In groundbreaking move, Poilievre campaigns among evangelical Christians – National |

In groundbreaking move, 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 the services, made a short political speech and moved on.

The three churches are all in ridings held by Liberal MPs and the congregants are mostly members of ethnic minority communities, which makes these visits smart politics for a campaigning Conservative leader.

But observers say these visits are also groundbreakers if only because leaders of mainstream Canadian political parties have long avoided public events with evangelical Christians for fear those appearances might become a political liability.

The trick is to do that without being tarred with the brush that you are an extremist, that you’re an American-style Christian right ideologue, which I think is toxic in Canadian politics,” said sociologist Lydia Bean, the author of the 2014 book The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada.

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

“I would say that there’s some truth to that,” said Andrew Enns, a Winnipeg-based executive vice-president at the polling firm Leger. Enns served as Harper’s pollster during Harper’s time in government. “I think [Harper] made a point of not wanting to give opportunities to opponents to sidetrack the party in terms of debates that really weren’t his priorities. And so I think there was that sensitivity and awareness that they needed to be smart about that and strategic.

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To Enns, the fact Poilievre is able to campaign where Harper was not able to — in evangelical churches — is a significant development in Poilievre’s command over his party and his current position in the Canadian political firmament. “It tells us that he’s fairly comfortable and he’s feeling fairly confident right now that he’s got a message that Canadians — doesn’t matter where they are — they’re reacting well to.”

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But is Poilievre saying one thing to evangelical Christians that he’s not saying elsewhere? Are there — as Stephen Harper was accused by his opponents — signs of a hidden “theo-con” agenda at work? Poilievre’s office says there is not, that his speeches to evangelical Christians are the same ones he gives to many groups and has given in Parliament. Independent journalists cannot confirm that as they are neither told about these visits ahead of time, nor are they invited to witness them. And Global News was unable to interview the pastors of the churches Poilievre visited. One could not be reached. One did not respond to interview requests. The other was unable to do an interview because of scheduling conflicts.

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Poilievre himself would not speak about these church visits.

But one of the churches that Poilievre visited last Sunday streamed the service online — including Poilievre’s remarks to the congregation. And, if that speech was any indication, it was very much a garden-variety political speech in which the Conservative leader spoke 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 the decisions made by several of the country’s conservative premiers when it comes to pronoun use by students in schools.

We need to become the free-est country on earth, free for you, where you are free to speak your mind, to raise your children with your own values on matters of gender and sexuality,” he said in his address to the Family Life Worship Centre in Brampton, Ont. But, again, that is a position he has taken during press conferences and in other fora.

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And Poilievre has been clear —  voters, of course, can take him at his word or not — that he will make no move to restrict abortion or roll back same-sex marriage, two policies advocated by some evangelical Christians. In the remarks made at the Brampton church, neither of those topics were mentioned.

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So what’s in it for these Christian groups? Why would they host a campaigning politician?

The one thing that Christians and particularly evangelicals, but Christians in general in Canada are wanting right now as a little show of support for a community that has seen, I think, significant restrictions of their freedoms,” said Brian Dijkema, president of the non-partisan Christian think tank Cardus.

In any event, politicians — Conservative or otherwise —  who do want to appeal to faith communities are likely dealing with a different issue-set these days that might include things like the Trudeau government’s recently passed online harms bill, medical assistance in dying legislation, or the role of charities in society. “It’s not just freedom to go to church on Sunday. It’s freedom to practice the fullness of their faith in a pluralist society where others are free to do that as well,” said Dijkema.

So far at least, it’s hard to discern any quid pro quo between Poilievre’s team and evangelical Christians, a contrast, perhaps between U.S. evangelicals whose support for Donald Trump was very much conditional on, among other things, Trump’s willingness to stack the U.S. Supreme Court with the kind of judges who would undo a woman’s legal right to an abortion.

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

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As for Poilievre and the Conservatives, they also do not need the votes of evangelical Christians in the same way that Republicans must have the votes of American evangelicals. Canadian evangelicals are a much smaller group for one thing — making up between five and 15 per cent 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 NDP, Liberal or Green. In the U.S., Bean said, “evangelical” is now virtually a synonym for “Republican”.

There’s 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 so as a cultural minority. And they’re not bitter about it. They just accept that. That’s just how it is.”

In any event, an April poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that 73 per cent of those in Canada who identified themselves as an evangelical Christian were planning to vote Conservative versus just five per cent who said they were voting for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

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“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 himself an evangelical, but he’s surrounded by people who are.

“He’s always going to have to at least play nice 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, ‘Oh, is Canadian politics becoming Americanized?’ No. This is a recurring, longstanding pattern in Canadian politics. It’s always just beneath the surface.

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