From 'Bible Bill' to Stephen Harper, the evolution of faith-based politics

You don't have to dig very deep into Canadian history to find evidence of faith-based politics, at least on the provincial level, Ira Basen writes. It's been much less apparent at the federal level, until fairly recently at least.
Muslim cleric Lai Khan Malik greets Canada's new ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, in February, as the prime minister looks on. (Canadian Press)

When Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, was the premier of Saskatchewan in the 1940s and '50s, his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was inspired by the ideals of the "social gospel" movement, which sought to apply Christian ethics to attack social injustice.

Next door in Alberta, another Baptist minister, William "Bible Bill" Aberhart had been premier since 1935 and when he died, in 1943, he was succeeded by Ernest Manning, who had been the first graduate of Aberhart's Prophetic Bible Institute in Calgary.

In Quebec, the Union Nationale Party of Maurice Duplessis was in power from 1944 to 1960, and enjoyed the enthusiastic support of most of the province's Catholic hierarchy.

So tight was the connection between church and party that Duplessis campaigned on the slogan "a vote for the Union Nationale is a vote for your religion and your Catholic faith."

You don't have to dig very deep into Canadian history to find evidence of faith-based politics, at least on the provincial level. In national politics, it's been a different story.

Religion, faith and belief

This story is part of a CBC News series looking at religion, faith and belief in our world.

Canada has had nine Catholic prime ministers, but two of the most prominent, Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau, both clashed publicly at times with Quebec's Catholic Church leaders.

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By the time Tommy Douglas became the first leader of the federal New Democratic Party in 1961, most of the talk about building a "new Jerusalem" had faded well into the background.

Only the conservative Christian fundamentalist tradition, which began with Aberhart and Manning, has been able to plant roots in the soil of federal politics, but it has been a long and convoluted road.

Manning to Manning

By the 1970s, many conservative Christians were growing increasingly dismayed by the growing secularization of Canadian society, and shifting attitudes about abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

The linchpin? Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, son of Ernest, launched the movement that would eventually take over the federal Conservative Party. (Reuters)

In 1987, the Christian Heritage Party was founded, dedicated to running the country on "biblical principles." It fielded 63 candidates in the 1988 federal election.

That same year, Preston Manning, son of Ernest, founded the Alberta-based Reform Party as a Western protest movement with a strong socially conservative bent. Ten years later, Reform had 60 seats in the House of Commons and had become the official opposition.

Under Manning, Reform was generally able to put its Christian roots on the back-burner.

But that was no longer possible when Reform morphed into the Canadian Alliance Party in 2000 and chose Stockwell Day as its leader. Day refused to campaign on Sundays and once gave a speech that seemed to indicate he supported the biblical notion that humans and dinosaurs co-existed on Earth 6,000 years ago.

Evangelicals were wildly enthusiastic about Stockwell Day as the leader of a national political party, but many Canadians were wary about his perceived fundamentalism, and he was unable to expand the Alliance base outside of Western Canada.

By 2002, the party had turned against him and Day was replaced by Stephen Harper.

Social values

Harper, who joined the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in the 1980s, had long believed that courting the religious right by emphasizing social issues was bad politics for a party trying to form a national government.

Better to stick to economic issues like taxes, deficits and de-regulation.

But in a speech given to a conservative think-tank in Toronto in April 2003, Harper changed course. He argued that "the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the same ...

"On a wide range of public-policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and child care, and health care and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues."

The new party needed to reach out to social conservatives of all denominations and faiths, a group he labelled the "theo-cons," and it must be prepared to accept small incremental gains and build coalitions that would ultimately lead to victory.

Three years later, that victory was achieved, and in the seven years since then, that 2003 speech can be seen as a blueprint for solidifying the Conservative hold on religious conservatives of all denominations.

The theo-con influence

How important are theo-cons in the Conservative coalition?

Well, an Ipsos-Reid exit poll taken on election day 2011 found that across all faiths, the more religious you were, the more likely you were to vote Conservative.

Stephen Harper has reached out to many different faiths in his time in office. His unusually strong support of Israel is said to have helped him woo Jewish voters in critical ridings. (Reuters)

The party picked up 50 per cent of voters who said they attended a church or temple every week; and 42 per cent of those who said they had "some religious identity," compared to 32 per cent for the NDP and 16 per cent for the Liberals. But what about on the policy front?

It is tempting to dismiss the influence of theo-cons because two of their biggest legislative goals — the re-criminalization of abortion and an end to same-sex marriage — appear no closer to being realized today than they did when the Conservatives were first elected.

But in many other areas this group has made significant progress.

One of the Harper government's first acts upon taking office was to cancel the national daycare plan cobbled together by the Liberals and replace it with child tax credits and other "family friendly" measures designed to keep government out of the business of raising children.

A recent study of grants awarded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), by a political scientist at the University of Quebec, found that money allocated to religious non-profit groups increased 42 per cent between 2005-10, compared to a rise of five per cent for secular NGOs.

As well, for the first time, millions of federal dollars have been funnelled into private Christian colleges and universities through the government's Knowledge Infrastructure Program.

And then there was the recent announcement of the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom, with a $5-million annual budget, charged with "promoting freedom of religion or belief around the world."

This fulfilled a promise made in the 2011 Conservative election platform, although a promise made in the 2008 platform to establish a Democracy Protection Agency to "promote Canada's democratic ideals abroad" has never seen the light of day.

The Armageddon factor

In her exhaustively researched 2010 book, The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, journalist Marci McDonald traced the growing influence of conservative Christian groups on the Canadian political landscape, and specifically within the upper echelons of Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

Canadians needed to wake up, McDonald argued, "to the realization that slowly, covertly, the political process is being co-opted by an extremist vision of Christianity."

Many critics, however, have accused McDonald of overstating the role played by evangelicals in the Conservative Party, suggesting that she is transposing what is happening with the Christian right in the U.S., and that the Canadian experience is different.

But the past two years of majority government has made it clear that faith-based politics and policies are clearly a factor in today's Ottawa, much more so than in the past.

"Serious conservative parties simply cannot shy away from values questions," Stephen Harper told the audience in his 2003 speech in Toronto. And he clearly hasn't.