Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Catholic vote up for grabs

Catholics moved to the Conservatives in significant numbers in the 2006 and 2008 elections but that trend may now be in question. The big story here, in addition to the rise of the NDP vote among Catholics, is the huge losses endured by the Liberals. They have long been the party of choice for Catholics in Canada, but the Liberals’ poor overall performance in the 2011 election was also reflected in their results among the Catholic constituency. That vote is now up for grabs and Catholics constitute more than 40 per cent of the Canadian population.

This may be why Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has already had a post-election meeting with Msgr. Patrick Powers, the general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa, and plans to meet with the CCCB president Most Rev. Pierre Morrisette in June. Perhaps the bishop could begin by asking Kenney what he meant when he said last winter that “church bureaucrats” were responsible for a CCCB letter criticizing the government’s human smuggling legislation. Was Kenney implying that the bishops do not have an analysis of their own or that their staff is out of their control?

Conservatives and Jewish voters

A third observation based on the Ipsos Reid exit poll is that the Conservatives did well among Jewish voters in the 2011 election but that they did poorly among Canadian Muslims. Among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and only 16 per cent who voted NDP. The Harper government has courted Jewish voters by offering uncritical support for Israel, replacing the more nuanced policy of previous Liberal administrations. Jewish voters have in the past been strong supporters of the Liberals but Conservatives have been eating into that support for several elections. For their part, organizations that claim to speak for Canadian Jews have made it clear that unwavering support for Israel is the single issue that they care about most.

There is another reason for the Conservatives to be cheerleaders for Israeli government policies. A committed fringe element of Christian fundamentalists are Christian Zionists who believe that Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled by the creation of Israel and its hegemony in the Middle East. In offering uncritical support for Israel the Conservatives are playing both to these fundamentalist Christians and to Jewish voters. I reported early in the election campaign about a series of Canada Celebrates Israel events that occurred in four Canadian cities. They were thinly disguised political events organized by Israeli politicians and fundamentalist Christians and featured former Conservative MPs Stockwell Day and Jim Abbott among their guest speakers.

More of the same

We can expect more of the same from the Conservatives regarding Israel. Following the election in May, Prime Minister Harper stood alone among G8 leaders meeting in France in his opposition to the release of a joint statement calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 six-day war. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly rejected that proposal and Israeli newspapers reported that he spoke to Harper about the matter. The G8 works on the basis of consensus so on Harper’s insistence the group’s final statement removed any reference to the 1967 borders. The Prime Minister reaped praise from Christian fundamentalists for his actions. The National House of Prayer in Ottawa is one such group which claims to pray for politicians of all stripes. In its website on May 27 the organization offered the following prayer: “That Stephen Harper will be given courage and wisdom regarding Canada’s stance towards Israel and will continue his stance to see the 1967 borders fall out of debates.”

Harper is isolating Canada internationally by his unquestioning support for an Israeli government that appears intent to continue its occupation of Palestinian land and people in contravention of repeated United Nations declarations. Harper also largely forfeits the vote of Muslim Canadians but that is a price he appears prepared to pay. Among those Canadian voters who identified as Muslims, only 12 per cent voted Conservative. Significantly, 46 per cent of them voted Liberal in an election where the Liberal vote dropped to historic lows. The NDP received 38 per cent of the Muslim vote and presumably the party will attempt to improve upon that performance. There are three times as many Muslims as there are Jews in Canada but Jewish people and their organizations are well established and influential.

Growing polarization

A fourth observation regarding the Ipsos Reid exit poll deals with the growing political polarization between voters who identify as religious and those who say they have no religion. The Conservatives drew the support of 50 per cent of those voters who said they attended a church or temple at least once a week. The NDP received the support of only 24 per cent of that group. Many polls taken at different times in both Canada and the U.S. indicate that regular church attenders are more likely to vote Conservative (or Republican) than are people who attend a church less often. The reasons why merit a column on their own but likely mean that people in closely knit groups tend to influence one another in voting behaviour, in this case in a conservative direction. On the other hand, the NDP won the vote of 42 per cent of the no religion group of voters in the 2011 election, while the Conservatives received only 27 per cent of that vote.

Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist, has commented on the growing number of people who say they have no religion. Bibby says that group is numerically larger than any single religious denomination in Canada, save for Catholics. The no religion group is highly represented among younger people and is poised to grow as a percentage of the population. One question is whether there will be growing friction and disrespect between those who follow a religious faith and those who do not. In strictly political terms, the no religion group is amorphous and unorganized while frequent church attenders are easier for political parties to reach because they belong to communities that are often tightly knit.

The coming polarization promises to be both religious and political. The NDP is a social democratic party that trends to the left of the Liberals and certainly to the left of the Conservatives. It has a strong base among people who profess no religion, as well as considerable support from those religionists — Protestant, Catholic and other — who attend church less often. The Conservatives have strong support among frequent attenders, particularly Evangelical Protestants, Christian fundamentalists, and Jews. They will support Harper in his quest for a smaller government, but will also support added spending on the military and prisons. Do not expect to see action from this government on abolishing poverty, mitigating climate change, or on pursuing nuclear deterrence, which are issues promoted by many mainstream religious groups.

