Faith Across Border

Just a hundred kilometres apart, Buffalo and Hamilton evangelicals show intriguing political differences

Last June, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that all Liberal candidates in the next federal election were required to take a pro-choice stance on abortion rights. Trudeau originally fudged on whether sitting pro-life members of Parliament would be exempt, suggesting the policy was not completely thought out. That confusion in turn raises questions about his underlying motivations. Did Trudeau do this out of deep, principled conviction for women’s reproductive rights? Or was it more an impulsive move to undercut the NDP? Perhaps Trudeau was indeed driven solely by principle, not opportunism. But this is the Liberal Party of Canada we are talking about.

The one certain outcome of Trudeau’s move is to deepen even further the social conservative divide between the Liberal and Conservative parties. When Parliament last saw a government bill on abortion 25 years ago, it was a strikingly cross-party issue; both parties had large clumps of pro-life supporters. Now, Trudeau has shut the door on a Liberal pro-life wing at all. In contrast, the Conservatives are deeply contorted on the issue. There are plenty of pro-life backbench Tories, but the government has blocked efforts to reopen the issue through private members’ legislation. Regardless, the Conservatives are still clearly much more receptive to social conservatives, and Trudeau’s move drives them further in that direction.

Let me be clear that I am not necessarily arguing for social conservatism. And kudos to Trudeau if this was indeed done out of conviction. But if it was driven more by expedience and positioning, which I think it was, it may lose more potential Liberals than it gains. As we see in Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada, social conservatives in Canada are more ideologically diverse than one might think, and certainly are not all captive Conservatives.

Over the last decade or so, much has been said and guessed about the Harper Conservatives and religious and social conservatives, with books such as Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (which I reviewed previously in the LRC) suggesting a “theo-con” plot to take over the country. But The Politics of Evangelical Identity offers a different and much more nuanced view of evangelical political thinking at the grassroots level. It argues that “partisan polarization is not a natural state for evangelicals,” and even when there seems to be a link between evangelicals and political conservatism, it is not as strong as outsiders might think.

Written originally as a Harvard dissertation, The Politics of Evangelical Identity is an ethnographic study comparing four evangelical churches, two in Buffalo and two in Hamilton. Bean immersed herself for several months in each church (openly disclosing herself as a researcher), interviewing congregants, and observing services and other meetings. The result is a groundbreaking set of careful observations that allow her to make sense of how evangelicals approach politics.

But first: who exactly is an evangelical Christian? The term applies most clearly to conservative Protestant denominations that emphasize literal readings of the Bible, the exclusivity of Christianity as the one true faith, etc. Exact theological and denominational boundaries are not always clear—conservative Anglicans, for example—and the quantitative social science on evangelicals is plagued by different classifications and sometimes conflicting data. Bean avoids such distractions by taking a qualitative approach and focusing on indisputably card-carrying evangelicals, choosing a Baptist and Pentecostal congregation in each city to study. These are different traditions: most Baptists are squarely in the evangelical mainstream while Pentecostals follow a more charismatic, emotion-driven worship style. But Bean finds these differences relatively minor compared to those between Canadians and Americans. While nearly everyone she meets is against abortion and same-sex marriage, Canadian evangelicals are more ideologically diverse and much less politically polarized than Americans.

As a book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity is a multi-headed beast that betrays its dissertation origins and, despite its subtitle, Canadian-American comparisons are not really Bean’s main focus. The book is primarily directed at an American audience, and its main argument is that political conservatism and polarization are deeply rooted and maintained at the grassroots level in evangelical America, rather than manipulated from above by Republican operatives and Svengali televangelists. The Canadian comparison is used to show that there is something about Americans, rather than evangelicalism alone, that creates and sustains very politically conservative religious people in the United States. Bean probably correctly calculated that overplaying Canada does not sell south of the border, while Canadians are happy to read about themselves in any context. Regardless, The Politics of Evangelical Identity is perhaps the best study ever on the political identities of Canadian evangelicals.

Bean compared theologically similar churches only 100 kilometres apart and found two very different political worlds. American evangelicals were deeply in tension with the rest of their society, with a high correlation between religious and political conservatism and a remarkable disdain for “liberals,” whether this meant wobbly Episcopalians or the Democratic Party: “members of both churches drew group boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘liberals’, with a great deal of slippage between the religious and political meanings of this label.” There was no middle ground. For example, politicians who declined to declare a national day of prayer were automatically classified as liberal and hence anti-Christian, rather than neutral secularists. The label also applied to government and the state in general. The American evangelicals were profoundly skeptical of welfare, public education and almost any other government program (except the military and perhaps law enforcement), usually on what they saw as related grounds of godlessness and bureaucratic inefficiency. Their churches were involved in food banks and other charitable work, but this private response was often deliberately contrasted with the inefficient methods of the liberal state. In short, the Americans lived in a constantly polarized world of “us” and “them.”

The picture was different in Hamilton, where Bean found a much greater appreciation for middle ground and a more varying attitude toward the state and outside world. While the Hamiltonians shared very similar views with their Buffalo counterparts on abortion and sexual morality, they did not have the same reactions against the state as a whole. They were more likely to support and even work with government programs and generally viewed the state as neutral overall, rather than the exclusive terrain of opponents. While nearly all the Americans assumed God was a Republican, party identity was distinctly more mixed in Canada, with few strong Conservatives and many expressing at least partial support for the Liberals or even NDP (Trudeau and Mulcair’s campaign managers should take note). And Bean’s findings are supported by other survey research on Canadian-American evangelical differences on economic and political attitudes, even when controlling for the overall differences in political culture between the two countries.

