How powerful is the religious right in Canada? -

How powerful is the religious right in Canada?

Opinion: Various forces have made Canada’s Christian conservatives a weaker political group than America’s. Could that change?


Demonstrators gather in front of Queen’s Park to protest against Ontario’s new sex education curriculum in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Michael Coren is a journalist and broadcaster and the author of 16 books.

It’s always comforting to assume moral superiority. The Greeks did it when they lost dominance over the ancient world to the Romans; the British did the same when Washington replaced London as the centre of power. Canada has this, too. We travel, and Americans don’t, we like to say; they are insular, we’re not; we elect moderates and intelligent people, they don’t; we’re not extreme in our religion, and they are. There are elements of truth in all this—as well as risible leaps of mythology.

Certainly, in some areas, an informed criticism is in order. American Christianity, for example, is dangerously nationalistic, and the Americanization of the faith has genuinely distorted its meaning. More than 80 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, while the Christian right leads battles against abortion rights and LGBTQ equality, and conservative Roman Catholics have proven to be enormously influential in right-wing politics and media. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but while high-profile conservatives announce their Catholicism, high-profile liberals seem almost embarrassed to speak of their Catholic faith—creating a false impression of authentically Catholic Christianity. There is a vibrant Catholic as well as mainstream Protestant left—but as is so often the way, the loudest noise comes from the shallowest end of the pool.

MORE: The hypocrisy of America’s evangelicals

In Canada, meanwhile, Christian conservatives are simply not as powerful as their siblings to the south. In numbers alone, evangelicals compose around 10 per cent of the population of Canada, whereas more than a quarter of Americans identify as evangelical. Indeed, when it comes to the power of Canada’s religious right, I once heard Ian Paisley—the late Northern Irish firebrand who, for all his bigotry, had the spark of wit—refer, in his thick Ulster accent, to Canada’s evangelicals with an “emphasis on jelly.” In other words, he considered the Canadian Christian right to be, well, rather Canadian in its meekness.

But the truth is that Canadian Christianity is more nuanced and less polarized than in the United States. One reason is that while Americans are rightly proud of their separation of church and state, Canada’s variation is less codified and formal. Ironically, this has proven to be a liberating and empowering influence on American Christianity, as though they feel obliged to try to influence and shape the state because they’re outside it.

Another reason is that almost 40 per cent of Canadians are Roman Catholic, which is both extraordinarily high and, perhaps surprisingly, trends against conservatism and uniformity. While in theory Rome doesn’t tolerate theological dissent, in reality, individual Catholics have all sorts of moral and political positions. Catholicism is often cultural rather than religious, and so while bishops may make statements about public issues—usually marriage, abortion, euthanasia, or sex education—they know that they speak for a limited number of their flock.

MORE: Is technology the key to growing Protestant churches in Canada?

So with the exception of a handful of hardline groups on the Catholic fringe, this leaves Christian conservative politics to Canada’s evangelicals—and they’ve come relatively late to the game, with their origins being far from reactionary. After all, Tommy Douglas—the first leader of the New Democratic Party—was a Baptist minister. And Canada’s social democratic tradition was strongly flavoured by non-conformist Protestants, much in the way that the British Labour Party was said to owe more to Methodism than to Marx. There are also more than 200,000 Mennonites in Canada, and their Anabaptist and pacifist origins mean that while they can be conservative on certain subjects, they also embrace a powerful social-justice theology.

Still, conservative evangelicals and Catholics in Canada do champion campaigns against equal marriage, abortion rights, assisted dying, and modern sex-ed curricula. They also advocate for publicly funded faith schools, home-schooling, and so-called parental rights, referring to the conceit that Christian parents should be able to decide what their children learn at school, especially when it comes to sex, evolution, and other religions. They’re also prominent in rejecting accepted wisdom concerning ecology, with polls revealing that the highest rate of denial of human-made climate change is among evangelicals.

Sam Oosterhoff, the 19-year-old MPP of Niagara West, poses for a photo inside the Ontario Legislature on March 8, 2017. (Photograph by Noah Park)

The two most influential conservatives in Canada—Andrew Scheer and Jason Kenney—are both orthodox Catholics and owe much of their success to right-wing Christians and their well-funded, well-organized pressure groups. Even at a less senior level, the 2016 election of Sam Oosterhoff, the youngest MPP in Ontario’s history, owed much to the activism and voting of the Christian right; his riding of Niagara West—Glanbrook is, after all, in the buckle of the eastern Bible belt. (The west’s belt stretches across southern Alberta.)

