Social conservatism's Canadian barriers

Has the passage of Bill C-38—the federal, Canadian redefinition of marriage—awakened a sleeping giant? Will Canadian social conservatives rouse from their slumber? Paul Tuns is author of Jean Chretien: Legacy of Scandal and editor of The Interim.
December 9 th 2005

A common observation about politics north and south of the 49th parallel is that social conservatism is a potent political force in the United States, but it barely registers on the political radar screen in Canada. In the U.S., the religious right is a vital part of the Republican coalition. President George W. Bush, an unabashed socially conservative Christian, was re-elected president of the United States last year. Voters in nineteen states have passed pro-traditional marriage amendments to their constitutions through referenda. The U.S. Congress and state legislatures have regularly debated and sometimes enacted various anti-abortion measures including bans on partial-birth abortion and laws to protect unborn victims of violence.

In Canada, however, the purported social conservatism of the Conservative Party (and its predecessors) is often blamed for its failure to dislodge the Liberals from power—its socially conservative base seen as the party's electoral albatross. It is generally assumed that advocating against abortion and in favour of other traditional values policies loses elections. Advocates of such a view point to Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day in 2000 and Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper in 2004. Critics of social conservatism ignore the fact that Day did not run on a socially conservative agenda or that, during the 2004 election, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's musings about private health care and federal, Ontario Member of Parliament Scott Reid's comments about scaling back bilingualism likely spooked as many voters as Cheryl Gallant, another federal Ontario MP, and her comparison of abortion to the beheading of Nick Berg or Randy White's wish to see the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms rescinded.

When Adam Daifallah and Tasha Kheiriddin argue in Rescuing Canada's Right that bringing up abortion or same-sex marriage leads to Conservatives' losing on election day, the proper response is not that it is untrue but that such a claim is unknowable. Mr. Day ran as a social conservative in the Canadian Alliance leadership races of 2000 and 2002, but neither he nor the party had proposed changing abortion policy in Canada. Four years later, the Liberals attacked Stephen Harper and the Conservatives over a "hidden agenda" that many assumed to include restricting abortion and scaling back the rights of homosexuals. But Mr. Harper flatly refused to run an explicit campaign of defending traditional marriage from judicial redefinition as some pro-family leaders had urged him to do.

Winning the Battle of Ideas

So what are the underlying reasons for the absence of a politically viable social conservatism in Canada? In fact, there are many reasons. But three stand out as significant and (often) inter-related:

  1. the lack of conservative infrastructure such as foundations, think tanks, and publications;
  2. the failure to organize and become part of a larger conservative coalition;
  3. Charter-era politics.

All these factors contribute to the poverty of public discourse on moral issues.

Over the past eighteen months, Canadian conservatives have become keenly aware they do not have at their disposal the conservative infrastructure that exists in the United States—socially conservative or otherwise. Adam Daifallah wrote in the National Post (July 15, 2004) that if conservatives want to get elected they must do work from the ground-up, winning the hearts and minds of Canadians in the battle of ideas by developing conservative policies through think tanks and disseminating those ideas through conservative publications. That column blossomed into the book he co-wrote with Ms. Kheiriddin.

At about the same time, two writers with The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, published The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which describe how conservatism became first intellectually respectable and eventually dominant through the work of business-funded think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and upstart publications such as National Review. Canadians looked at the American example that Micklethwait and Woodridge highlighted and saw a possible path to success.

That there is a paucity of conservative Canadian publications and think tanks is obvious. Conservatives here have no popular journal of opinion. There is no Canadian equivalent to the National Review or The Weekly Standard. The Western Standard, which rose out of the ashes of the now defunct Alberta Report, is limited by its newsweekly format. Social conservatives have a regular voice in several religious publications and The Interim, Canada's life and family issues newspaper, but there is nothing that is broadly conservative.

Until the marriage debate exploded onto the scene in 2003, many religious papers and magazines eschewed moral issues if addressing them would appear political. That is beginning to change, but religious publications are no substitute for conservative periodicals and journals of opinion.

Canada's conservative think tanks—the Fraser Institute and several regional ones such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies—focus on economic issues and narrowly defined social policy such as healthcare and education. American think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation are broadly conservative, addressing economic, cultural and foreign policy matters.

The intellectual centre in Canada is certainly on the left side of the political spectrum. Universities, the media, and government-funded foundations and think tanks all support the status quo and there is little opportunity for conservatives to challenge it. So there is a need for an infrastructure that is broadly conservative.

Pastors in Politics, and Canada's Sleeping Giant

In the United States, the coalition of conservatives grew organically. The social conservative movement grew slowly and in reaction to various developments including the sexual revolution, feminism, liberal divorce laws, abortion on demand, the growing availability of pornography, and threats against private, religious education. It grew politically mature and well-organized with the founding of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in 1979. Falwell got pastors active in politics, informing them about issues and instructing them on how to activate their congregations.

When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the religious right was recognized as an important component of the conservative coalition. In nine months in 1979 and 1980, religious right organizations such as the Moral Majority and the National Christian Action Coalition registered 2.5 million new, Christian voters. Many of them also involved themselves in campaigns at the local level, manning campaign call centres, knocking on doors, and distributing literature in malls. Lee Edwards says in The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America, that the neoconservatives offered the brain power but the religious right supplied the manpower. After all, members of the Chamber of Commerce or faculty lounge do not typically go knocking on doors during an election campaign.