Bean ties these differences to “visions of national solidarity.” The American polarization of “them” and “us” was closely tied to national identity and a struggle for the nation’s soul. It was either God’s way or “liberalism.” Bean further notes how “them” included marginal Americans such as the poor, not to mention gays and lesbians and anyone else left out of the evangelical “us.” While charitable on a personal level, sometimes quite generously, American evangelicals were highly moralistic about the poor, whose problems were seen as either self-inflicted through their own moral failings or encouraged by general liberal permissiveness, or both. She repeatedly notes how “in both American churches, the growth of the welfare state was associated with America’s decline as a Christian nation.” The American evangelicals were clear in their belief that theirs was the true American identity, no matter how great the liberal challenge. And if you were not with them, you were against them.

In contrast, the Canadian evangelicals saw themselves as already outside the national mainstream and as a “cultural minority within a multicultural nation.” Despite similar moralizing rhetoric as the Americans, Bean “observed critical differences in how they [Canadians] made sense of their relationship to the larger culture.” Canadians largely accepted that they were a minority and engaged society on that basis, rather than seeing a mighty struggle to reclaim the national soul against liberal perfidy and “them.” Attending a Sunday service on Canada Day, Bean notes:

 

Ben, the music minister, invoked the theme of moral decline: Canada had been founded on Christian values but had since departed from them. But this didn’t mean that the congregation was being rallied for a cultural backlash against Canada’s rising diversity and secularism. Rather [senior minister] Pastor Mike went on to tell us that Canada’s cultural diversity was part of God’s sovereign plan. This was a recurring theme in both of the Canadian churches—that Canada’s multicultural identity was providential, because it allowed Canadian Christians to reach “people groups” from all over the world.

 

This oh-so-Canadian optimism and embrace of diversity contrasted sharply with the suspicious Americans and their constant polarization and culture wars.

Even the most socially conservative Canadians did not see their society exclusively in terms of “us” versus “liberals” as Americans routinely did. Bean profiles Walter, a Canadian who “felt extremely threatened by gay civil rights” and who actively circulated anti-abortion and anti-gay rights messages, often blaming the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and activist judges. Yet Walter did not slot easily into wider political categories. Not only did he express support for both the Conservative and Liberal parties, but he was also skeptical of corporate power, generally supportive of social programs, and did not “see the welfare state as inherently anti-Christian like so many American evangelicals.” In the end, Bean classifies him as a Red Tory, a dubious choice to me, but one that demonstrates there is no clear political label for Walter or other Canadian evangelicals like him whom she meets. In general, Bean found it difficult to find any Canadians who embraced the across-the-board polarized worldview typically found in the American churches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she did find many Canadians who contrasted themselves with the more aggressive American approach, while even in Buffalo the Americans seemed to know little about Canada.

Bean writes as an insider, in more ways than one. Born in Alberta, she grew up in both Canada and the United States. She also classifies herself as “raised in an evangelical-inspired faith.” This familiarity with evangelical tenets and culture clearly helps gives her entrée to these congregations (“Pastors and laypeople had only one question: Had I made a personal decision for Christ?”). But Bean does not identify herself as an evangelical (she gives a longwinded answer to the question) and distances herself objectively from the arguments she hears. As with her dual citizenship, her religious identity is “liminal” and positions her ideally to relate with the ordinary congregants that are her main focus. Bean picks up on subtleties and nuances that outsiders may miss or misinterpret, especially in the Canadian churches with their more complicated political world.

This nuance is evident when Bean goes on a trip with some of the Canadian Baptists to a Toronto missionary conference that included an appearance by Canada’s most prominent American-style evangelical, Charles McVety. She reports McVety’s polarizing rhetoric (“our church is under unprecedented attack”) before he leads the crowd in the national anthem, and says “an outside observer watching the crowd might have been terrified to see this Christian Right leader commanding a crowd of thousands of evangelicals to sing ‘O Canada.'” But, she says, “McVety’s doom-and-gloom narrative of defense was strikingly out of touch with the dominant narrative of Mission Fest as a whole” and his culture war cry “had fallen flat … at least among members of Highpoint Baptist who attended that day.” Throughout the book, Bean shows this careful attention to context and meaning among rank-and-file evangelicals, not just the high-profile ones. As with Walter, the social conservative warrior, Bean finds Canadian evangelical identities more complex than the usual stereotypes, and often difficult to fully categorize.

One problem with Bean’s book is the relatively dated material—although the book is newly published, her observations are from 2006 and 2007. While lickety-split by academic standards, it is reasonable to ask how these identities may have changed since then. In the United States, evangelical polarization has likely only increased, if that is possible, with Barack Obama serving as a powerful liberal bogeyman. But in Canada, evangelicals may have drifted closer to the Conservative party, even if their underlying political views have not changed and remain much more diverse than the polarized Americans.

The Harper Conservatives have built a strong affinity with Canadian evangelicals despite avoiding as much as possible the big-ticket social conservative issues of abortion and sexual orientation rights. Instead, the Tories have focused on less controversial issues such as religious freedom abroad or “familly” tax credits. These likely go over very well with Bean’s Canadian subjects, who show little thirst for a polarized culture war anyway. In contrast, the Liberals have repeatedly shown a clumsy touch with evangelicals like these who are socially conservative but otherwise searching for more centrist political paths (best documented in a 2009 paper published by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada). Justin Trudeau’s pro-choice stance, if done more out of expedience rather than principle as I suspect, would be yet another example.

In the end, The Politics of Evangelical Identity leaves us with some answers but also interesting new questions about evangelical identity, even in the United States. American evangelicals are deeply polarized, but Bean concludes with hints at how younger and more moderate evangelicals attempt to challenge the conservative orthodoxy (although predictions of a large-scale rise of progressive evangelicals have been around for a while without much to show). Meanwhile, even if the Conservative Party seems to have a lock on their votes, the political leanings of Canadian evangelicals cannot be easily labelled.