Over the past few years, Christian right groups have made inroads into the political landscape of certain countries. Two recent examples have been the American and Brazilian elections.
Among Christian right organizations, 81 per cent of white evangelicals are credited with helping propel Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.
During the recent midterm elections, 75 per cent of white “born again” evangelicals supported Republican candidates. Their influence was also felt in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro’s victory. Recent polls estimate that 70 per cent of Brazilian evangelicals voted for the new president.
Some groups in America have been pushing for Christian nationalist-inspired laws through a little-known endeavour originally launched in 2015 called “Project Blitz.”
Since 2017, more than 70 bills from Project Blitz were introduced, granting individuals the right to discriminate against LGTBQ people, forcing schools to display on their walls the “In God We Trust” motto and allowing religious convictions to dictate women’s reproductive rights.
Canada is no exception. There’s a growing awareness about the rise of Christian right here. Such groups become mobilized politically by viewing themselves as being part of a culture war. Issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, gender identity, LGBTQ rights and religious freedom are at the forefront of their concerns.
Abortion as a ‘human rights issue’
Christian right groups in Canada clearly do not have the same resources as their American counterparts. They do, nonetheless, attract people to their cause by framing their messages in ambiguous terms.
For example, euthanasia and abortion are presented as “issues that transcend party lines, religions and cultures” and “abortion is… a human rights issue.” But under that euphemistic veneer lies a polarizing tone similar to that of the American Christian right.
The Ontario provincial election in June saw the balance of political power shift from the Liberals and their inclusive agenda to the more traditional platform of Doug Ford’s Conservatives. In numbers, this political shift translated into 48 additional seats for Ontario’s PC party, for a total of 75, and 51 seats lost by the Liberals. Of those 75 PC seats, 16 have been “approved” by Christian right lobby groups like the Campaign Life Coalition and Right Now, two influential organizations on the Canadian social conservative landscape.
That represents about 13 per cent of total seats in the Ontario legislature. Twelve of the 16 approved MPs meet the demands of the Christian right by opposing abortion and rejecting the former Liberal government’s sex-ed program.
The Christian right in Ontario clearly credits itself for Ford’s victory. His association with key figures of the evangelical movement in Canada, as well as his numerous appearances at conservative churches during the election campaign, expose the PC party’s active efforts to preserve its Christian conservative support.
As Ford stated during the PC leadership race, he wants to ensure that “the church has a voice all the time,” which he first did by re-introducing the 1998 sex-ed curriculum that denies children an education on same-sex marriage and gender identity.
The Ontario PCs also recently introduced Resolution R4, seeking to remove the teaching and promotion of gender identity theory from the province’s schools.
What explains the drastic impact of Christian right interests in Ontario?
Christian right seized the moment
The Christian right clearly seized the window of political opportunity and broadened their movement to mobilize other traditionalists across religious conservative communities.
A post-election opinion poll conducted by Research Co. revealed that 77 per cent of Ontario residents wanted a change of government. That desire for change was even higher for voters who intended to support the NDP and the PC (i.e. around 90 per cent respectively). The numerous scandals dogging Ontario’s Liberals, in combination with the party’s 16-year reign and their leader’s defeatist claim a few days before the election day, likely explain the desire for change.
Research also suggests that the increasingly secularized political landscape in Ontario might lead to the gradual transformation of the PC party as a safe harbour for religious traditionalism.
That made it possible for the Christian right to capitalize on its opportunity, partly by broadening its ranks. The issue of schooling, central during the 2018 election, was “broad enough” to encompass moral traditionalists beyond just Christian communities, including in conservative ethnic areas.
The well-established U.S. Christian right seems to have been helpful to its Canadian counterparts. An investigation by Maclean’s magazine revealed that members from the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) and Right Now have been travelling to the U.S. to exchange information on successful political tactics to advance their social conservative agenda.
Their activities have included leadership meetings and training by evangelical activist groups linked to influential American conservative donor networks. Such exchanges are confirmed by Right Now’s social media:
Over 220 pro-life laws have been passed at the state level since 2011 in the U.S. Electing pro-life politicians was essential to this success. Let's follow a strategy that works. Help the pro-life candidate nearest you by clicking here: https://t.co/wO4PHSIuoS pic.twitter.com/iJGPM8FMT7— Right Now (@RightNowHQ) June 21, 2018
During the Ontario election campaign, Right Now clearly used similar strategies as that of the U.S. Christian right’s Project Blitz.
The Campaign Life Coalition, on the other hand, says it increased by 50 per cent its membership recruitment for the Ontario Conservatives since 2015, and made up 12 per cent of the PC leadership race’s votes.
However, the reliance of Ontario’s Christian conservatives on external financial resources and other kinds of outside support shows their fragility, well-documented by research. There’s clearly an inability of the movement in Canada to institutionalize itself due to the pragmatic nature of the electoral system in Canada.
The inability of the Christian conservative movement to incorporate itself in the Canadian political arena leads to a growing reliance on the U.S. Christian right, which is well-established within the American political system.
Canadian Christian conservatives are consequently able to survive and challenge their political environment via support from the American Christian right networks.
Academics and people in general haven’t paid enough attention to the Christian right in American politics. In 2010, Marci McDonald, Canadian journalist and author of The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, noted that some people doubted such groups could impact Canada: “Surely, you don’t think it can happen here. This is a profoundly different country than the United States.”
But Christian right groups have influenced politics for years, since Stephen Harper’s years as prime minister to Doug Ford’s victory, and could have an impact on Alberta’s election in May. They will likely vote for Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in next year’s federal election.
Christian right groups in Canada are here to stay. With their stealth manoeuvring, they’ve managed to politically mobilize their members not only through the effort of pastors at the pulpit, but also through think tanks, para-church organizations and other Christian institutions.
Many Christian right groups believe that their values are under attack and that God’s law should regulate all spheres of society, including politics. But the establishment of such a political system would result in discrimination against opposing views and ways of life.
André Gagné, Associate Professor, Religious Right; Fundamentalism; Religious Violence; Radicalization; Social Identity, Concordia University and Andréa Febres-Gagné, Research Assistant, McGill University