Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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?
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.”
in an Edmonton Sun column slugged “Take a Deep Breath, You Chicken
Littles!” Mindelle Jacobs countered:
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
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?”
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.
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.
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.”