Secular country, religious voters

Sep 28, 2015 by

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You may have noticed there’s an election going on. Not the U.S. presidential campaign. I’m talking about the Oct. 19 Canadian election.

Longhurst

Longhurst

Unlike in the U.S., religion plays a very minor role in Canadian elections. No candidate for Prime Minister from the four federal parties — the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats (NDP) or Greens — has been asked about their religion or to share their faith story. None has sought the endorsement of any major religious leaders.

In Canada, those kinds of things just don’t matter.

This doesn’t mean religion may not have an impact on who wins. It did in the last election, in 2011, which saw the Conservatives win a majority government. It is widely accepted that one of the reasons they did so well is because they did a much better job in reaching out to religious groups.

In many cases, this meant wooing ethnic minor­i­ties, but it included significant outreach to evangelical and Jewish voters.

A survey after the last vote found that Protestants, including evangelicals, and Jews were more likely to vote for Conservatives than other parties. It found 50 percent of Canadians who attend worship services regularly voted Conservative, while only 24 percent voted NDP and 18 percent voted Liberal.

Overall, the Conservatives received the votes of 42 percent of Canadians who say they have a religious identity.

There is no survey data about how Mennonites have tended to vote, and it’s impossible to speak about a “Mennonite vote” in this country. But if you look at an electoral map of Canada and plot the places with large numbers of Mennonites, they are usually represented by a Conservative.

This wasn’t always the case. For decades, Canadian Mennonites, many of whom came to this country as immigrants or refu­gees, consistently voted for the Liberal Party due to its historic support for immigration. For many Mennonites, voting Liberal was a way to express gratitude for providing them with a new and safe home in Canada.

But over the past 20 to 30 years, Mennonites have drifted to the Conservatives. This is partly due to the Conservative Party’s efforts to win their vote. But it also is because they, like other evangelicals who once voted Liberal, felt that party had pushed them away by making anti-evangelical statements and by supporting abortion and gay marriage.

They aren’t likely to come back this election, since the Liberals, like the NDP, require all their candidates to be pro-choice. Even for those Mennonites who believe a change of government is needed after 10 years of the Conservative rule, this could make it hard to vote for any party other than the Conservatives.

The Conservatives have repeatedly said they won’t introduce legislation to repeal abortion or gay marriage. But the party is also more welcoming of candidates who oppose them, which makes it more attractive.

With Canada becoming an increasingly secular country, does religion even matter that much today when it comes to voting?

For many observers, the answer is yes. As Will McMartin, a longtime political consultant, put it: Religion “almost certainly will be an important factor for a sizeable number of Canadians as they ponder how to vote. . . . Whether it will be decisive in determining the outcome remains to be seen.” We’ll have an answer in a few weeks.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


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