Social conservatives were seen as a valuable if not indispensable part of the conservative movement. As William Rusher says in The Rise of the Right, "by 1980, the religious right had been brought fully on line as a member of the political coalition sustaining the movement." Mr. Rusher recognized that Jerry Falwell's conceit notwithstanding, the religious right was not a majority but it was still "a new, distinct and powerful force on the national political scene."

Now, twenty-five years later, the Washington, D.C., conservative activists who attend two separate weekly meetings organized by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich are very often the same people.

In Canada, social conservatives have not been part of the conservative coalition and the religious right has not emerged as a political factor. There are several reasons for this. One is that socially conservative groups often do not work together, let alone with others. Not until pro-family and religious groups began working together (unsuccessfully) to defeat the Liberal government's redefinition of marriage had social conservatives co-ordinated their efforts on the national stage. Whether or not there will be a lasting working relationship among the organizations only time will tell.

Another reason that Canada has no religious right worth speaking of is the country's much noted lack of religiosity compared to America. But if you take the combined Conservative Protestant, evangelical and Catholic population, in both countries they represent 51% of the population. In the USA, the number of evangelicals and Catholics is almost equal whereas in Canada there are about four times the number of Catholics as evangelicals.

What is significant, however, is the political behaviour of these Christians. Since the Moral Majority burst onto the political scene in the late 1970s followed by the Christian Coalition in the early 1980s, evangelicals have voted overwhelmingly Republican. In 2004, 78% of evangelicals voted for President George W. Bush. While the Catholic vote is more evenly divided and leans Democrat, Crisis magazine has reported that the majority of Catholics who attend Mass weekly vote Republican.

Reliable data on voter preference by religion is largely unavailable in this country because exit polling is a mostly American phenomenon. But as Christian broadcaster Lorna Dueck told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year, evangelicals are not a politically homogeneous group as they vote for the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. This is confirmed by Janet Epp Buckingham, Director of Law and Public Policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who said, "Evangelical Christians tend to vote across party lines in similar proportions to non-Evangelicals."

Despite the past political diversity among evangelicals in Canada, there may be a political realignment under way. Just as the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion-on-demand awakened American Christians to the moral decay in their country and began the process of a politically involved religious right, the 2003 Ontario Court of Appeal Halpern decision mandating same-sex marriage may have awakened the "sleeping giant" of Christians in Canada. More pastors are urging their congregants to become involved in the political process and they are listening as they lobby MPs and march on Parliament Hill. Some pro-family groups hope that evangelicals and Catholics will re-examine their diverse partisan allegiances and coalesce around the Conservatives in response to the party's nearly united opposition to the Liberal government's attempt to redefine marriage.

Canadian Catholics, on the other hand, have historically supported the Liberals because French Canadian politicians from Laurier to St. Laurent were seen as protectors of Catholic institutions in Canada. After the Liberal government's redefinition of marriage many Catholics may be ready to look at alternatives to that party.

Shutting out the Public

One reason people of faith have not been at the forefront of bringing moral issues into the political arena is that these issues seem to have been taken off the table for discussion as courts decide policy. In their book The Charter Revolution and the Court Party, political science professors F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopf describe Canada's "judicialized politics" where each side is encouraged to "claim constitutional trumps rather than to engage in government by discussion." In other words, there needn't be any attempt to promulgate ideas, formulate policies and persuade others of their efficacy because neither the citizenry nor their legislators will have the final say on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage. As Messrs. Morton and Knopf say, it invites politicians to abdicate their responsibility to legislate.

Robert Ivan Martin says in his book, The Most Dangerous Branch: How the Supreme Court of Canada has Undermined Our law and Our Democracy, Charter politics and the judicialization of politics have led to all social issues' becoming legal issues where the clashes of rights are adjudicated by unelected judges. This results in the diminishment of the importance of political action. A public debate about moral issues—abortion, marriage, divorce, euthanasia, homosexuality, censorship, cloning and reproductive technologies, to name a few—is no longer possible or even necessary. Thus, the need to intellectually arm oneself by reading conservative periodicals, attending a Christian university, or organizing like-minded constituents to elect politicians who share one's own views may appear an unnecessary extravagance. Only lawyers arguing before the judges are involved in the debate as the public is effectively shut out of the decision-making process.

These are just some of the reasons for the different political influence of social conservatism in the public square. There are others including the national traits of each country (the rugged individualism of the United States and the deference to authority of Canada), the federal structure (America's fifty states are laboratories of democracy and policy initiative whereas social policy in Canada is dictated by Ottawa), the paucity of orthodox religious post-secondary institutions in Canada, and the lack of religious and political leadership on moral issues.

It seems near impossible for social conservatives to begin making inroads in Canadian politics, but the marriage question may have begun a political awakening among people of faith. The attention being paid to the need for a conservative infrastructure is a development that could bear fruit. Whatever the hurdles social conservatives face, it is important that they do not give up and that they begin the hard work of organizing, becoming intellectually equipped and politically active. After all, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge note, the infrastructure in place that helped get Reagan and the Bushes elected over the past twenty-five years was created in the 1940s and 1950s. It will take a long time for the seeds that need to be planted to grow into something that is politically viable.

 

Paul Tuns is author of Jean Chretien: Legacy of Scandal and editor of The Interim, and a freelancer with a number of Canadian dailies and periodicals.

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