A Religious Right Arrives in Canada
by Dennis R. Hoover
On June 24, two evangelical Protestants garnered 80 percent of the vote in the first round of a members-only election to lead the Canadian Alliance, Canada’s second-largest political party and the official parliamentary opposition to the ruling Liberals. Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day, a sometime lay Pentecostal preacher, beat out party founder Preston Manning, the son of a radio evangelist, by 44 percent to 36 percent, with Tom Long, the choice of the Toronto business establishment, finishing a distant third.
In the July 8 runoff, Day, who had for months drawn support from the growing “pro-family” movement in Canada, thrashed Manning 63 percent to 37 percent, winning every province except Newfoundland. He will lead Canada’s reinvigorated right wing into the next national elections, which will be called sometime within the next year.
In short, a religious right has arrived in Canadian politics. And Canadian journalists have found this very hard to swallow—something like getting down a sacred cow. As National Post senior columnist Roy MacGregor put it, “We expect this from the United States, where God is not only in the Constitution and on every dollar, but is entered, whether He wishes it or not, in every imaginable race for office…Let us all then—candidates as well as media—politely decline to make Canadian politics any more American than it already is.”
Never mind that MacGregor seemed unaware that God is mentioned nowhere in the U.S. Constitution but does get a nod in the preamble to Canada’s. The formula “religious right = un-Canadian” has become a point of national pride among many Canadians, in keeping with the country’s image as the “kinder, gentler” North American nation.
In fact, however, over the past decade “pro-family” evangelical Protestants together with some sympathetic Roman Catholics and non-Christians have become increasingly active in politics and public life as “social conservatives.” Before that, at the federal level such conservatives were just minority factions within the relatively non-ideological Liberal and Progressive Conservative (Tory) parties. In the provinces (where party politics operates with a high degree of independence from the federal level), they were most strongly associated with Alberta’s populist Social Credit party, a product of the Depression led first by William “Bible Bill” Aberhart and later by Ernest Manning, both evangelical radio preachers.
In 1987 Ernest Manning’s son Preston founded the federal Reform party. With a strong base in the West, Reform collected support from assorted populists, libertarians, and social conservatives. Whatever their differences, Reformers shared a frustration with the federal Tories (derided as patrician establishmentarians insufficiently tuned in to western Canada), and rode that wave to a dramatic breakthrough in the 1993 election.
But Preston Manning, described by friend and foe alike as one of Canada’s most cerebral politicians, had long envisioned a grand reconciliation of Canada’s estranged conservative family. Indeed the electoral logic of reunion was obvious when the 1997 election essentially repeated the 1993 outcome: The Liberals were able to win a parliamentary majority with about two-fifths of the popular vote, while Reformers and Tories split a similar proportion of the popular vote evenly between them. (Reformers won more seats because their support was geographically concentrated while Tory support was diffuse.)
So to end self-destructive vote-splitting, Manning decided to try to “unite the right” in a new party, the Alliance, and eventually succeeded in rounding up many provincial Tories in Alberta and Ontario, though federal Tories remained aloof.
Canadians well knew Manning’s evangelical background and beliefs, and that there were harder-line social conservatives in Reform ranks. But the prospect of this crowd actually winning power always seemed remote because of the party’s apparently limited regional base. Moreover, Manning was always keenly aware that most social conservative views were in the minority, so he downplayed them in his rhetoric.
Indeed, he insisted on a discipline that, rhetoric aside, few political movements have ever taken very seriously: putting their issues directly to the voters. As he indicated at length in his 1992 book, The New Canada, social conservatives have a place in his party to articulate their concerns, but on highly sensitive issues like abortion and gay rights they would have to win a public majority first, determined by referendum, before policy could change.
Nevertheless, on the occasions Manning did inject social conservative concerns into public discourse he met swift media condemnation. For example, in a major speech shortly after Canadian Thanksgiving last October he gave thanks for a “Christian heritage and the religious liberty which allows each one of us to turn toward God or away from Him, and to be responsible for our own moral choices.” He also suggested defining the rights of the fetus (though only in the context of new reproductive technologies), upholding traditional definitions of family and spouse (though he also endorsed registered domestic partnerships not defined by conjugality), and limiting “judge-made law” (especially with respect to things like child pornography, possession of which a court had recently ruled to be a constitutional right).
In American political discourse such comments would be unremarkable. But Canada is not Kansas. Denouncing Manning for expressing “rigid, sometimes hateful social views,” Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley called the speech “militantly heterosexual,” “chilling,” “redolent of the values of the American religious right,” and “a return to political fundamentalism.”
If Manning was bad, Day was worse. A former Christian school administrator, he was the only candidate to advocate that all religious schools in Ontario be funded. (Unlike most provinces, Ontario provides no subsidy for religious schools other than the Catholic schools, whose funding is constitutionally protected.) Day also has a record of social conservative advocacy as a member of Alberta’s Tory government. For example, he was part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to end taxpayer-funded abortions in the province.
