Fearing the religious right in Canada—or not (yet)

With the impending federal election in Canada roughly coinciding with an American presidential race, all sorts of pundits will keep busy offering us their particular angles on one campaign or another. Over the last few decades, one of those angles, no matter how misleading it has turned out to be, keeps being exploited: the fear of a religious right in Canada.

Yet another partly-informed person is warning us about a religious right in Canada in tandem with President Trump and his white evangelical supporters in the United States. This time it’s André Gagné, an associate professor in the department of theological studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Last time it was journalist Marci McDonald, whose book, The Armaggedon Factor (2010), was intended to raise the alarm about an impending wave of right-wing politics fuelled by fundamentalist fervour.

Well, Ms. McDonald was mostly wrong, and in lots of ways: from mishandling basic statistics to wildly overestimating the influence of evangelicals on Stephen Harper. Perhaps what was worst about her misguided and misleading analysis, however, was her conflating all sorts of issues and Christians into a solid, coherent body of political action. And that’s what Professor Gagné is doing now, too.

Professor Gagné puts in the same box all of the following: anti-abortion campaigners, Doug Ford’s Ontario Tories, Andrew Sheer’s federal Tories, American white evangelicals, Donald Trump, “dominion” theology, Canadian evangelicals, Canadian conservative Catholics, and a sprinkling of Mormons and Jews. He claims that they share “opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people and sex education classes. They also speak out in favour of the promotion of prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism (or intelligent design), the fight against euthanasia and the safeguarding of what they call religious freedom.” Above all, they are Christian nationalists who want “Judeo-Christian values” to dominate Canadian life. And toward that end “such groups will likely give their support to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, the candidate who best represents their own socio-conservative values.”

There is more to question in this brief article of Gagné’s than we can manage in this equally brief space. But let’s list a few problems for starters, with the initial observation that the vast majority of Canadians for the last several centuries have wanted Judeo-Christian values to guide Canadian life, and it’s not clear that a majority even today are clearly preferring a totally different set.

• Anti-abortion isn’t the province only of conservative Catholics and Protestants. Canadians of lots of different ideologies, polls show, don’t like the idea of completely unrestricted abortion even as most are not sure how they would square that belief with the widespread concern to preserve a pregnant woman’s autonomy.

• For that matter, Andrew Scheer has declared, as Stephen Harper did before him, that he wants to avoid a debate about abortion. Gagné wonders if Scheer is telling the truth, but wondering isn’t either evidence or argument. And even so, evangelicals and Catholics were willing to vote in significant numbers for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the last election despite Mr. Trudeau’s doctrinaire insistence on a prochoice stance.

• Professor Gagné, like Ms. McDonald before him, caricatures conservative Christian views. Even Canadians clearly identifiable on the religious and political right aren’t opposed to all human rights for sexual minorities nor against all sex education in schools. They, and many others as well, are against a socio-political agenda that champions views of homosexuality and transgenderism that run counter to their traditional values. A scholar should carefully mark the difference, since that difference also obtains for many Canadian Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and people of No Religion as well, Canadians of many stripes who do not share the liberal/libertine approach to sexual ethics typical of our cultural elite.

• Few Canadian evangelicals or Catholics seriously support the return of mandatory prayer in public schools. I can think of no significant national institution of either Christian variety that does so.

• Most orthodox Christians do support religious freedom, both at home and abroad, but as more Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs than are those of any other religion in the world, why shouldn’t they? And evangelical institutions are clearly on the record as supporting religious freedoms for their Jewish and Muslim neighbours as well—so how is this concern somehow a threat to Professor Gagné and his audience?

• What influence of the religious right can Gagné actually demonstrate among the Conservatives—or, for that matter, among the party he strangely ignores, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, a party that could easily contend with Scheer’s Conservatives as “best representing their own socio-conservative values”? Gesturing at the support of Donald Trump among white evangelicals in the United States is simply not a serious academic argument for demonstrating the support of Andrew Scheer among white evangelicals and conservative Catholics in Canada. Not to put too fine a point on it, Donald Trump isn’t Andrew Scheer and America isn’t Canada.

• For decades, in fact, scholars have shown that Canadian evangelicals have tended to vote largely along the lines of the popular vote itself. Only the insistence on same-sex marriage by Paul Martin’s Liberals and Jack Layton’s New Democrats drove evangelicals and conservative Catholics in large numbers into voting for the Tory party in 2005…and many returned to vote for other parties as Harper’s regime came to its end.

• Finally, Professor Gagné’s scholarly interest in dominionism seems to have primed him to see it everywhere. But where it isn’t is in Canada’s major evangelical institutions—from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, to Canada’s major evangelical charities, to Canada’s dominant evangelical universities and seminaries, to Canada’s leading evangelical broadcaster—yes, Crossroads Christian Communications.

In short, Professor Gagné so far is merely wondering out loud, not making a significant case. Since he is a scholar, one can hope that eventually he will add to his public musings some actual evidence. In the meanwhile, however, Canadians can brush off this attempt to oversimplify our politics and drive wedges between orthodox, observant Christians and our neighbours.

But stay tuned: There is certainly more of this to come.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).