Saturday, October 12, 2019

Why So Little Attention Paid to Religion During Elections? Two Scholars Weigh In.

The best thing about being a religion reporter is being able to interview smart people like Kevin Flatt and John Stackhouse, like I did when I recently asked them for reflections on why religion is getting so little attention from the political parties during this election (2019).

The worst thing about it is not being able to use all the great information they give me—like with my Oct. 12 Free Press column about the lack of attention being paid to religion in the current election. So I’ve reprinted here what they shared with me on that topic. Enjoy!

Kevin is an Associate Professor of History and Department Chair, History, Politics, and International Studies, at Redeemer University College.

John is Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies & Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University.

First up, thoughts from Kevin about why we aren’t hearing much about religion during this election. Could it be partly the fault of the media?

“First, one of the main factors shaping news coverage is the attitudes and inclinations of journalists, who, as a group, tend to be fairly irreligious and rather uncomfortable with overt displays of religion in political arena, especially conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic), which is the variety most likely to be politically significant in Canada.

“In fact, on average, journalists are one of the most politically and socially liberal groups in Canada, and one of the least religious, which shapes what they collectively see as important and worthy of attention, and whether religious elements in politics are framed negatively or positively.

“This is turn shapes the views of the electorate and the messaging of politicians with a net effect of suppressing overt discussion of issues linked to religion and a ‘closeting’ of any conservative religious views that might have political implications.

“(Witness all of the suspicion directed at Scheer for his views on moral issues, the relative silence about Trudeau's politically inert progressive Catholicism, and May's embarrassed backtracking after she mentioned Jesus in an interview.)

“Scheer's views raise red flags for journalists, but Trudeau and May get free passes, as does Singh, for somewhat different reasons.

“For some empirical research on these topics, see David M. Haskell's book
Through a Glass Darkly: How the News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals (Clements Academic, 2009) The book is now a decade old, but I'd bet good money that the main findings would still apply today. Similar conclusions have been reached by research in the U.S.

“Second, there are certainly fewer religiously active Canadians today than in, say, the 1950s, and partly as a result we don't see religion functioning as a kind of politically potent identity group the way it did a century ago in Protestant-Catholic tensions (which overlapped with English-French tensions) and resulted in a tendency for Protestants and Catholics to align along party lines.

“Other identities—region, language, urban/rural, immigrants vs. native-born, economic situation, education level—generally seem to be more important when it comes to many political issues.

“Third, it would be a mistake, however, to conclude that religion is irrelevant in Canadian politics.

“For one thing, the religiously unaffiliated (especially atheists) are in fact a ‘religious group,’ in the sense that their worldview and values affect their political choices just as is the case for Canadians engaged in a traditional religion.

“Political choices typically come down to being choices about values, and the hierarchy of values; thus, since worldviews (whether religious or secular) shape people's values they will always be politically relevant.

“This is especially so when it comes to explicitly religious issues: you can bet that religion is playing an important role in provincial politics in Quebec right now, for example, with religious minorities alienated from the governing party by Bill 21 and the deeply secular majority energized.

“But it is also true for other issues where there are deep worldview-based divides in the Canadian electorate: abortion, some sexuality issues, educational choice and parental rights, etc.

“Again, the true range of opinions and depth of disagreement among the electorate on these issues is often obscured by the high level of secular-progressive consensus among most mainstream journalists (on this, see Jonathan Kay's recent piece on the lack of substantive discussion of abortion in Canadian elections).

“This mutes the political effect of such divisions and drives it underground, but does not eliminate it. And the right confluence of circumstances can bring it to the fore.

“Fourth, my impression is that religion has actually become a stronger driver of partisan alignment in recent decades. John Stackhouse says evangelicals and conservative Catholics don't agree even among themselves on many political issues, and that is true. But they agree more than they used to, both within these groups and between them.

“Research done by the Evangelical Fellowship in the 1990s found that the distribution of the evangelical vote across the parties was not that different from the general vote distribution, albeit with a slight conservative lean.

“But more recent research seems to suggest that conservative religious views are now a much stronger predictor of voting Conservative, and religious non-affiliation a stronger predictor of voting for left-leaning or progressive parties.

“This may reflect a consolidation of views among evangelicals and conservative Catholics, but I think more likely it reflects the fact that since the 1990s that Liberals have taken harder and harder progressive lines on several social issues.

"In the 1990s, you had pro-life Liberal MPs and Liberal MPs (and leaders) opposed to same-sex marriage; today, neither of these views are even acceptable in the party, and in the past few years Liberal governments seem to have been working to eliminate such views from respectable society at large (e.g. the Canada Summer Jobs debacle, the Wynne sex-ed curriculum in Ontario).

“And of course the NDP takes an equally hard line on these issues (the Greens have been a bit more gentle, though their preferences are clear).

"I’ve heard from many evangelical and Catholic voters, who used to vote Liberal or NDP . . .  that they feel like the only party that where they would even be welcome as supporters is the Conservatives. This isn't so much because they prefer the Conservatives in terms of fiscal policy, health care, etc., but because of rhetoric and policies related to abortion, education, identity issues, etc.

“Again, something quite similar has happened in the US with Republicans and Democrats, though there of course are other things going on there that don't apply in Canada.

“Fifth, and finally, given that immigrants to Canada tend to be much more religiously committed than other Canadians (interestingly, a plurality of them are Christians, typically with quite conservative religious views), and large-scale immigration seems likely to continue and probably increase for the foreseeable future, there is going to be a potential for religious dynamics to play an important political role in our large urban centres.

“This is anecdotal, but I've heard that enrollment at private Muslim and Christian schools in the Toronto area has skyrocketed since the Wynne sex-ed curriculum was introduced into the public schools (subsequently largely kept in place by Ford's government).

“Folks who are willing to make the major financial sacrifices to put their kids into private schools that reflect their religious values because they feel unwelcome in the public schools are also at least potentially willing to have those values shape their voting patterns. This may be a significant political liability for the Liberals and NDP moving forward, though it would be a very tricky thing for the Conservatives to capitalize on it.”

Next up, John suggesting another reason religion gets so little attention at voting time is because there isn't a religious bloc politicians need to cater to. 

“Religion isn’t discussed by politicians in Canada . . . not because it doesn’t matter, but because it does.

"It matters in two respects, in fact.

“First, religion matters to religious people, of which there is a significant minority in Canada, but different sorts of religious people want different things from politics and political parties, including people within the same religious traditions.

“For instance, churchgoing evangelical Protestants and Catholics take their religion seriously, but have no uniform views on most key issues.

“There isn’t a single evangelical or Catholic policy position on global climate change or indigenous issues or child poverty or overstretched education and health regimes—so there’s literally no point mentioning them or appealing to them as blocs, since they aren’t blocs.

“Second, religion matters to nonreligious people because many of them fear that religious people are fanatics determined to force everyone else to conform to their peculiar preferences, whether shariah or dominionism or conservative Catholicism or whatever.

“Therefore, since there is nothing to be gained by appealing to religious communities in toto—since they don’t agree on policy issues and therefore can’t be expected to line up with this or that party on this or that issue—there is much to be lost by appealing to one or another of them.

“(Witness how many people get jumpy whenever the Conservatives come within a mile of appealing to traditional Christians). For this reason, Canadian politicians steer clear of religion.

“I don’t think the absence of explicit religious language or appeals to religious people is a mark of secularism, or indifference, but of remarkable political pluralism within religious groups and anxiety among the non-religious.”

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