Summer 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1

Table of Contents
Summer 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Hold the Prayers

To Print or Not to Print?

Another Melancholy Dane

Raising Hell in Alabama

Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa

Apostasy in Afghanistan

Religious Politics, Japanese Style

Cult Fighting in Middle Georgia


Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa
by Dennis R. Hoover


Fear of the religious right goes a long way in Canadian politics. Two years ago, the long-ruling Liberal Party, fatigued and scandal-plagued, managed to eke out a minority-government victory by resorting to negative ads charging that the opposition Conservatives were beholden to right-wing fundamentalists and had a “hidden agenda” to give the religious right everything it wanted.

But the vote that took place on January 23 suggests that there are limits to Canada’s famously liberal political culture.

Banking on the fact that the Conservative Party attracts a larger than average share of evangelical voters (and includes some MPs aligned with the religious right), Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals—still in disarray—once again played the anti-religious right card. However, Conservative leader Stephen Harper presented a moderate image and picked his culture-war battles very carefully. And today, he is Canada’s new Prime Minister (albeit in yet another minority government).

Harper is not a natural culture-warrior. A conservative economist who once referred to Canada as “a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term,” he is much more comfortable touting markets than morality.

But he is, nonetheless, a churchgoer who calls himself a “devout Protestant”—perhaps to avoid the e-word, “evangelical,” which the secular Canadian media still do not distinguish from “fundamentalist.” (Lloyd Mackey, a veteran journalist in the Canadian Christian media, published a biography of him last year that describes his faith as “cerebral.”)

Harper ends his speeches with “God bless all of you, God bless Canada”—a departure from Canada’s usual secular standards of political discourse, and one that has attracted the notice of the U.S. media, which rarely tunes in to matters Canadian.

It might be a signal “that Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party are preparing to take the country in a very different direction after 13 years of Liberal rule characterized by a softening of drug laws, an expansion of the rights of gays and a distancing from United States positions on foreign affairs,” guessed the New York Times’s Clifford Krauss in a January 16 article. Or it “may simply be a nod to his party’s conservative, western base, because his entire campaign otherwise has been devised to establish himself in the minds of voters as a moderate who has shifted from his steadfast conservatism.”

For their part, the Canadian media don’t seem quite sure what to make of the religion-and-Conservative-politics nexus. For the past two decades, the cultural left in Canadian politics has made steady advances, winning almost every fight with the religious right. When social conservatives have seemed even remotely close to affecting an outcome, Canadian journalists have generally covered it as surprising, ominous, and un-Canadian (which is to say, American).

This was particularly evident in the 2000 election, in which the principal challenge to the Liberals came from the Canadian Alliance Party, then led by the telegenic but gaffe-prone Stockwell Day, an unabashed evangelical Christian and populist social conservative. On May 27, 2000, the Toronto Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson predicted that the Alliance (which in 2003 merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the present Conservative Party) would have trouble beating the rap that had dogged it throughout its history—namely, that the religious right had exercised “a disproportionate influence.”

The question that neither the Global and Mail nor any other media outlet has gotten around to considering is: What amount of social conservative influence would be proportionate in Canadian politics?

The most likely venue for finding out is gay marriage, which the Liberal government officially blessed last year, making legal nationwide what was already legal in several provinces as a result of court rulings declaring same-sex marriage a right under the Canadian constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Deciding whether gay unions should be equal to heterosexual marriage in every way—name, legal benefits, and social respectability—is one of the very few issues in Canadian culture-war politics on which a center-right majority is a reasonable prospect in the foreseeable future.

When a gay marriage bill was being considered in Parliament last spring, Prime Minister Martin allowed a free vote for Liberal MPs outside the cabinet. Availing themselves of the opportunity, some 34 backbenchers—a quarter of the Liberal caucus—joined with Conservatives in an unsuccessful effort to kill the bill.

One MP from Ontario, Pat O’Brien, went so far as to resign from the Liberal caucus altogether and join with former Conservative MP Grant Hill to create a political action group called Vote Marriage Canada “This issue is not over in the minds of millions of Canadians,” O’Brien told the Edmonton Sun’s Kathleen Harris on November 23, 2005. “This organization intends to be a voice for those millions of Canadians who have not accepted being dictated to by unelected judges.”

In fact, gay marriage had already provoked an unprecedented level of activism from Canada’s growing network of social conservative advocacy groups, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, Focus on the Family Canada, Canada Family Action Coalition, Equipping Christians for the Public Square, Catholic Civil Rights League, Defend Marriage Coalition, Campaign Life Coalition, Concerned Christians Canada, and REAL Women. The previous April, for example, a “March for Marriage” rally in Ottawa drew 15,000 demonstrators.

Most of these groups are careful to avoid direct involvement in partisan politics, but some entered the fray in the recent election. In an Ottawa Citizen article January 16, “Onward Christian Soldiers: Evangelicals are Mobilizing in Ottawa to put their Stamp on Policy and Public Opinion,” Pauline Tam found that at least eight new Conservative candidates had secured their nominations with the backing of conservative religious groups.

