “right leaning voting block”. Hutchinson and Hiemstra say those researchers exhibit a “misunderstanding of the changes in evangelical voting intentions [in Canada] over the past decade.” They include me as being among those who are attempting to force an American template on Canadian reality and of being one of those who does not understand. They cite, in a footnote, a paper that I delivered to an academic conference in 2008. Actually, they appear to misunderstand what I wrote. I do believe that there is a religious right in Canada but it not comprised only of evangelicals. It includes many evangelicals, to be sure, but also right wing Catholics, some Jews and others. Given that more than 40% of Canadians identify themselves as Catholics, the voting intentions of that group are potentially more significant than those of evangelicals, who comprise about 10% of the population. Hutchinson and Hiemstra focus on evangelical voters while my interest has been more broadly based.

Evangelicals voting Conservative

Beyond their initial observation about other researchers, Hutchinson and Hiemstra have a two-fold thesis. They admit that there has, indeed, been a growing support among evangelicals for the Conservatives and other parties of the right during the past decade, but they say this trend mirrors a growing support among other Canadian voters as well. In other words, evangelicals aren’t all that different in the way they vote. Secondly, they argue that evangelicals are more upset with the Liberals than they are predisposed to the Conservatives. Hutchinson and Hiemstra write, “The Liberal Party repeatedly tried to marginalize Evangelicals for short-term electoral gain, mocking their beliefs and styling those beliefs as a danger to ‘Canadian values.’” Since there is no disclaimer here, I must assume that they are speaking on behalf of the EFC when they describe the Liberals in this way.

To support their analysis of voting behaviour, the authors draw upon a series of electoral polls done by Ipsos-Reid and Angus Reid Strategies over the years. Those polls measure the voting intentions of individuals, and in other cases use exit polls to ascertain how individuals actually did vote, controlling for their religious affiliation.

Hutchinson and Hiemstra do not provide national data but rather focus on regional voting patterns. They admit that the poll samples were so small as to be potentially unreliable in Quebec (where there are few evangelicals) and in the sparsely populated Atlantic provinces.

Regional breakdowns

Let’s look, using Hutchinson and Hiemstra’s data, at how evangelicals voted in the 2006 and 2008 elections. In Western Canada, 69% of evangelicals voted for the Conservatives in 2006, compared to 49% among all voters. In the 2008 election, 71% of Western evangelicals voted Conservative, compared to 42% among all voters. These are 20% and 29% spreads respectively and represent a massive advantage for the Conservatives.

In Ontario, the Ipsos-Reid exit poll in the 2006 election showed that 55% of evangelicals voted for the Conservatives, compared to 35% among all voters, a 20-point spread. In 2008, Ipsos Strategies surveyed voting intentions prior to the election. Hutchinson and Hiemstra calculate that on Election Day “almost half [50%] of Ontario Evangelicals could be presumed to have supported the Conservatives.” The authors conclude that this decline in Ontario evangelical support, from 55% to 50%, is evidence that “Conservative evangelical support levels seem to have stalled or retreated from their 2006 highs.” Perhaps, but having 50% of evangelicals vote for the Conservatives in an election contested by three major parties and the Greens represents a huge advantage for the Conservatives.

In Quebec, 45% of evangelicals voted Conservative in 2006, compared to 25% among all voters, a 20-point advantage. In 2008, because of the small sample, the authors do not attempt to provide a comparable number for Quebec. In the Atlantic provinces, again with small samples, 54% of evangelicals voted Conservative in 2006 compared to 35% among all voters, a 19-point spread.  In 2008, the authors estimate that 30% of Atlantic evangelicals voted Conservative compared to 19% among all voters, an 11-point advantage.