Next four years intense

Harper has promised that he will not allow the abortion debate to be reopened but we can expect theological conservatives to keep the pressure on him, even as they continue to support him as the best alternative. I received an automated telephone call late in the election campaign from Jim Hughes, chairman of the Campaign Life Coalition asking me to support the Conservative candidate in an Ottawa riding. Shortly after the election in May, a National March for Life event drew about 10,000 people Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Their clear message to the Harper government was to say that the abortion debate is on again.

The next four years promise to be intense. Fasten your seat belt.

8 thoughts on “Election 2011, political and religious polarization

  1. Hello. Thank you for this post. I was wondering, is there any polling data on those frequent attenders who are also committed to social justice and progressive values? Or has that group shrunk so much that pollsters do not consider it? If so, how can adherents from all faith traditions who value peace and justice make their voice heard when it seems that only conservative reactionaries within the religions have anyone’s attention?

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your note. I do not have that information precisely but will write about anything new that presents itself in the next while. It will be important for progressive people of faith to be active and engaged in the years to come. We can make a difference.


  2. Dennis,

    I have not seen the exit poll but I enjoyed your breakdown. Your commentary raises a few issues but I don’t know if the data allows you to tease out an answer. Did the Kairos defunding have any impact? Also, overall participation edged upwards but who showed up at the polls? Did youth (religion / no religion) vote in greater numbers?

    I have heard some speculation that Ontario Liberals either voted Conservative or stayed away from the polls and that their absence was filled by youth.

    Given the demographics of church goers this could be important in 4 years.Dan
    Dennis replies: Thanks Dan. I was just going by the bare numbers that I saw reported in the media and do not have further breakouts at this time. A good place to look for detailed information on voting and Canadian politics in general is a site called Pundits Guide. Also, a group of scholars in a project called Canadian Election Study usually slice and dice the results but it takes them awhile to get there. When they report, I will write about it. I have also read about Ontario Liberals moving to the Conservatives because they did not like the NDP. This is almost certainly true because the big gain in the Conservative seat count came in Ontario.


  3. Thank you for this post. Fascinating! I’d love to find more good research that explores the reasons for the voting patterns.

    Do you know of research on whether voting patterns are affected by parties’ negative comments about faith? I recall at least 2 Liberal cabinet ministers who said that people of faith should not have a public voice. And who could forget the NDPers who protested because Calvert was a pastor, the protesters reportedly carried a coffin through their convention as a symbol. Jack Layton reminds us every time he points out that secular humanism, his personal belief system, is best.

    I’d like to find research on the impact of differing beliefs about what is effective in helping people. Are Christians less convinced that government services help people? Are non-Christians dependent on the state to provide the context for their lives that Christians find in God?

    Another possibility is that Christians may not benefit equally from government services that all pay for, and therefore may tend against supporting parties that support more government services. Christian schools are not equally supported while Christians still pay the same taxes, particularly in Ontario. Few young Christians are choosing government supported fields such as teaching, nursing and social work, and I ask whether they think that only believers in secular humanism can get hired there.

    Lots more research is needed. Thank you for highlighting the Ipsos exit poll.


  4. As a Jewish voter for the NDP, it appears sadly, that I am a part of a rapidly diminishing minority due to the unfortunate and increasing political polarization related to Israel. I will continue to reject the Conservative’s uncritical support for the Netanyahu government.


  5. Thank you Dennis for this article on how religious people vote. Thank you also to Mark and Allan Moscovitch for commenting. They represent those religious people looking for social justice which have always been an important part of the Jewish and Christian communities. I hope during the coming years you will be writing about what active progressive people of faith are doing. I am old enough to remember when the Canadian Council of Churches was critical of government policies that hurt those that were not part of the ruling class.
    I will fasten my seat belt, if I am not in one of the new jails and if I still have a car, after paying for my new jet fighters.


  6. Calvert was a Minister! Tommy Douglas was a Minister!!!! A great many strong supporters of social justice came from religious backgrounds. Do they not anymore? I agree that anti-faith statements by politicians are unnecessary and counter productive.

    Thank you for this excellent post.


  7. Re: the Jewish community, I am curious to what extent progressive Jews identify their *religion* as Jewish at this point. In my experience progressive Jews are more likely to live in mixed neighborhoods and their level of communal affiliation is quite low. Not surprising given that virtually all the synagogues and the organized Jewish community takes a hard-line stance on Israel.

    While the numbers do seem discouraging, given that Harper seems to have framed the debate as “only the Conservatives support Israel and the Jewish People” I suppose 50 percent of Jews not voting for the Conservatives shows that many are not buying it.


  8. Heh Denis,
    I follow your blog irregularly, but really appreciate it. You do an amazing amount of research and put a lot of thought into what you write.
    I just want to make one comment. Harper has repeatedly said that he “won’t open the abortion debate”. That statement didn’t prevent individual Conservative MPs presenting 5 Private Members’ Bills circling around this issue when the Cons were in a minority government. A couple got past second reading.
    Do we not anticipate a similar tactic – more directly focussed – with a majority Conservative government?? The Supreme Court be damned (sorry for the rude language in a blog devoted to politics and religion) – He’s stacked it.
    I’m worried.


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