We in what is called the “mainstream” media tend to be secularists who either consider religion to be a private matter or have no religious faith at all. We tend therefore to minimize or miss the importance of religion in politics, especially Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party.
A recent vote on a Conservative backbencher’s motion to let a Commons committee ponder when human life begins plunged the House of Commons briefly again into the question of abortion. More than half of the Conservative caucus, including eight cabinet ministers, voted for the motion, which presumably meant they wanted the country’s abortion laws and practices tightened.
The Prime Minister had made it clear he did not favour the motion; indeed, he has said abortion law is settled. So, even if the matter had gone to committee, it would have died there, killed by NDP and Liberal MPs and Mr. Harper’s orders. Still, the abortion motion showed how powerful religion remains as a force in the Conservative Party. And it suited the party to have the motion debated, as a nod to its core supporters.
Abortion can be divorced from religion. People without a religious bone in their bodies can have strong views on the matter. On the pro-life (or anti-abortion, if you prefer) side, however, are churches that campaign vigorously against abortion, and Conservative MPs and candidates who, far from the mainstream media spotlight, use their pro-life/anti-abortion views in and between election campaigns.
The Roman Catholic Church is a well-known opponent of abortion, which does not mean all Catholics agree with their church. But the church has some influence on the issue.
Of arguably greater influence are the evangelical Christian churches. They tend to be strongly pro-life and politically aggressive. Leading up to the Commons vote, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which boasts two million members, was among the organizations that lobbied hard for the motion.
Evangelical Christians – and this is of course a generalization – tend to live in rural and suburban areas, the Conservative heartland. They tend to have a black-and-white, good-and-evil view of religious doctrine and of the world in general, which fits rather nicely with how the Harper government sees the world.
Recent speeches by Mr. Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in New York were quite radical by the standards of traditional Canadian foreign policy, although their messages would be compatible with evangelical Christianity’s view of the world. In the speeches, they painted the world in good-guy/bad-guy terms, full of threats and dangers, whereas as Steven Pinker has shown in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, we live in a time of remarkable peace and relative stability. None of the great powers threatens the others; none wishes to change boundaries.
One threat is that of Islamic jihadism, a fringe group within Islam – albeit a dangerous one. A regional threat revolves around Israel’s position in the Middle East. The Harper Tories have become the world’s most unfettered supporters of the Netanyahu government, a position that is deeply popular with evangelical Christian doctrine. Outside Jews themselves, evangelicals tend to be Israel’s most uncritical supporters.
Even the United Nations, which the Harper government detests and portrays as a nest of dictatorships and thugs, actually counts a strong majority of its members as democracies. As Freedom House in Washington has shown, democracies (some admittedly flawed) are now by far the majority of countries in the world. No matter. For the Harperites, the UN is best flayed and neglected, and the party base loves it.
Evangelicals appear to be gaining adherents, while traditional Protestant denominations such as the United Church and the Anglican Church are losing members. The Social Gospelers who married social reform with religion and gravitated to the CCF and NDP – men such as Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles and, more recently, Bill Blaikie – are all but extinct in the modern NDP.
Evangelicals’ support for the Conservatives is tremendously helpful in the form of financial contributions and votes. Only occasionally does their presence make itself felt, as in the abortion debate, usually without much direct effect. But indirectly, their view contributes to how the Conservatives see the world and act within it.