How rural, religious and other identities affect the way Albertans vote

"It becomes, ‘my party, no matter what,'" writes Brooks DeCillia. "And so the nuances of party platforms, even ones that appeal directly to rural voters, arguably don’t matter."

Why identity can matter more than beliefs

The historic ranching landscape of the Porcupine Hills is shown about 35 kilometers southwest of Claresholm, Alta. in 2010. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election campaign. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

Woven together, religion, identity and politics have an interlaced history in Alberta.

William (Bible Bill) Aberhart's charismatic personality and red-hot rhetoric propelled him from his Sunday radio sermons on CFCN, to the premier's chair in 1935. The school principal and Baptist preacher captured the imagination of a drought and Depression-weary electorate, sparking a landslide victory that swept the pragmatic and cautious United Farmers of Alberta Government out of office.

Aberhart was replaced by another minister in 1943.

Like Aberhart, Ernest Manning also preached on the radio. Back to the Bible Hour remained a Sunday staple on radio during Manning's long tenure as Alberta premier.

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We know that religion plays a part in how people vote — but how it plays that role is complicated. It's not as simple as people of a particular faith voting a particular way. Nor is it just that if your religion holds a belief, you will vote based on that belief.

It's about how you see yourself within your community. It's about identity.

Recalling Alberta's William 'Bible Bill' Aberhart, Social Credit pioneer

3 months ago
Duration 12:16
A look back at the career of the charismatic Alberta preacher-turned-politician William Aberhart. Aired Jan. 10. 1962 on CBC's Explorations.

'A veneer of religiosity'

Perhaps it's Alberta's preacher/politician history, and the many religious settler communities — Mormons, Mennonites, Hutterites — that came to the prairie province, that inspires the hackneyed trope that Alberta is Canada's "Bible Belt."

But that just isn't true.

As one watcher of Alberta politics astutely observed, the prairie province merely has "a veneer of religiosity." 

"In terms of values and religious practice, Albertans basically look on average like the rest of Canada," said University of Regina political scientist Jim Franey, who studies religion and politics.

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Alberta is not more religious than the rest of the country. In fact, census data shows that Albertans are more likely than the rest of the country to profess no religion.

Compared to the national average of 24 per cent, almost 32 per cent of Albertans called themselves irreligious in 2011, according to Statistics Canada

Still, religion — and religiosity — have meaningful consequences in Alberta politics.

The lens of faith

A survey conducted last year for the CBC, working with Janet Brown Research, shows that Albertans' political opinions differ most sharply along religious and educational lines. 

Now, religiosity is a difficult thing to define — where belief starts or ends, or what precise metaphysical belief system people hold or adhere to — so CBC's pollster let the people surveyed define their own religious sensibility, regardless of faith.

The researchers asked people how important religion was in their life. The survey found that the higher the self-reported level of religiosity, the more likely people were to vote for the UCP.

A polling station sign at Elbow Park School in Calgary. (CBC)

"We found that there is a positive relationship between religiosity and voting for the United Conservative Party," said John Santos, the data scientist who did the statistical number crunching.

But, on the other side, the absence of that lens — a lack a religious faith, or rating yourself low on how important religion is in your life — does not mean you're more likely to vote for the NDP.

But for those who profess a strong faith, it's likely they will support the UCP.

"When you belong to a particular religion, when you identify with that religion, that brings with it a lens through which you see the world and it provides an anchor against which you can look at other actors in the political system," added Santos.

But this is where it gets complicated. Religiosity can be seen as a collection of beliefs, but it is also a kind of community, one in which you can see yourself as part of that team. It's a kind of collective identity. And that identity, can actually be more important than actual beliefs when it comes to how you vote.

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These days, Melanee Thomas is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, but she grew up in rural Alberta. She remembers the church being the social heart of her hometown of Granum near Lethbridge. Thomas says in her community, many important events and milestones such as birthdays were marked at the church hall.

"The church was the social center… because it's basically a gathering of ... a lot of the extended families," said Thomas.

So, over time, the same people go to the same place to experience the same events together, and a collective identity forms. People in the group becomes a "we."

"The idea that you would actually consider identifying with another party or publicly voting for another party is definitely seen to be deviant," said Thomas.

The mistake people make when it comes to how this affects voting in Alberta, is in thinking that all these people share the same values. But religious faith comes with a plurality of values and not all rural people are religious.

So why is there a pretty consistent conservative vote in rural areas? Well, this, too, is about identity. 

It's not completely a religious one, but rather a rural identity. As Thomas has written about, rural identity is tremendously important for many UCP supporters "in ways that can't be explained by alignment with issues, values, or beliefs."

A common scene around rural Alberta: cows and hay bales on a farm in Crossfield. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

As Thomas stresses, Albertans who live in the country agree with a lot of the same values and beliefs as urban dwellers. In fact, political research last year found that most Albertans — whether they are in rural parts or the big cities — are not all that conservative on both economic and social issues.

The motivator for voting again, comes down to identity.

Research shows identity is important for NDP support as well. If you have a Master's degree, belong to a union and are irreligious, you probably have an NDP sign in your yard. There is a stacking of identities — and when multiple identities pile on top of each other it strengthens the partisan effect.

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Many people in rural Alberta feel a closeness or attachment to the UCP. They see themselves reflected in the party. It's an allegiance with the party; not its ideas that probably matters most to many voters. 

And this is key to understanding the role of identity in voting patterns. People who vote for the party may or may not share all it's values, but they see themselves as part of the collective identity of "people who vote UCP."

This is partisanship.

So, even if one party, oh, say, unifies with another party and it's values appear to change, or an opposing party offers a specific platform geared to rural issues, it may not shift the vote.

It's partisanship, not ideas that matter

Party ideology, platforms, dearly held beliefs, rhetorical mission statements, moral positions, were long thought to be the thing that differentiated partisans — the reason for why they cast a ballot the way they did.

But, increasingly, more and more evidence suggests that voters' values can change, even radically. Their partisan identity as voting one way or another, rarely does.   

It becomes "my party, no matter what." And so the nuances of party platforms — even ones that appeal directly to rural voters — arguably don't matter.

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Group identity increasingly seems to matter more.

So, rural and urban Albertans can agree about public policy, people in Calgary and Edmonton can share similar thoughts about the size of school classrooms, everyone can pretty agree on the importance of job creation, but they appear set to vote for different parties on Tuesday.

In the future it will be key for political parties hoping to win elections, to be seen as the champions of identity groups.

As Santos points out: "People's identities tend to be stable and they will change their values based on what the elites of the social groups with which they identify say those values ought to be."

So, ideas — even religious ones — don't matter as much as we once thought.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. These days, he’s an assistant professor with Mount Royal University’s School of Communication Studies.