MORE: Why Sam Oosterhoff might just be a true conservative disruptor

It’s also home to a vibrant and political Dutch community, an important element of Canada’s religious right. The Canadian army liberated a number of Dutch cities at the end of the Second World War, and with a large Dutch population already here, immigration to Canada was inevitable. Those who came to Canada in the 1940s and ‘50s were both Catholic and Protestant, of the political left as well as right, but the themes of Calvinism—which emphasizes a traditional interpretation of Scripture, and the need for the faithful to be politically engaged—were enormously strong. Many look to the inspiration of Abraham Kuyper, an early 20-century Dutch prime minister and theologian, whose approach is summarized thus: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’ ”

More recent immigration has also affected the Christian right in Canada, as political parties work to court various religious ethnic communities. While many are Muslim, those who are Christian often come from churches that are at the less progressive end of the scale, a fact that certainly hasn’t escaped white conservative Christian leaders. I reported on three demonstrations against Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum, and the encouragement—or was it manipulation?—of Asian and Middle Eastern Christians by a more traditional leadership was obvious.

The enigma of this is that while any religious text is open to interpretation, the central writings of Christianity—the very handbook, if you like—are the four Gospels, and they depict a Jesus who says little and often nothing about the social, moral, and sexual issues that seem to obsess conservative Protestants and Catholics. He does, however, speak and teach consistently about the evils of social injustice, and the need to reject wealth and power and embrace the marginalized and broken. The Christian right rests its case more on the prohibitions contained in the Old Testament and in the letters of St. Paul, but often with far too little acknowledgement of their context and when they were written. Paul is simply not the misogynist or homophobe that some of his modern followers like to think he is.

It’s patronizing to completely dismiss this wing of the church. But at the same time, their monomania and approach to the Bible can be frustrating; it’s a little like trying to understand a novel by only reading the semi-colons. It’s also harmful because it hurts many who are already under attack, and it also makes Christianity appear loveless—even cruel.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, left, takes a selfie with a supporter during Canada Day festivities in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

The real testing ground for the political power of Canada’s religious right will be the next federal election. In spite of what his critics might think, Stephen Harper was always careful to keep social conservatives at a certain distance. Scheer, however, is far more of a true believer, and while some of his advisors are recommending caution and his public comments suggest that he will keep his faith out of the House of Commons, this son of a Roman Catholic deacon is perceived as the great hope of the Christian right. His campaign in 2019 could be buoyed—or broken—by their support.

Then again, Lethbridge is not Alabama, Niagara is not Texas, and Canadian Christianity has no Franklin Graham or Mike Pence. When Canadians next go to the polls, it may well be the great litmus test of just how much influence religious conservatives have. The answer is probably less than they like to think—but more than the secular world thinks it likes.



How powerful is the religious right in Canada?

  1. Interesting article for sure, that’s if you believe in fairy tales. We don’t need politicians to be ‘Crusaders’, we need our politicians in this country to be ‘Politicians’, base their opinions, ideology is why we had the first and second world war, whether Orwellian style or religious. Practice and preach religion all you want in this country, Que Sara Sara, but keep it out of our head of state, religion has no place in the PMs office. I don’t want a pope, rabbi or preacher running my country, i want a PM who thinks for the country and it’s people, not under some religious influence.

    • Do what’s best for the country, not what’s good for a segment of our society, elect an ‘Atheist’ PM.

      • How soon they forget.

        “Atheism is a CREED deserving of the the same religious protections as Christianity, Islam, and other faiths, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled in a new decision.”

        • LOL it’s not a ‘creed’

          Why do people have so much trouble understanding non-belief?

          • Search me. Why not ask the Liberal appointed Ontario Human Rights Tribunal? The tribunal is only made up of some of our most educated and finest minds ever produced in Ontario.

            It’s not like their decisions carry any weight. Oooppss! Oh yes, that’s right, they unfortunately do.

          • Atheism is not non belief.

            It is the belief that one knows that God does not exist.

            Why don’t atheists know what they are?

          • We do, you don’t.

          • An agnostic is unsure about God. An atheist is sufficiently grounded in knowledge and scientific fact that he/she knows it’s smoke.

    • In short Evangelism hinges on the will and contradictions.

  2. I appreciate this article very much. You provide a language and context that helps to better understand this movement, the Religious Right. Chris Hedges wrote about the same movement in the United States and stated something along the lines of this: “Those in the Christian Right regard non-Christians as worthy of only two choices, conversion or eradication.” He also compared the Religious Right as fascists in quoting Dr. James Luther Adams, “The Nazis, he said, were not going to return with swastikas and brown shirts. Their ideological inheritors had found a mask for fascism in the pages of the Bible.” Frightening, indeed. I also appreciate very much that you have pointed out the hypocrisy of the Christian Right who obviously possess a distorted view of Christianity in juxtaposition with Christ’s life as illustrated in the four Gospels.