Under Harper, the Conservative Party has consistently given social conservatives only a modest place at the table. For instance, in the run-up to the gay marriage vote, the party took out newspaper ads opposing the bill—but only in community newspapers that serve particular ethnic minority groups. Harper’s own position has also been less conservative than many on the religious right would like: He argues that same-sex couples should be denied the “marriage” designation but given the same legal benefits as heterosexual married couples.

Still, when the election campaign officially commenced in the fall, Harper was willing to use one of his first press releases to reiterate his previously declared intention to allow a free vote on reversing the same-sex marriage law. Most of the media were puzzled why Harper would lead with something so controversial.

On December 2, for example, Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press called it a “risky strategy aimed at pre-empting Liberal accusations that the Tories harbour a hidden agenda driven by the religious right.” Nevertheless, Bryden continued, “the same-sex issue was bound to come up sooner or later; Tory strategists contend it was best to get it out of the way at the outset.”

A couple of Toronto Star columnists did stand against the interpretive tide, seeing the issue as possibly part of a winning coalition-building strategy. “Many have wondered why the Harper campaign raised the issue early in the campaign,” Murdoch Davis wrote on December 31.

“That implies there is a consensus behind gay marriage, but there isn’t. Among Canadians, about a quarter is ardently opposed, another quarter has misgivings, and the remaining half by varying degrees is okay with it….Harper’s core support falls within the first two groups, especially in the west. He likely seeks to shore that up while trying not to alienate the middle. He can write off those firmly on the other side; he’d likely never get them anyway.”

A month later, Davis’ colleague David Haskell argued similarly, citing a CBC News poll that found 52 percent of Canadians disagreeing with the Liberal government’s view of gay marriage.

To be sure, the Conservatives’ improved electoral performance on January 23 was attributable mainly to the public’s disgust over Liberal corruption scandals. But religious conservatives also made a difference—in a way that paralleled the significant “religion gap” that came to public notice in the 2004 U.S. election cycle.

Writing in the March/April issue of Faith Today magazine, Andrew Grenville, a leading religion pollster in Canada, analyzed a large election-day survey and found that an “astonishing two-thirds of Protestants who regularly attend church voted for the Conservatives—up a striking 25 percent from the 2004 election.”

Grenville also found that for the first time ever, Catholics who are regular churchgoers voted more Conservative (42 percent) than Liberal (40 percent). Overall, Grenville estimated that religious conservatives comprise about 15 percent of the electorate in English Canada. (Data on French Canada was not published.)

So what will a Conservative government with social conservatives in its coalition be like? In contrast to the 2000 election, when media commentators almost unanimously saw Stockwell Day’s ties to the religious right as disqualifying him for office, Harper is generating mixed responses.

There were some predictable prophets of doom. Harper’s “God bless Canada” rhetoric, the Montreal Gazette’s Sue Montgomery argued in a January 22 column, “should be the first red flag to Canadians set to elect Harper as prime minister that we are in for the right-wing ride of our lives.”

But in an Edmonton Sun column slugged “Take a Deep Breath, You Chicken Littles!” Mindelle Jacobs countered:

“My liberal friends don’t understand how a nice, progressive Jewish girl like me isn’t filled with fear and loathing because our new prime minister is an evangelical Christian….I believe Harper is smart enough to keep religion out of politics. The fundamentalist fringe will be disappointed, but so what? Harper’s opponents see something spooky behind those steely blue eyes but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I hope I don’t have to eat my words.”

Jacobs may have to eat at least some of these words, because in a pluralist democracy like Canada’s, the simplistic notion of “keeping religion out of politics” is a secularist pipe dream. The question is not whether but to what degree.

“Traditional faith-based advocacy groups were active in this week’s federal election to a greater degree than ever before,” the Calgary Herald’s Joe Woodard wrote January 28. “Politics, however, has been called the ‘art of the possible.’ So with the Canadian electorate giving the Conservatives minority [government] status in Parliament, the overriding question for religious activists is: What might half-a-loaf (better than none) look like over the next few years?”

For starters, there is the matter of Harper’s campaign promise regarding a new vote on gay marriage. The Christian press was quick to report that in his first post-election press conference, Harper said he intended to ask Parliament “sooner rather than later, but not immediately” to vote on reversing the gay marriage law.

However, even though there are more anti-gay marriage MPs in this parliament than in its predecessor, such a measure would still likely fall short, and the exercise might only serve to energize the liberal opposition. As reported by Woodard, Vote Marriage Canada claims there are now 145 MPs (47 percent of the total) prepared to vote to reinstate the traditional definition of marriage.

Social conservative strategists may ultimately decide to postpone the next round of this battle until Harper can secure a majority government. But even if a reversal vote were to succeed, the Supreme Court could nullify it or force dramatic changes.

For the near term, therefore, the progress that social conservatives can expect to make on their issues will likely be measured not by movement in a conservative direction but by stopping any further slide to the left.

Proposals to legalize prostitution will certainly fall off the radar. As well, the Court Challenges Program, which has subsidized many of the cases that have led to liberal decisions by Canadian courts on culture-wars issues, will likely have its funding cut, thereby slowing down the pace of judiciary-driven social change.

In other words, as Tristan Emmanuel, director of Equipping Christians for the Public Square, told Woodard, “The corner hasn’t been turned” for social conservatives. Rather, “we’ve reached a stalemate; we have a breather.”




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