Stephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.
Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.
Catholic vote up for grabs
Catholics moved to the Conservatives in significant numbers in the 2006 and 2008 elections but that trend may now be in question. The big story here, in addition to the rise of the NDP vote among Catholics, is the huge losses endured by the Liberals. They have long been the party of choice for Catholics in Canada, but the Liberals’ poor overall performance in the 2011 election was also reflected in their results among the Catholic constituency. That vote is now up for grabs and Catholics constitute more than 40 per cent of the Canadian population.
This may be why Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has already had a post-election meeting with Msgr. Patrick Powers, the general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa, and plans to meet with the CCCB president Most Rev. Pierre Morrisette in June. Perhaps the bishop could begin by asking Kenney what he meant when he said last winter that “church bureaucrats” were responsible for a CCCB letter criticizing the government’s human smuggling legislation. Was Kenney implying that the bishops do not have an analysis of their own or that their staff is out of their control?
Conservatives and Jewish voters
A third observation based on the Ipsos Reid exit poll is that the Conservatives did well among Jewish voters in the 2011 election but that they did poorly among Canadian Muslims. Among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and only 16 per cent who voted NDP. The Harper government has courted Jewish voters by offering uncritical support for Israel, replacing the more nuanced policy of previous Liberal administrations. Jewish voters have in the past been strong supporters of the Liberals but Conservatives have been eating into that support for several elections. For their part, organizations that claim to speak for Canadian Jews have made it clear that unwavering support for Israel is the single issue that they care about most.
There is another reason for the Conservatives to be cheerleaders for Israeli government policies. A committed fringe element of Christian fundamentalists are Christian Zionists who believe that Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled by the creation of Israel and its hegemony in the Middle East. In offering uncritical support for Israel the Conservatives are playing both to these fundamentalist Christians and to Jewish voters. I reported early in the election campaign about a series of Canada Celebrates Israel events that occurred in four Canadian cities. They were thinly disguised political events organized by Israeli politicians and fundamentalist Christians and featured former Conservative MPs Stockwell Day and Jim Abbott among their guest speakers.
More of the same
We can expect more of the same from the Conservatives regarding Israel. Following the election in May, Prime Minister Harper stood alone among G8 leaders meeting in France in his opposition to the release of a joint statement calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 six-day war. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly rejected that proposal and Israeli newspapers reported that he spoke to Harper about the matter. The G8 works on the basis of consensus so on Harper’s insistence the group’s final statement removed any reference to the 1967 borders. The Prime Minister reaped praise from Christian fundamentalists for his actions. The National House of Prayer in Ottawa is one such group which claims to pray for politicians of all stripes. In its website on May 27 the organization offered the following prayer: “That Stephen Harper will be given courage and wisdom regarding Canada’s stance towards Israel and will continue his stance to see the 1967 borders fall out of debates.”
Harper is isolating Canada internationally by his unquestioning support for an Israeli government that appears intent to continue its occupation of Palestinian land and people in contravention of repeated United Nations declarations. Harper also largely forfeits the vote of Muslim Canadians but that is a price he appears prepared to pay. Among those Canadian voters who identified as Muslims, only 12 per cent voted Conservative. Significantly, 46 per cent of them voted Liberal in an election where the Liberal vote dropped to historic lows. The NDP received 38 per cent of the Muslim vote and presumably the party will attempt to improve upon that performance. There are three times as many Muslims as there are Jews in Canada but Jewish people and their organizations are well established and influential.
A fourth observation regarding the Ipsos Reid exit poll deals with the growing political polarization between voters who identify as religious and those who say they have no religion. The Conservatives drew the support of 50 per cent of those voters who said they attended a church or temple at least once a week. The NDP received the support of only 24 per cent of that group. Many polls taken at different times in both Canada and the U.S. indicate that regular church attenders are more likely to vote Conservative (or Republican) than are people who attend a church less often. The reasons why merit a column on their own but likely mean that people in closely knit groups tend to influence one another in voting behaviour, in this case in a conservative direction. On the other hand, the NDP won the vote of 42 per cent of the no religion group of voters in the 2011 election, while the Conservatives received only 27 per cent of that vote.
Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist, has commented on the growing number of people who say they have no religion. Bibby says that group is numerically larger than any single religious denomination in Canada, save for Catholics. The no religion group is highly represented among younger people and is poised to grow as a percentage of the population. One question is whether there will be growing friction and disrespect between those who follow a religious faith and those who do not. In strictly political terms, the no religion group is amorphous and unorganized while frequent church attenders are easier for political parties to reach because they belong to communities that are often tightly knit.
The coming polarization promises to be both religious and political. The NDP is a social democratic party that trends to the left of the Liberals and certainly to the left of the Conservatives. It has a strong base among people who profess no religion, as well as considerable support from those religionists — Protestant, Catholic and other — who attend church less often. The Conservatives have strong support among frequent attenders, particularly Evangelical Protestants, Christian fundamentalists, and Jews. They will support Harper in his quest for a smaller government, but will also support added spending on the military and prisons. Do not expect to see action from this government on abolishing poverty, mitigating climate change, or on pursuing nuclear deterrence, which are issues promoted by many mainstream religious groups.
Next four years intense
Harper has promised that he will not allow the abortion debate to be reopened but we can expect theological conservatives to keep the pressure on him, even as they continue to support him as the best alternative. I received an automated telephone call late in the election campaign from Jim Hughes, chairman of the Campaign Life Coalition asking me to support the Conservative candidate in an Ottawa riding. Shortly after the election in May, a National March for Life event drew about 10,000 people Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Their clear message to the Harper government was to say that the abortion debate is on again.
The next four years promise to be intense. Fasten your seat belt.