  3. Religion has taken out every empire/civilization we’ve ever had sooner or later.

    It’s the ‘my god is bigger than your god superiority-syndrome…….and therefore we have the right to take all your resources.

    Eventually we’ll learn and move on from the fairy tales.

    • You know the most murderous regimes were lead by atheists, right?

      • Actually they are religious……don’t try to palm them off on us.

  4. A bit of a nothing article. Yes, some politicians wear their religion more than others. In Canada, though, we don’t force politicians to declare their religion, probably because we know that it has limited bearing on their choices as legislators.

  5. Seems the Christmas spirit of ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ was exceedingly short-lived in the world of Michael Coren. No surprise that Canada’s most cranky and convoluted casuist has speedily returned to his comfort zone of fractious identity politics and strident condemnation. Every article, on any topic that Coren writes is a ‘wash, rinse, repeat’ cycle of his compulsive chastisement of Catholics and Evangelicals. Since Coren only spent enough time as a Catholic to get a book out of it, I suppose we can forgive his twisted sophistry, puerile petulance and scant comprehension with respect the Church. But what is truly jaw-dropping – especially for a student of divinity – is Coren’s constant declarations that Jesus rarely spoke of abortion or homosexuality. Seriously… the dumbest kid in grade 8 catechism class could explain the obvious reason for that purported anomaly. Then there’s the ‘Scheer-Kenny-Oosterhoff’ chimera which apparently lurks under Coren’s writing desk and causes his concrete cranium to spin counter clockwise in a frenzy of irrational paranoia. Notwithstanding that Conservative Christians support conservative politicians, there is not a shred of evidence that ANY of these candidates bring the religious agenda to their campaigns or into the legislature. Alas, its futile to talk facts and analysis to people like Michael Coren who wallow in moral superiority and partisan paralogism. But it’s fun to flick elastic bands to the back of his head every time Mister Ersatz Epiphany bloviates another piece of deception and disinformation.

    • You could have said that in half the words.

  6. The new totalitarianism comes from the so-called progressive left on university campuses. We see this seeping into Coren’s thinking. One is deranged if one does not think exactly the correct thoughts as defined by the so-called progressives. And they have their army of thugs in the so-called “antifa” movements.

    • This so-called post comes from the so-called mind of our so-called favorite Wheetabix……..about an entirely different topic apparently

  7. Do you think trying to divide people with derogatory insinuations about both religion and politics is responsible journalism?

    You bandy “religious right” vitriol, to paint all people of faith and those who are conservatives as racists.

    You get away with it only because those you attack, by choice, aren’t as comfortable operating in the gutter as you.

    We need to value and share truth, to expose you for what you are with only the facts and reality.

    I guess I’d rather be on the side of the religious right than the atheist wrong.

    • Oh give it a rest, Rob….you ARE the religious right.

  8. It’s so nice that we live in a country like Canada that does not believe in labels. Where there is no discrimination and where people live in complete tolerance of one another.

  9. Making my way through this article, I still do not know if Michael Coren yet understands that all gods are make-believe!

  10. If and when the Supreme Court shuts down Trinity Western University’s discriminatory Community Covenant, it will send a strong message that Canadians will not offer public support (accreditation in this case) to unlawful discrimination cloaked as “religious belief”.

    • You are aware of the TWU SCC case in 2001 that TWU won? Prescedence has been previously set.

      I get the sense that a couple of Provinical law societies may be taken to court for reverse discrimination in not accrediting individuals based on the merit of their education vs. some community covenant.

    • Why do these rabble rousers with antagonist faith want to join faith based institutions?

      To me, religion is mostly about rules to live by that don’t change easily because they are based of truth. That’s what other people see anyways. God is about personal spirituality and responsibility.

      In my experience, people become atheists because the don’t like rules that interfere with their emotional or irresponsible desires. They have difficulty discussing personal spirituality and responsibility.

      Society needs rules that don’t change with every elected leadership. Today, religion fills that niche.

      It would be nice if our constitution did but our government violates people’s constitutional rights all the time and idiot leaders change the rules to pander to irresponsible voters.

      • This kind o babble is why religion should be avoided.

        • If I thought you intended to demonstrate my points I’d thank you.

          • Your only point is the one on your white hat.

    • “…unlawful discrimination cloaked as “religious belief”.”

      You’re saying that they’re motivated by something other than religious belief?

      • As opposed to the lawful discrimination that violates our human rights.

  11. Didn’t do your homework did you? A lot of Evangelical pastors in Canada are American, from the south. Yes, they have a lot of influence over their ‘Only Christians are good people’, sheep. They carry a lot of baggage into Canada some of it has never been ‘heard’ up here.

    Can’t and don’t trust them. I’m a bigot.

  12. Maybe it’s living here in Ontario rather than the west but the only religious people I know are all left leaning and usually Liberal.