Sabin examines the role of religion in Canadian politics

January 24, 2018

Jerald Sabin, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science

Does religion play a role in Canadian politics? For many, this question may seem out of place in Canadian political discourse.

But Jerald Sabin, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Political Science, along with his colleagues David Rayside and Paul E.J. Thomas, found that religion does have an impact on Canadian politics.

While the role of religious faith has not been a topic of study amongst Canadian political scientists, Sabin, et al. found that religion plays an important, and shifting, role in Canadian politics. Their findings were published in Religion and Canadian Party Politics, published by UBC Press. The book was included among The Hill Times’ List of 100 Best Books in 2017.

The researchers outline three major changes in the relationship between religion and party politics: the decline of denominational support for political parties; the rise of secularism; and the increase in religious diversity.

Canadian politics was, at one time, largely defined by divisions between French and English Canadians, or along religious divisions between Catholic/Protestant lines, with these divisions playing out across party politics – Catholics tended to vote Liberal and Protestants tended to vote Conservatives, with progressive Christians supporting the NDP.

Now, said Sabin, “if you are a person of Christian faith in Canada, you tend to vote Conservative” or support conservative parties provincially. This is due in part to recent outreach to religious groups by the Stephen Harper Conservatives, and it is strengthened by a realignment of policy issues from Liberal parties, such as support for freedom of choice on abortion and LGBTQ rights.

For its part, the NDP has seen support from progressive Christian groups decline as “progressive Christianity has been a declining portion overall, and the role in progressive politics has declined,” said Sabin.

“If you are a person of faith for whom abortion is a salient issue, you will find yourself engaging with Conservatives,” said Sabin. But, this does not hold true across all jurisdictions.

Sabin points to Ontario, where recent efforts by (now former leader) Patrick Brown to reposition the Progressive Conservatives have led to party to embrace less socially conservative stances. “It’s hard for faith communities to find a real home amongst Ontario parties,” said Sabin.

Faith communities have two major areas of importance and influence, Sabin said.

The first is in leadership races and candidate selection processes. “Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are some of the few institutions that remain where you can really mobilize votes in leadership races and candidate selection,” said Sabin. He points to the leadership campaign of Jagmeet Singh as an example of this.

The other area of strength is influencing issues at the provincial level, such as education policy. “This is particularly true in Western Canada,” said Sabin, “where you are seeing some policy development around faith-based schooling and home-schooling, supported by people who do not want their children educated in the public system.”

While parties can appeal to voters on moral and religious appeals, Sabin said that for some voters, particularly in British Columbia and the Toronto area, discussing faith can drive away support.

The nature of Canada’s first-past-the-post system means that political parties need to have a wide appeal, and generally cannot risk alienating large groups of voters. In English Canada, this generally means smaller religious communities are treated as other minority groups with a “live and let live, multicultural approach.”

For Sabin, faith is one aspect of identity, a topic which he is interested in more broadly.

“Identity is a fundamental aspect of who we are, not only as people, but as Canadians,” said Sabin. “It structures so much of how welive, where we live, what we value, and who we vote for.”

Sabin’s research focuses on the impact of identity on politics and how the state recognizes and navigates political identity.

He is currently working on a SHIRC funded post-doctorate, researching Indigenous and settler governments and how they are working to jointly govern the territories, including how the emergence of Indigenous governments in the Territories is challenging traditional liberal-democratic institutions in Canada.

Sabin said that Canada seems better suited to deal with identity issues than other nations “because our political institutions were formed through compromise, dealing with divisions of English and French, they are much more robust and capable of integrating diversity into a broader political community.”

Religion and Canadian Party Politics is available in paperback on January 15, 2018.