The full significance of the Conservatives' proposal to establish an office of religious freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has not been recognized. A Globe and Mail editorial supported the proposal as good for refugees and religious minorities abroad, and a news item noted its relevance to, among other groups, Coptic Christians in a key Mississauga swing riding. A prominent Ottawa journalist I consulted said it's "just a sop to ethnic communities." But the proposal's greater impact is among millions of suburban white evangelical Christians, many of whom consider religious freedom a bigger issue than same-sex marriage or abortion.
Evangelical Christianity is a global phenomenon, with its fastest growing elements in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Many Canadian evangelical churches have a missionary bulletin board, showing a world map with pins marking where they send money and people to work with local churches and translate the Bible into local languages. And evangelicals are intensely aware of hostile conditions and acts of persecution.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada regularly issues e-mail alerts about attacks on religious freedom around the world, including a special bulletin last month after the death of Pakistani Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti. Canadian evangelicals pray regularly for "house churches" in China and other secretive Christian gatherings. One best-selling evangelical book, God's Smuggler, is about a Dutchman who transported Bibles across the Iron Curtain in his car during the Cold War.
Concern about religious freedom certainly isn't limited to evangelical Christians, but there's little doubt that this will further cement their ties to the Conservative Party. For all the concern about a Harper secret agenda against abortion and gay rights, this is the real stuff that brings Conservatives and evangelicals closer together. The prospective effect of this office of religious freedom is almost beside the point. This is a low-cost, high-yield pledge that resonates deeply with evangelicals, without the divisive risks of explosive sexuality issues.
The Liberals weren't sure how to handle the Conservative proposal. Bob Rae argued that such an office should be expanded to consider other types of freedom. David McGuinty said Canadians "expect a strong separation of church and state in this country." Leader Michael Ignatieff said the proposal was "the kind of thing that ought to have the support of all sides in politics." But the damage may have been done. The Liberal failure to instantly recognize this issue's broader relevance contrasts with the Conservative championing of a matter intensely dear to evangelical hearts.
In a 2009 paper, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada authors Don Hutchinson and Rick Hiemstra argued that the story of evangelical voting in the 2000s is not one of evangelicals flocking to the Conservatives but how the Liberal Party drove them away by mocking of Stockwell Day and making anti-evangelical statements. While same-sex marriage and similar issues certainly played important roles as well, the larger point is that the Liberals needlessly polarized against evangelicals as a group, making more moderate centrists feel unwelcome in the party.
The Liberals' confusion over an office of religious freedom shows they continue to fail to grasp evangelical thinking or an awareness of evangelical priorities. And the media's failure (with some minor exceptions) to link the Conservatives' election platform proposal to evangelicals and not just selected ethnic communities shows a similar blindness.
Stephen Harper has pledged not to reopen the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet, he still enjoys strong evangelical support because his party has shown that it gets evangelicals as a group, in a way that the Liberals - and much of the media - don't. There's a hidden agenda all right. But it's in plain sight.
Jonathan Malloy is a professor of political science at Carleton University.