Though very similar to Manning in religious and ideological terms, Day is a fresher face on the national scene—youthfully telegenic, passably bilingual, witty to the point of glibness (he once invoked family values by reference to Canada’s “two founding genders”), and with a record of implementing conservative fiscal policies and working with all conservative factions. University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, an authority on conservative politics and sometime Reform insider, told the Toronto Sun that Day has the potential to become “a kind of Canadian Ronald Reagan.”
What journalists focused most of their attention on, however, was Day’s relationship to the religious right, which appeared to be somewhat closer than Manning’s. Especially early in the campaign, they grilled Day on his religious and social beliefs. He in turn charged the news media with anti-evangelical bias, asking why politicians of other faiths never get the third degree. When the journalists refused to back off, he used an April 28 speech to blast “our self-appointed Canadian elites, the chattering classes” for their assumption that his style of conservatism is “beyond the pale,” and “somehow equated with being un-Canadian.” And to libertarian conservatives like Tom Long, Day had this to say: “Make no mistake, contemporary social liberalism is not libertarian, it is not about leaving people alone. It is about using the power of the state to promote certain social values and to undermine others. This is why the formula of fiscally conservative/socially liberal will not work in the long run…Political discourse itself is essentially a series of moral questions.” (Click here to read the full text of the speech).
On the campaign trail Day tried to neutralize the controversy over his social conservatism by emphasizing his commitment to referendums and insisting that although social conservative issues would be allowed on his radar screen, fiscal conservatism was his primary concern. But moral and religious issues continued to dominate coverage, especially after an incident in late May highlighted social conservatism as a potential wedge issue between Day and Long. An ad hoc group of religious right activists had “outed” some gay members of Long’s staff on a web site. When Long, who advertised himself as a fiscal conservative/social liberal, responded with charges of intolerance, Day chose to walk a tightrope, condemning the “outing” but not the supporters’ social conservative views.
The Canadian media were clearly unprepared for so much religion in their politics. As the Toronto Star’s Salem Alaton put it last year in an article on the upcoming American elections, “[E]vangelicals will be prominent in the jockeying to seize the political agenda…[and] the contrast with Canadian society remains striking.” Even as late as last March, Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons could write, “American politics is utterly different from our own, as the religious quarrel now dominating the Republican leadership campaign makes plain.”
If the we-are-different-from-Americans sentiment is a mainstay of Canadian national identity (witness the wild popularity of Molson beer’s “Joe Canada” TV commercial, in which “Joe” delivers a rant touting Canada’s distinctiveness from and superiority to the United States), when it comes to religion, no specter haunts Canada as much as American “fundamentalism.” In covering the Alliance, story after story used the word “fundamentalist,” effectively tagging both Manning and Day as un-Canadian.
In fact, the two are evangelicals, not fundamentalists. Nor is this a minor quibble, since evangelicals are much more accommodating than their theologically and socially militant fundamentalist cousins. On April 1 Brian Stiller, former president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told the Toronto Globe and Mail the same thing he’s been telling journalists for years: “‘Fundamentalist’ is a deeply insulting label for many evangelicals. You wouldn’t call a gay a ‘fag’ or a black a ‘nigger.’ You call people what they call themselves.”
Editorials and columns were rife with judgments about what was “too American” or “un-Canadian.” Referring to Day’s politics, an April 1 Globe and Mail editorial concluded, “It’s all very un-Canadian.” A Guelph Mercury editorial May 13 called social conservative policies “imports from the American Christian Right.” Social conservatives, opined the Toronto Sun’s Linda Williamson May 28, were forcing a division that was “decidedly un-Canadian in its ugliness.”
For their part, most U.S. media outlets seemed oblivious to the emergence of this new Canadian version of religious politics. Only a few papers—most notably, the New York Times, Miami Herald, and Grand Forks Herald—demonstrated sustained attention to the Alliance story, while a smattering of other papers showed light interest, among them the Washington Post, Buffalo News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Washington Times, Boston Globe, and Daytona Beach News-Journal. But, astonishingly, only two stories—friendly accounts of the new Canadian right by the New York Times’s James Brooke April 26 and by the Boston Globe’s Colin Nickerson July 10—dealt at any length with the feature of the story that dominated Canadian news for months, the rise of religious conservatives. (Oddly, Brooke did not so much as mention Day’s social conservatism in his extended report on the leadership runoff.)
In addition to seeing social conservatism as an unwanted U.S. import, many Canadian journalists treated it on its face as an illegitimate intrusion of religion into public life. Eric Volmers of the Cambridge (Ont.) Reporter wrote of religious right activists “forcing their own socially conservative agendas into legislation.” CBC TV’s Keith Boag asked a guest, “Do you think [Day] has a tendency toward imposing his views?” In Maclean’s, Bruce Wallace faulted Day for not convincingly putting up “a wall” between his fiscal and his social conservatism.
“How, who, and when a man worships is his own business,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Catherine Ford. “How, who, and when a politician lets that interfere with public policy is another matter.” If either evangelical candidate someday became prime minister, Toronto SuncolumnistChristina Blizzard wrote, it was worth asking “would we have a theocracy?” By far the most widely noted of the editorials in this vein was “Leave Your Prayer Book at Home, Stockwell,” a column by the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson. “That Mr. Day has strong religious beliefs is fine; that he brings them into the public domain is not. At least not in this secular country… A curtain has been drawn between the…private world of religion and the public world of politics.”
