Sunday, August 9, 2015

Religion, Roman Catholics, and the Decline of the Liberal Party

Has religion played a role in the decline of the Liberal Party? That was a question I explored in 2011 prior to that year’s Canadian election. As it turned out, a majority of voters from all religious persuasions voted for other parties, including Catholics, who historically voted Liberal. A majority of Protestants, including evangelicals, voted Conservative, while people of no religion mostly found a home with the NDP. The article below takes a look at how the shifting religious landscape back then led to a Conservative majority; in a future instalment, I’ll explore what might be happening in the current election. Note: This was a feature piece in the Free Press, and is longer than my normal columns and posts.

If the Conservatives get a majority on May 2, they may thank God—and Roman Catholic voters across the country.

“The Catholic vote is a key swing vote in the electorate,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, was quoted as saying in the Catholic Register in January.

Kenney, who led his party’s campaign to take capture those voters from the Liberals, described the swing to the Conservatives as “huge” and “unprecedented.”

“The Liberal Party dramatically abandoned its historic Catholic base and for a while seemed to almost go out of its way to insult Catholic voters and their values,” he said, adding that the Liberal Party “has become in many respects militantly secularist and inhospitable to people of faith.”

That’s a bold statement. But is it true? Does this election hinge on the votes of Roman Catholic Church members? And have religious voters fled the Liberal Party?

The answer seems to be yes—not that many noticed. 

While much has been written and said about the Conservative Party’s efforts to reach out to ethnic voters, much less has been reported about how successful that Party has been in reaching out to religious voters, or about how large numbers of churchgoing Canadians have abandoned the Liberal Party over the past ten or so years.

A Dramatic Shift

One person who did notice is Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer for Angus Reid Public Opinion.

Grenville, who specializes in researching Canadian religious trends, has noticed a profound change in the way Roman Catholics vote over the past few elections.

Since the 1950s, he says, members of that group have been consistently more likely to vote Liberal, both in and outside of Quebec. 

The 2006 election saw a change in this historic linkage.

At the time, “it was unclear whether this was a real shift, or a one-time punishment of the Liberals following the sponsorship scandal,” he says.

But subsequent research suggests “real change has occurred . . . the shifts we first observed in 2006 have, if anything, become more pronounced, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.”

The pollster found that the Roman Catholic vote for the Liberals outside Quebec fell from 54 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2008. Inside Quebec, the vote fell from 56 percent in 2004 to 22 percent.

And where did those former Liberal supporters go? Many ended up voting for the Conservatives; in 2008, 49 percent of Catholics outside Quebec who attended church weekly voted Conservative, Grenville says.

But the shift wasn’t unique to Catholics; something similar happened among mainline Protestants outside Quebec.

According to Grenville, support for the Liberals among weekly attenders of that group fell from 28 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008. Many of those votes also went to the Conservatives; 64 percent of church-going Protestants outside Quebec voted for the Conservative Party that year, compared to 51 percent four years earlier.

Others also noticed this shift. In 2009 academics Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University, Patrick Fournier and André Blais at Université de Montréal, Joanna Everitt at the University of New Brunswick and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto explored this issue in The Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat.

In the paper the researchers noted that “Catholic voters, once a pillar of support that helped keep the Liberals a dominant force in Canadian politics, have steadily shifted their allegiances in recent years so that the party can no longer count on their votes.”

They went on to say that “controlling for other social background characteristics reveals that the drop in Liberal support among Catholics is even more dramatic than the loss of visible minority votes.”

In 2006, “Catholics were as likely to vote Conservative as Liberal,” they noted. “In 2008, they clearly actually preferred the Conservatives to the Liberals . . . the Liberals can no longer take the support of Catholics or visible minorities for granted."

What Happened?

What caused this shift? Why did large numbers of people flee the Liberal Party for the Conservatives?

For Grenville, it started with the sponsorship scandal in 2006. “The cheating and corruption really hurt the Liberals,” he says, adding that Liberal Party support for same-sex marriage and abortion widened the gap.

