Although he doesn’t say it as frequently as he once did, when speechifying for something he deems profoundly patriotic, Stephen Harper concludes his speeches with “God bless Canada”.

That phrase seems oddly out of place and anachronistic in Canadian politics, even though there is no formal separation between church and state. Indeed, we think that publicly declaring one’s religious affiliation is the kiss of death when running for elected office.

Stockwell Day was ridiculed, and rightly so, for professing his belief in a 6,000-year-old Earth.

Of course, the whole Alliance/Day campaign of 2000 was a disaster and Day’s penchant for absurd ideas like creationism was only part of the problem.

What should interest political junkies is that next to regional reasons for voting patterns, religion is the most powerful predictor of voter behaviour in Canada. Although the literature is relatively thin on religion’s association with Canadian political preference (see Bélanger, Eagles, Guth, Johnston and Meisel), when studying voting patterns, we should consider belief and non-belief.

If we put beliefs into neat and tidy political camps, we typically find that Protestants align with the Conservatives, Catholics with the Liberals, and those with no religion with the NDP.

We see certain religious and non-religious groups aligning with specific parties partly because of religious subculture. Those who self-identify as evangelicals, for example, are more likely to have socially conservative views and therefore find a home in the Conservative Party.

Further, when those evangelicals flock to one party, their membership can reinforce these views and may encourage the development of party policy along evangelical lines.

But it isn’t just fundamentalist groups like evangelicals who are attracted to the Conservatives. Many mainline Protestant denominations have historically supported the Conservatives’ emphasis on diligence, self-reliance, and so on (in short, “the Protestant work ethic”). Although, it seems that the present-day United Church has little in common with conservative values.

We may see, since the Harper caucus and staff are populated with a significant number of evangelicals (or heavily influenced by radical evangelicals such as Charles McVety), that mainline Protestants may migrate to the centre-right Liberal Party, leaving more fringe fundamentalists to support the Conservatives.

Despite having roots in the Social Gospel, New Democrats draw people with no religious preference. It could be that humanists are more attracted to the principles of compassion and equality espoused by the NDP. Or it could be that the NDP represents a challenge to the status quo, and those who aren’t satisfied with the status quo are also uncomfortable with organized religion.

Religion’s Decline

Asked once every 10 years, the 2001 census found that the number of Catholics, the largest religious group in Canada, are declining. In 2001, 43% of the population was Catholic; down from 45% in 1991. Protestants, the second largest religious denomination, represented 29% of the population in 2001 but 35% in 1991.

The only group experiencing significant growth is “no religion”. In 2001, 16% of Canadians said that they had no religion; up from 12% in 1991. And estimates indicate that today, those who have no religion account for 20% of the Canadian population.

Therefore, in 2001, while Catholics were the most numerous with 13 million adherents, placing second were 5 million who said they did not have a religion, and third, when Protestants were divided into specific denominations, was the United Church with 3 million followers.

Catholics and Liberals: A Mystery

Continuing to be a source of puzzlement for political scientists is why Liberals derive a majority of support from Catholics. Political scientist André Blais suggested a prize be awarded to the researcher who can crack this mystery.

Using Canadian Election Surveys, I analyzed the 1988 and 2004 elections, the former occurring when abortion was in the news and the latter when same-sex marriage was at the height of public discussion.

To test Catholic support for Liberals, I chose abortion and same-sex marriage as variables because both are proscribed by the Catholic Church. For example, in 1995, Pope John Paul II referred to abortion as an “unspeakable crime”.

In the 1988 election, Liberals received half of their support from Catholics. And in 1988, about half of regular church-going Catholics said that abortion should be permitted following medical consultation. At this time, Catholics mirrored the opinion of all Canadian respondents.

It may be that the Canadian Catholic community is disassociated from many of the socially conservative pronouncements from the Vatican.

During the 2004 federal election, Catholic support for the Liberal Party was still strong (43%) and Conservatives held significant Protestant support (49%).

When the question of same-sex marriage was asked of Canada’s various religious denominations, a majority of Protestants (68%) were opposed, while Catholics were evenly split: 50 per cent opposed and 50 per cent in favour.

When all voting age Canadians were asked for their opinion on same-sex marriage, 47 per cent were in support and 53 per cent opposed. What is noteworthy about this finding is that it seems Catholics were more aligned with general consensus and did not abide by Catholic Church doctrine, particularly as same-sex marriage is proscribed by the Vatican.

It seems that social policies anathema to Catholic doctrine did not dissuade Liberal Catholic support; and, Liberal Catholics appear to mirror general Canadian consensus on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Is Religious Affiliation still Relevant to Understanding Voter Behaviour?

But times could be changing. Current polls suggest that the Conservatives are in majority territory while Liberal support, once steady and predictable, is dropping precipitously.

The Conservatives invoke god when delivering speeches, hire political staff such as the Prime Minister’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Darrel Reid, who denounced abortion and same-sex marriage while president of Focus on the Family in Canada, and pander to myriad religious communities. However, they have attempted to place a veil over a level of religiosity that makes the majority of Canadians squeamish.

But with religion on the decline, what does this mean for voting patterns? Will religion lose its place as a powerful predictor of voter behaviour? Or will it continue to be exploited by political parties for electoral gain?

Eric Mang

Eric Mang

Eric Mang served as a political aide in the Harris government in Ontario and the Campbell government in British Columbia. His politics have since shifted left. He works full-time in health policy, part-time...