Sunday, October 11, 2015

Canadian Evangelicals, the Conservatives and the Election

One common assumption in Canada is that all evangelicals vote Conservative. Many do, but not all. In fact, when it comes to voting, Canadian evangelicals are very different from their counterparts in the U.S., where to be Evangelical is to be Republican. As we look forward to the Oct. 19 Canadian election, how will they vote? We'll soon know. 

The Internet lit up in July when B.C. Conservative M.P. Wai Young was caught on a recording comparing the Conservative Party to the life and actions of Jesus.

The incident re-kindled fears about whether Stephen Harper is really a closet Evangelical, determined to use a right-wing brand of Christianity to re-shape Canada .

As a writer in The Economist put it: “Stephen Harper is probably the nearest thing that Canada has had in recent times to a prime minister from the religious right.”

In September, reporter Andrew Nikoforuk echoed that concern in an article in The Tyee titled “Stephen Harper’s Covert Evangelicalism.”

In it, he referenced an earlier column where he stated that “Harper's own evangelical beliefs, which are closely aligned with extreme elements of the Republican Party, explained his disinterest in climate change and his government's pointed trashing of environmental science. It also explained his penchant for secrecy and his dislike of the media, environmentalists and other secular groups.”

When it comes to Harper’s faith, I don’t actually know much about it. Apparently, not many others know much about what he believes, either. According to an article by columnist and commentator Michael Coren in The Walrus, those who know Harper best say his Christian beliefs are rather vague, and seldom inform his politics.

While not much has been published about the Prime Minister’s faith—and he doesn’t talk about it—there is research about how Canadian Evangelicals vote. And, despite what some seem to think, they don’t all vote Conservative.

In a 2009 paper for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, authors Don Hutchinson and Rick Hiemstra examined Evangelical voting patterns from 1996-2008. During that time, they found, Evangelicals tended to vote in ways that were similar to other Canadians.
While it’s true that many Evangelicals showed a preference for conservative parties during that time period, “support for all parties other than the Liberal Party of Canada increased just as it did in the general population,” they wrote.
As for why Evangelical support for the Conservatives grew, Hiemstra and Hutchinson say it was more about how former Liberal supporters felt pushed out of that Party by the way it openly dismissed, ridiculed and marginalized their faith—not for any hope-for policy gains from the Conservative Party.

In fact, on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, Evangelicals have been greatly disappointed with the Conservatives for not being willing to re-open those debates.

At the same time Evangelical support for the Conservatives was growing, it was also increasing for the NDP and Greens, albeit at a lower rate, Hiemstra and Hutchinson said. In 2008, the NDP was the second choice for Evangelicals nationally, ahead of the Liberals.

These findings are echoed by a recent book by American author Lydia Bean.
In her 2014 book The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Politics and Partisan Identities in the U.S.and Canada, Bean studied two Evangelical churches in the U.S. and two in Canada . She wanted to find out why Evangelicals in the two countries are so different from one another.

American Evangelicals, have adopted a highly partisan and politicized religion, she wrote. Many of their leaders frequently and openly share partisan political views, communicating that to be a Christian is to be a Republican.

Their religious identity was so allied with the Republicans, she wrote, that it has become “impossible for Evangelicals to identify with the Democratic Party.”

In Canada , however, she found the opposite to be true. Political partisanship and Evangelical piety were almost never combined or promoted in the churches she studied, and no political party was promoted over another.

Partisan rhetoric was also frowned upon, she said, and members of the two Canadian Evangelical churches freely indicated that they supported various political parties.

Prior to publishing her book, Bean was a co-author of a 2008 paper titled “Why Doesn’t Canada Have An American-Style Christian Right?” In it, they wrote that “Canadian and American Evangelicals share similar attitudes about issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, yet Canadian Evangelicals do not appear markedly different than non-Evangelical Canadians in their voting habits or political goals.”

After October 19, we might know if that is still true.

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