Hutchinson and Hiemstra reach the following conclusion based on their research: “While the voting tracks of Canadian Evangelicals and their regional neighbours still run more or less parallel, they have moved farther apart in 2008 than they were in 1996.” This is really quite an understatement. They go on to say that, “As of 2008 the growth in evangelical support for the Conservative Party appears to either have  reached a plateau or begun to decline.” I would argue, using the authors’ own numbers, that in 2008 the Conservatives remained overwhelmingly the party of choice for evangelical voters, particularly in Western Canada (71%) and in Ontario (50%). In fact, I would, indeed, characterize the Western Canadian and Ontario evangelical vote on behalf of the Conservatives in 2006 and 2008 as a “right-leaning voting block.”

Evangelicals and Liberals

I want now to return to the claim that evangelicals are not so much attracted by the Conservatives as they are repelled by the Liberals, who the authors say have ridiculed evangelicals for short-term political advantage and attempted to marginalize them and even to portray them as “un-Canadian”. The authors provide no evidence for this claim other than their own opinions and in one case an anecdote from radio talk show host Michael Coren. The authors recognize this deficiency, although they give it only a passing reference: “While the data are not available to tell us definitively why evangelical voter support for the Liberal Party fell off rapidly,” they write, “the most plausible explanation is a reaction to the party’s electoral tactics.” The authors provide six narrative examples of what they describe as “Liberal attempts to marginalize Evangelicals and stifle dissent for political gain…”

Among those examples is the Liberals’ handling of legislation regarding same sex marriage. By 2002, the courts had begun to rule that the existing definition of marriage was unconstitutional, or, described in another way, that the laws must be changed to allow for same sex marriage.  The authors say: “The government chose not to appeal the [court] decision and announced it would introduce legislation to redefine marriage. . . and the government became an advocate for the redefinition of marriage, contending same-sex marriage was a human rights issue and required by the Charter.”

Same sex marriage was (and remains) a contentious public policy issue but I fail to see why the Liberal government’s acting in accordance with the court rulings should be understood as an insult to evangelicals. To use a parallel example, many Christians are opposed to Canada’s war in Afghanistan, but should they consider themselves to be personally insulted because the Conservative government has not stopped waging the war?

The authors conclude that, “The Canadian Evangelical vote is currently fluid.” It is perhaps less fluid than they suggest, but I do agree that we cannot predict the future. Individuals and groups obtain influence by exercising what the sociologists describe as “agency.” We are not merely spectators in history but can have an impact on it. 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 of that activity.

I will, in a future posting, comment upon another study of religious voting behaviour, mainly as it relates to the Liberals. The authors are McGill University’s Elisabeth Gidengil and a number of her colleagues from different campuses who have co-operated through various elections in a project called the Canadian Election Study (CES).

2 thoughts on “Canadian evangelical voting trends

  1. Interesting analysis.

    As far as the Liberal-repulsion factor goes, I think it’s probably a better argument than you seem to think (or at least the EFC authors prove)…

    Paul Martin’s appeals to “Canadian values” contra Harper in 2004 but also in 2006 certainly took on anti-evangelical dimensions. The campaign was quite definitely of the “devil you know vs. devil you don’t.” It was easy to see why the Liberals would use that tack. It had worked so wonderfully with Stockwell Day, and with W. in the White House, it had strong emotional currency at the time.

    Martin’s goal was to paint Harper’s unstated (evangelical) beliefs as foreign (i.e. American or anti-Canadian), and dangerous (jeopardizing “women’s rights over their bodies,” “equality”). Evangelicals could easily construe this as a cartoonish depiction of their beliefs. Martin then assumed the moral high road and defined Canadianness as Liberal.

    In 2004, I was a seminary student at Regent College in Vancouver, one of Canada’s best known evangelical institutions. I’m not especially smitten with any particular political party. At one time or other, I’ve voted for everyone but the Bloc (not currently possible in Western Canada). But at the time, Martin’s moral tone struck me as supremely arrogant and politically short-sighted. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

    Any assumed affiliation b/w evangelicals (or a mix of religious folk) and the Conservative party is troubling. It’s dangerous for any religious group to yolk itself with the powers that be. Still, in the wake of Martin, I can at the very least fathom why many would side with Harper rather than becoming fodder during Canada’s bi-annual stump fest.


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