Day responded to Simpson directly in his April 28 “elites” speech: “I do not seek, nor do other persons of faith I know seek to impose their spiritual beliefs on anybody else…but [I] am opposed to any suggestion that citizens separate themselves from their beliefs in order to participate in the government of their state.” Day found an otherwise unlikely ally in Gerald Vandezande, dean of Canada’s liberal evangelical activists and highly regarded in ecumenical circles. In an April 18 op-ed in Canada’s national evangelical newspaper ChristianWeek, Vandezande challenged Simpson’s argument that anyone should or even can “park” their core beliefs.
There was an element of wishful thinking to the journalistic assessments. In the May 28 Toronto Sun Linda Williamson was sure that the Alliance would “never, ever be more than a (slightly scary) novelty fringe party” if it did not jettison social conservatives. Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley contended, “Ontarians, who have long mistrusted Reform’s social agenda, will see through Day’s charming urbanity in a minute—right through to his red neck.”
This assumption that Canadians in general and Ontarians in particular would have no part of social conservatism was widely expressed. A Toronto Star editorial explained that Day’s “insistence” on speaking out on issues of social conservatism revealed that he “is either unaware or unconcerned that his Bible-belt morality doesn’t transplant well.” CTV’s Lloyd Robertson asked fellow journalist Craig Oliver, “Will the people of Ontario be able to set aside [Day’s] apparent social agenda and listen to what he has to say on other fronts?” Replied Oliver, “That is the issue.”
Notwithstanding these assessments, the first round of the Alliance leadership election saw Day beat both Manning and Long in Ontario (an upset, especially since Ontario is Long’s home province); and in the runoff 70 percent of Ontario’s Alliance voters went for Day despite Long’s endorsement of Manning. These results were surely music to the ears of the Toronto Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein, who before the elections complained that “what have been mistaken for ‘Ontario’ values in the often condescending media coverage of the Canadian Alliance, are actually the liberal values that many hold dear…in the media.”
If the Canadian news media were behind the curve of evangelical politics, it is in part a reflection of the relatively short shrift they have given religion—especially of the evangelical variety. To be sure, in some respects religion coverage has edged forward—for example, the multifaith channel Vision TV now leavens the broadcast media. But it is still the case that only a handful of Canadian newspapers employ full-time religion writers. And in religion-and-media scholar Joyce Smith’s study of religion coverage by 20 Canadian newspapers in 1999 (www.geocities.com/faithmedia/), less than five percent of references to religious groups were to evangelical Protestants.
Likewise, Canada’s more tightly controlled media environment blunts awareness of social and religious conservatives. For example, Canada’s broadcasting authorities regulate so-called “abusive comment” in a way many Americans would consider a blatant violation of free speech. (Citing Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who is carried on many Canadian stations, for her critical comments on homosexuality, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council recently noted, “In Canada, we respect freedom of speech but do not worship it.”) In addition, until very recently, television evangelists were not permitted to own stations, and the few that have now been approved are required to provide time to other faiths.
But even after social conservatism became an obvious force to be reckoned with in national politics, the news media made little effort to ascertain the true dimensions of its potential support. An exception that proved the rule was Brian Laghi’s piece in the March 29 Globe and Mail, which quoted University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins’s estimate that at least 30 percent of the voting population holds Day’s views. This is a minority easily large enough to be a major factor on the right, yet Laghi himself could still conclude: “Mr. Day’s key problem is his reputation as a social conservative.” In fact, some of Day’s positions were not even in the minority. The Ottawa Citizen’s Bob Harvey, Canada’s best known religion reporter, cited polls showing strong support in Ontario and nationally for extending school funding to all religious schools.
For journalists interested in academic research on social conservatives and evangelicals in Canada, an increasing amount is available. In the 1990s several scholars— John G. Stackhouse, Jr. of Regent College in Vancouver, Mark Noll of Wheaton College in Illinois, and the late George Rawlyk of Queen’s University in Ontario, among others—led a small renaissance in the study of Canada’s religious conservatives. Public opinion data is now much improved as well. Besides periodic surveys by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, Rawlyk spearheaded two large Angus Reid surveys of religion in Canada in 1993 and 1996.
The research shows that Canadian evangelicals are likely to be conservative on moral issues and increasingly likely to be politically mobilized, but (contrary to some stereotypes) not right-wing on economics, race, or immigration. In the 1996 poll they exhibited above-average support for the Reform party (though their partisan preferences continued to be more diverse than in America). More broadly, social conservatives were a large minority (about one-third) not only in Alberta, but also in Ontario and the nation as a whole. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is not so much that social conservatives are politically over-mobilized in Alberta as that they are undermobilized in other parts of Canada.
On May 27 the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson wrote that the Alliance would have trouble beating the rap that had dogged the Reform party—that the religious right had exercised “a disproportionate influence.” The question that the Canadian media have yet to face, and which will not go away, is what amount of social conservative influence would be proportionate in a united Canadian right? After the recent elections the answer is: a lot more than most Canadians thought.
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