As published in the National Post, April 8, 2011
Social conservatives “have become a spent political force in [Canadian] national politics,” according to Queen’s University political-science scholar James Farney. “We’re now just seen as eccentric,” suggested Link Byfield, a prominent Canadian “so-con” himself. On the front page of the April 5 National Post, a story by reporter Charles Lewis was headlined “Social conservatives watch campaign from sidelines.”
Wikipedia tells us that social conservatives “believe that government has a role in encouraging or enforcing what they consider traditional values or behaviours.” But Wikipedia also offers this important caveat: “the accepted meaning of traditional morality often differs from group to group.” Not all social conservatives are the same. It’s worth emphasizing that the term “social conservative” is spelled with a lower case “c,” not the upper case “C” of the Conservative party. Social conservatism is much broader than any one political party.
If social conservatives were interested only in an active debate about abortion or gay marriage, then it is true, as noted by Lewis, that we would be disappointed by the current campaign: No major party has distinguished itself on these issues. But that doesn’t mean these issues are not in play.
In the last Parliament, there were more MPs in the non-partisan Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus than in either the Bloc Québécois or the NDP. Yet, neither the death of the Bloc nor the NDP has been proclaimed irrelevant.
Moreover, social conservatives are interested in a wider variety of public-policy issues than abortion and gay marriage.
Take a good look at the activists and politicians who are involved in policy concerning the protection of children. Read over the list of witnesses before Commons and Senate committees in regard to raising the age of consent to sexual activity with an adult from age 14 to 16 in 2008 and you’ll see so-cons. Consider those advocating for the law that now requires internet service providers to report child porn being transmitted or hosted on their platforms and you’ll see so-cons.
While these initiatives took place under the Conservative government of the last five years, so-con influence extends back further. The 1993 introduction of child-pornography crimes into the Criminal Code and the 2004 introduction of laws against human trafficking crimes both were sparked by so-cons.
Cut across party lines and examine the faces standing with Senators and MPs in support of all-party reports about poverty in Canada, issued in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and you’ll see the presence of so-cons again. Poverty and homelessness aren’t typically identified as socially conservative issues in the media. But we don’t let the media define us.
For some commentators, the term so-cons isn’t adequately marginalizing. So instead, they call us “theo-cons” — theological conservatives — who are guided in our policy and political efforts by our religious beliefs. Theo-cons have been presented by some as strange and scary. Yet Statistics Canada informs that in 2001 (the last long-form census) 84% of Canadians self-identified as having a personal religious affiliation, with 77% self-identifying as Christian and 12% as Evangelical. And it would be foolish to think that the views of these people aren’t, in some way, guided by their religious convictions. Check your neighbour to your left and your right, because we “theo-cons” walk among you.
Along with Rick Hiemstra, director of research and media relations at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, I recently wrote a report on evangelical voting trends in Canada between 1996 and 2008. The paper drew a lot of attention on Parliament Hill because it revealed the fluidity of the evangelical vote as it shifted from predominately Liberal support in 1996 to the Conservative Party in 2008. What many found particularly surprising was the increase in the vote that went to the NDP during that 12-year period. The supposedly theo-coniest of the theo-cons appear to exhibit voting patterns not too different from the rest of Canadians.
As the evangelist John Wesley lay on his deathbed in 1791, he sent a note to British MP William Wilberforce, who was then leading the political battle to end the slave trade. Wesley, with an Evangelical eye to the long game (the Slave Trade Act didn’t pass until 1807 and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed in 1833 as Wilberforce lay in his own deathbed) wrote simply, and inspirationally, about the significance of standing contra mundum, “against the world.” Sometimes it is necessary for the benefit of those around you to stand seemingly against everyone else, for the world’s sake. What is good is not always immediately obvious or popular.
By the way, William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, was a theo-con. And, like Wilberforce, contemporary theo-cons are committed, not eccentric. And we’re not a spent force yet.
Don Hutchinson is Vice-President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and director of the Centre for Faith and Public Life located in Ottawa.