CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

Religion and the 2004 election

Carolyn Ryan, CBC News Online

CBC's Joan Leishman on the Christian evangelical community and the election - runs 7:29VIDEO
CBC's Joan Leishman on the Christian evangelical community and the election
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Religious groups have flexed their political muscles throughout Canada's history, playing roles in the dramas surrounding prohibition, conscription and abortion, among other issues. But in recent years, no single topic has galvanized public debate as much as same-sex marriage, and conservative church leaders and members are some of the most passionate voices in that debate.

Demonstrators against same-sex marriage.
Demonstrators against same-sex marriage march in Vancouver in August 2003. (CP photo)  

As we head toward election day, would-be federal politicians will be weighing the clout of the churches and deciding whether they can afford to ignore what's shaping up to be a significant lobbying force.

Not all spiritual communities oppose the move to extend marriage rites to gays, of course. The United Church of Canada, the Unitarian Church of Canada, and some liberal Jewish and Anglican congregations have approved same-sex unions. On the other side of the divide, wanting marriage limited to a man-woman union, are the Roman Catholic Church (by far the largest religious group in Canada), evangelical Protestant churches, Eastern Orthodox churches, Muslim and Sikh organizations, and most Anglican and Jewish congregations.

An Ipsos-Reid poll Link opens in new window released in August 2003 showed an even split on the issue, with about 49% of Canadians at least mildly supporting the right of homosexual couples to marry and an equal number opposing the concept. (Opposition is generally higher in the Western provinces and among older and rural Canadians, constituencies that tend to attend church more regularly.) Interestingly, 59% of respondents in the same poll said they didn't like the thought of churches trying to tell politicians what to do on public policy issues - and that included about 52% of Roman Catholic respondents. Moderates tend not to vote as much as those on a mission, though, so election watchers will keep a keen eye on how this issue unfolds.

Demonstrators against same-sex marriage.
Claudette Conrad protests same-sex marriage outside a BBQ in Thunder Bay, Ont., attended by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in August 2003. (CP photo)  

Already, Roman Catholic leaders have warned that politicians who support the Liberal government’s same-sex marriage are in a spiritual conflict of interest. The Vatican issued a directive in mid-2003 saying it would be "gravely immoral" for Catholic politicians around the world to vote in favour of legalizing such unions. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary went even further, creating a storm when he said Prime Minister Jean Chrétien risks burning in hell for introducing same-sex marriage legislation, known as Bill C-23. "He doesn't understand what it means to be a good Catholic," Henry said. "He's putting at risk his eternal salvation." Prime Minister Paul Martin, a devout Roman Catholic, will likely face much pressure from his fellow worshippers during this campaign.

In the United States presidential campaign, feelings on religiously charged issues are even more heated. Some bishops and priests have threatened to withhold the communion wafer from Democratic candidate John Kerry, a similarly strong Catholic who nonetheless supports abortion rights, civil unions for gays and stem-cell research, conducted with tissue taken from fetuses. In April 2004, a top Vatican official, Cardinal Francis Arinze, said without mentioning Kerry's name that politicians who are pro-abortion are "not fit" to receive communion, and "should not be given" it.

Many Canadian Alliance MPs mirrored their church-going constituents in strongly opposing C-23 throughout 2003. It remains to be seen whether the new Conservative Party of Canada will back away from that stance in an attempt to woo moderate voters formerly attached to the Progressive Conservative Party. Leader Stephen Harper, who belongs to a Christian and Missionary Alliance church and often ends his speeches by saying "God bless Canada," opposes same-sex marriage personally but has pledged to allow MPs to side with their consciences in a free vote on the topic.

Despite that policy, foes seem poised to paint the Conservatives as dogmatically united on social issues. In April, Liberal pollsters were asking Ontarians whether they would be "more or less likely to vote for the Conservative/Alliance if you knew they had been taken over by evangelical Christians." Strategists may point out that the merged party already includes four ministers among its MPs (Reed Elley, Philip William Mayfield, Larry Spencer and Maurice Vellacott). On top of that, three of its nominated candidates are well-known for leading religious organizations. David Sweet used to lead Promise Keepers in Canada, Peter Stock was once the national director of the Canada Family Action Coalition, and Michael Menear founded the Christian Legal Fellowship.

Religious statistics in Canada

Religious statistics in Canada
Roman Catholics form the largest religious group in Canada by far. Here, a crowd fills St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto for the April 2003 funeral of Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter. (CP photo)


In the 2001 census, Roman Catholics made up 43% of Canada's population, down from 45% in 1991. The proportion of Protestants, who compose the second largest group, fell to 29% from 35% a decade earlier. About 16% of Canadians said they had "no religion," up from 12% in 1991. The latest numbers show 2.6% reporting themselves as "Christian" with no specific denomination given. Christian Orthodox worshippers made up 1.6%, up from 1.4% in 1991. The proportion of Muslims in the population rose to 2% from 1% a decade earlier. Those of the Jewish faith now make up 1.1% of the population, while Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs each represent about 1%. The sheer population numbers don't tell the whole tale, though. Statistics Canada also reports that regular attendance at religious services has fallen off sharply since 1986. Only about 20% of Canadians aged 15 and over attended a church, synagogue, mosque or temple on a weekly basis in 2001, down from 28% only 15 years before.

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Religion and the Election

Same Sex Marriage  The religious component of public life. more »

Same Sex Marriage  History of Canada�s same-sex marriage legislation. more »

Church and state  Some past clashes of church and state. more »

Their Own Words

Leaders: On the record  The leaders, on the record. more »

Church and state  What some others say. more »
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