Canadians who are more religious tend to vote Conservative. That’s something people who study elections in Canada have known for a long time.
But the pool of people who say religion is important in their lives is declining and becoming more liberalized. That could have a big effect on the Conservative party’s future.
That’s the finding of a study by Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, and Sam Reimer, a professor of sociology at Crandall University in New Brunswick.
For their study, titled "Religion and Grassroots Social Conservatism in Canada," the two used data from the Canadian Election Study from 2004 to 2015. They found that traditional religious divisions in voting preference — Roman Catholics tend to prefer Liberals, Protestants vote for Conservatives and progressive Protestants favour the NDP — are becoming less of a factor. (The sample size for non-Christian religions was too small to draw meaningful conclusions, researchers said.)
"Those divides are not as strong as they used to be," Wilkins-Laflamme said, noting there have always been variations when it comes to voting within various groups.
In their place is a new dividing line between those who say religion is important in their lives, and the growing number of Canadians who no longer want to be affiliated with any religious group.
"The effect of religion on voting is still strong, but it’s also changing," she said, noting that salience of religion is a stronger indicator of vote choice than gender, level of education, employment status and country of birth.
"But the pool of people who say religion is a strong motivator for life is getting smaller."
Data from the study bears this out. In the 2004 election, 60 per cent of voters said religion was important to them. By the 2015 election, that number had fallen to 49 per cent.
Of that latter group, 43 per cent voted Conservative, compared with an estimated 28 per cent of the general population.
But the decline in religiosity is not the only issue of concern for Conservatives, Reimer said.
Those who still say religion is important to them are "embracing more liberal attitudes towards sexual issues, gender and the environment," he said. This includes members of conservative evangelical churches, who are becoming more accepting of things like same-sex marriage and more concerned about the environment and climate change.
This is especially true for younger people in those denominations, who are being drawn to the Liberals, Greens and NDP because those parties support those issues.
"The young evangelicals I talk to definitely care about the environment, and they are changing their attitudes toward same-sex marriage," he said.
These changes have implications for the Conservative party, which has been able to count on votes from religious people in the past.
"It’s something the Conservative party has to consider if it is trying to groom the religious vote," Reimer said, noting traditional Conservative positions on these issues "lack the salience they used to have for this voting bloc."
Wilkins-LaFlamme said these findings suggest that if Conservatives "want to speak to that group (religious people), they will have to rethink their messages, if even younger conservative Protestants are liberalizing."
The issues that used to help them succeed in previous elections "might not work as well as they used to," she added.
There are also implications for the NDP and Greens, since people who say they have no religious affiliation, and do not consider religion to be important in their lives, tend to vote for progressive parties.
As for the Oct. 21 election and future elections, "the liberal trajectory of society on many social issues, including among many Canadians who say religion is very important to their lives, indicates that socially conservative platform positions may not meet with much success in years to come," Reimer said.
Wilkins-Laflamme added: "Those who remain conservative on these issues still support them, so we’ll still see a strong religiosity effect on vote choice. But this base appears to be shrinking in size. Conservative platforms may have to shift which issues they focus on, or rethink their levels of social conservatism, to account for this trend."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.