Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tracking Canada's Evangelical Vote

Evangelical Christians flock to Tories, NDP from Liberals

For the casual follower of Canadian politics, one may think it's safe to assume that the Conservative party has the votes of Canada's Evangelical Christians essentially locked down, and always have.

But that assumption is really only half-true.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada recently released a report on the voting habits of Evangelical Christians. They concluded that Canadian Evangelicals are turning away from the Liberal party. Two-thirds of the Evangelicals are moving to support the Conservative party. The other third are supporting the NDP.

Few Canadians would intuitively equate the Liberal party with Evangelical Christianity.

This has increasingly been the case over the past 12 years. As the Examiner's Brian Lilley notes, in 1996 -- in the midst of the Reform party's heyday -- Evangelical votes were well predicted by regional preferences. In Western Canada 33% of Evangelical voters supported the Reform party (30% supported the Liberals). In Ontario, 44% of Evangelical Christians supported the Liberal party (an anemic 15% supported Reform).

But by 2008 the preference of Evangelicals have tipped inexorably away from the Liberals. Only 11% of Canada's Evangelical Christians continue to support the Grits. In 1996 the figure was 44%.

Senator David Smith attributes the loss in the Liberal share of the Evangelical vote to Liberal party stances on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.

"These have been polarizing issues. I would hope that with the work [Toronto Liberal MP] John McKay is doing, (many former Liberal voters) will come back," Smith said.

Indeed, John McKay has been at the head of efforts to solidify Liberal party inroads to religious communities. McKay has been working not only with Evangelical Christians, but but also with Catholics.

“I am hoping that this initiative will free up some political space for faith leaders to speak into the marketplace of ideas and not feel that they will end up battered and bruised and run out of town on a rail,” McKay said.

McKay believes -- hopefully rightly -- that more reasonable debates on moral issues can be fostered if only enough people cared to try.

"I think from time to time the Liberal party has edged into the areas of being disagreeable," he explained. "And I don’t think that’s right or respectful. It doesn’t allow for a fruitful, mature, intelligent dialogue on both differences and commonality."

"The Liberal Party is a big tent," he concluded. "I would hope that all things being equal that Evangelical and active Catholics would feel very comfortable in that tent."

Evangelicals concerned about same-sex marriage and abortion are clearly turning toward the Conservative party. Even if Conservative policy declines to substantively address either one of those issues, their views still tend to find a more receptive audience amongst the Tories.

According to former NDP MP Bill Blaikie, many young Evangelicals are moving toward the NDP. Blaikie argues that these Evangelicals have "moved beyond the culture wars and see their commitment to be acting out the gospel, preserving the environment and fighting AIDS."

These Evangelicals have clearly subscribed to the Tommy Douglas brand of the social gospel -- it can be easy for many Canadians to forget that Douglas was an ordained Baptist minister.

Blaikie notes that Evangelicals are "principled voters", and will vote with whatever party pays the most attention to their particular principles.

The EFC paper also notes that "the growing evangelical support for the Conservatives had more to do with the Conservative' offering a viable alternative to the Liberals, whom many perceived as corrupt and hostile, than with a hope for potential policy gains."

As those Canadians who pay close attention to Canadian politics can easily conclude, the Liberals have rarely been a viable alternative to the NDP. Their commitment to issues of social justice have constantly be proven to be far too flexible for anyone who embraces social justice as a tenet of their religious beliefs.

Various Liberal electoral tactics -- including 2004 push polls that concerned the Conservative party's association with Evangelical circles -- have also served to distance the Liberals from Evangelical voters.

The Liberals once had one significant portion of Canada's Evangelical vote essentially sewed up. In Like Father, Like Son (a book about Earnest and Preston Manning) Mackey notes that Ethnic Evangelicals -- one of several subcategories of Canadian Evangelical Christianity, which also includes the Pentacostal, Charismatic, Holy, Reformed and Evangelicals in Mainline Churches, as well as "Mainstream" Evangelicals -- often tended to support the Liberal party (mostly, by his reckoning, because the Liberals happened to be in power when they arrived).

As Brian Lilley notes, Canadian Evangelicals are not nearly so frightening as some observers of Canadian politics would want Canadians to believe -- the EFC's study seems to bear this to be true. The Liberal party's loss of faith (so to speak) amongst the Evangelical vote has certainly contributed to its downfall. Arresting its declining poll numbers among Evangelicals may be a crucial step in reversing its general electoral fortunes.

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