close
close
In an innovative gesture, Poilievre campaigns among evangelical Christians – National

In an innovative gesture, Poilievre campaigns among evangelical Christians – National

In an innovative gesture, Poilievre campaigns among evangelical Christians – National

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre went to church last Sunday, not once, not twice, but three times: to three evangelical churches in the Toronto area, where he briefly participated in services, gave a short political speech and moved on.

All three churches are in constituencies controlled by Liberal MPs and the parishioners are mostly members of ethnic minority communities, making such visits smart politics for a campaigning Conservative leader.

But observers say these visits are also groundbreaking, if only because leaders of Canada’s major political parties have long avoided public events with evangelical Christians for fear that such appearances could become a political liability.

“The trick is to do that without being labeled an extremist, an American-style right-wing Christian ideologue, which I think is toxic in Canadian politics,” said sociologist Lydia Bean, author of the 2014 book The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divisions in the United States and Canada.

The story continues below the advertisement.

Even Stephen Harper—a member of an evangelical church—avoided public association with evangelical Christians due to political considerations.

“I would say there’s some truth to that,” said Andrew Enns, executive vice-president of the Winnipeg-based polling firm Leger. Enns worked as Harper’s pollster during Harper’s time in government. “I think he made sure that he didn’t give opportunities to opponents to derail the party in terms of debates that really weren’t their priorities. And so I think there was that sensitivity and awareness that they needed to be smart about it and strategic about it.


Click to play video: 'What is the summer strategy for Trudeau and Poilievre as crucial midterm elections loom?'


What is Trudeau and Poilievre’s summer strategy ahead of crucial by-elections?


For Enns, the fact that Poilievre can campaign where Harper couldn’t — in evangelical churches — is a significant development in Poilievre’s hold on his party and his current position in the Canadian political firmament. “It tells us that he feels pretty comfortable and confident at this point that he has a message that Canadians, no matter where they are, are responding well to.”

The story continues below the advertisement.

But is Poilievre saying something to evangelical Christians that he doesn’t say elsewhere? Are there, as Stephen Harper’s opponents have accused, signs of a hidden “theoconservative” agenda at work? Poilievre’s office says no, that his speeches to evangelical Christians are the same as those he gives to many groups and has given in Parliament. Independent journalists cannot confirm this, since they are not informed of these visits in advance or invited to witness them. And Global News was unable to interview the pastors of the churches Poilievre visited. One could not be reached. Another did not respond to interview requests. The other was unable to do an interview because of scheduling conflicts.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world delivered to your inbox, as it happens.

Poilievre himself did not want to talk about these visits to churches.

But one of the churches Poilievre visited last Sunday streamed the service online, including Poilievre’s words to the congregation. And, if that speech was any indication, it was largely a run-of-the-mill political speech in which the conservative leader talked about the carbon tax, high housing costs and crime rates. The only mention of an issue important to so-called “family values” voters was a promise to support decisions made by several of the country’s conservative premiers when it came to students’ use of pronouns in schools.

“We need to become the freest country in the world, free for you, where you are free to speak your mind, to raise your children with your own values ​​on gender and sexuality,” he said in his speech at the Family Life Worship Centre in Brampton, Ontario. But again, that is a stance he has taken during press conferences and in other forums.


Click to play video: 'Poll suggests divided opinions on proposed Alberta education and gender identity policies'


Poll suggests divided opinions on proposed Alberta education and gender identity policies


And Poilievre has been clear — voters, of course, can believe him or not — that he will do nothing to restrict abortion or roll back same-sex marriage, two policies championed by some evangelical Christians. In the remarks at the Brampton church, neither of those issues were mentioned.

The story continues below the advertisement.

And what do these Christian groups gain? Why would they welcome a politician in a campaign?

“The only thing that Christians, and evangelicals in particular, but Christians in general in Canada, are craving right now is a small show of support for a community that has seen, I think, significant restrictions on its freedoms,” said Brian Dijkema, president of the nonpartisan Christian think tank Cardus.

In any case, politicians — conservative or not — who do want to appeal to religious communities are likely grappling with a different set of issues these days that might include things like the Trudeau government’s recently passed online harms bill, legislation on medical assistance in dying, or the role of charities in society. “It’s not just about the freedom to go to church on Sunday. It’s about the freedom to practise the fullness of your faith in a pluralistic society where others are also free to do so.”said Dijkema.

So far, at least, it is difficult to discern any quid pro quo between Poilievre’s team and evangelical Christians, a contrast, perhaps among American evangelicals whose support for Donald Trump was heavily conditioned, among other things, by Trump’s willingness to pack the US Supreme Court with the kind of judges who would overturn a woman’s legal right to an abortion.

There are certain positions on certain issues that Mr. Poilievre has taken that are diametrically opposed to those of some of those groups in terms of their social beliefs.Enns said. Conservatives don’t necessarily always have to go out and court these groups (because) the other parties basically try to alienate some of these groups.”

The story continues below the advertisement.


Click to play video: Evangelical Fellowship of Canada director explains misperceptions about religions


Evangelical Fellowship of Canada director explains misperceptions about ‘devout’ religions


As for Poilievre and the Conservatives, they also don’t need the votes of evangelical Christians in the same way that Republicans need the votes of American evangelicals. Canadian evangelicals are a much smaller group — they make up between 5 and 15 percent of the electorate — and, according to Bean’s research, they are a much more politically diverse group. Evangelical congregations in Canada can be counted on to include people who vote for the NDP, the Liberals or the Greens. In the United States, Bean said, “evangelical” is now practically synonymous with “Republican.”

“There is a much greater acceptance among Canadian evangelicals that they are a cultural minority,” Bean said. “They don’t want to let their light hide under a bushel, but they know they’re going to have to do it as a cultural minority. And they’re not resentful of it. They just accept it. That’s the way it is.”

In any case, a poll conducted in April by the Angus Reid Institute found that 73 per cent of those in Canada who identified themselves as evangelical Christians planned to vote for the Conservatives, compared with just five per cent who said they would vote for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

The story continues below the advertisement.

“Evangelicals at the elite level are a really important part of the conservative infrastructure,” Bean said. “So if you look at his own mentors, people like Stockwell Day (and) Preston Manning, (Poilievre) is not an evangelical, but he’s surrounded by people who are.

“He’s always going to have to get along with the socially conservative wing of the party, and there are so many powerful evangelicals in the Conservative Party, and they’re so important to the base, that it’s always going to be a recurring thing. I think sometimes people say, ‘Is Canadian politics becoming Americanized? ’ No. It’s a long-standing, recurring pattern in Canadian politics. It’s always just beneath the surface.”