The academics behind Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat suggest something similar, although they say same-sex marriage was not the deciding factor for Roman Catholics in the 2004 and 2006 elections (although abortion played a role in 2006). But that all changed in 2008.

That year, they say, Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage were less likely to vote Liberal.” And, for the first time, “Catholics who believe the Bible is the literal word of God were significantly less likely to vote Liberal."

For Catholic journalist and blogger Debra Gyapong, it wasn’t just the issue of same-sex marriage that cost Liberals support from Roman Catholics, but their “ramming the redefinition of marriage through Parliament.”

She also points to the Liberal Party’s “partisan messaging that painted traditional marriage supporters as un-Canadian and anti-Charter, and that attacked Christian voters in general.”

“Self-inflicted” wounds

John McKay, the Liberal Member of Parliament who represents the Ontario riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, agrees with those sentiments.

McKay acknowledges that support from Catholics and other church-goers for the Liberal Party is “bleeding away.” What’s worse, he adds, the wound was “self-inflicted.”

“You can disagree with someone, but you don’t have to insult them,” he says of the times when the Liberal Party had different views from some religiously-inclined Canadians. “There are times that the Liberal Party has been disagreeable in its disagreements.”

Not only did the Liberal Party take support by religious voters for granted, he acknowledges, it also treated them dismissively over issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. 

Attacking Conservatives as religious zealots who could not be trusted on social issues didn’t help, either.

That includes the infamous pre-election poll question the Liberal Party commissioned in 2004 asking if voters would be more or less likely to vote for the Conservatives if they knew the party had been "taken over by evangelical Christians."

McKay, who attends an Evangelical church in Toronto, was quoted at the time as saying the tactic was "antithetical to everything I believe as a Liberal."

"Either we think that we have an inclusive notion of pluralism in this country where we accept people based upon their religion or we are hypocrites," he said. 

“I just think it has no place in Canadian politics and, in addition to being offensive ideologically, it is just plain stupid politics."

In 2009 Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff asked McKay to start the work of rebuilding bridges between the Party and Canada’s faith communities. 

Since then, he’s been busy visiting various faith group leaders and attending religious events—and also arranging meetings between Ignatieff and the leaders of Canadian faith groups.

When it comes to attracting religious voters, McKay admits that the Conservatives have done a better job. The Liberal Party, he says, “need to be more attuned to the religious community. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

A “fatal flaw” for Liberals and the NDP

Ron Dart isn’t surprised that Conservatives and Liberals are reaching out to religious voters.

“Religion has a profound effect on the way people vote,” says Dart, who teaches political science, philosophy and religious studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.

The “fatal flaw” for the Liberals—and the NDP, he adds—is that members of those two parties “assume we live in a secular society,” or that “religion is dying, a relic of the past.”

They acted, he says, like religion “was going to disappear,” or that it was fine as long as people kept it “to their private life”—an assumption that can hurt them at election time.

Conservatives, on the other hand, “never bought into that. They have explicitly courted these folks.”

McKay agrees.

“We think we live in a secular society—we don’t,” he says. “Lots of Canadians expect their faith will play a role in public discourse. We have to come to grips with that as a society.”

People of faith, he adds, “want to be listened to, and speak freely. They don’t want to be denigrated and devalued with they speak from a faith basis.”

Will Liberal efforts to win back Roman Catholics, and other religious voters, pay off? Grenville isn’t sure.

“Will Catholic voters change back during this election? I’m not sure they will,” he says, citing the “clear pattern” of the previous two elections.

One thing he is certain of, though, is that religion plays a key role in Canadian politics.

“It’s an underground issue, like a river under a city,” he says. “Most people don’t know it’s there.”

Most people might not know about it, but it’s clear that both the Conservative and Liberal parties are well aware of it—and the party that does the best job of reaching out to religious voters may well be the one forming a majority government after May 2.

Also check out my post Religion and the Canadian Election: Will the Liberals Pro-Choice Stance Hurt Them?

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