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COLUMN: Social conservatism stronger in U.S. than Canada

'For decades, Canadian conservatives have been saying and doing things that would have destroyed their careers if they lived in the American Bible Belt.'
Milne Jared-P
Columnist Jared Milne

“If there is one test for distinguishing genuine Christianity from spurious Christianity (and this test should be rigorously applied to Christian people seeking public office), it is that genuine Christianity never seeks to impose itself or its solutions on those who do not choose to receive it.”

— Preston Manning, The New Canada, pages 99-100.

The likely repeal of the American Roe v. Wade court case, which guarantees access to abortion in the U.S., cast a shadow over the federal Conservative leadership race. Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen instructed her caucus not to speak on the issue, and said as much in a one-line public statement. Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative race’s front runner, publicly stated that a government he led wouldn’t pass any legislation restricting abortion. His rival Leslyn Lewis, who was the social conservative favourite in the previous Conservative leadership race won by Erin O’Toole — the only candidate who didn’t explicitly call herself pro-choice — was very specific about the kind of restrictions she supported, including banning sex-selective and coercive abortions, while also increasing funding for pregnancy centres.

During Stephen Harper’s reign as prime minister, he stopped any attempts by his caucus to revive the abortion debate, even as some of them joined the It Gets Better movement in support of gay youth. Here in Alberta, former premier Ralph Klein allowed Alberta’s use of the notwithstanding clause to limit the definition of marriage between a man and a woman to expire, and flat-out refused to use the clause to overturn the Vriend case that had the Supreme Court order Alberta to include gay rights in our provincial human rights code. Harper and Klein suffered exactly zero political consequences for their refusals, including here in Alberta. Some social conservatives might have been unhappy, but the rest of us simply shrugged and changed the channel.

The ways in which Canada and the U.S. have both treated the abortion issue illustrates some subtle but important differences between the two countries. For decades, Canadian conservatives have been saying and doing things that would have destroyed their careers if they lived in the American Bible Belt. From everything I’ve seen, the kind of social conservatism represented by repealing Roe v. Wade is an extremely hard sell in Canada, even here in Alberta. Sometimes it’s flat-out political poison, given that the homophobic "lake of fire" comments made by a candidate were seen as one of the things that cost the Wildrose Alliance Alberta’s 2012 election.

The differences between Canadian and American conservatism aren’t limited to abortion and gay rights, of course. Canadian conservatives were some of the loudest critics of the former long-gun registry, but nobody seems to care much about the handgun registry Pierre Trudeau created in the late 1970s. Every long-gun owner I’ve ever asked has been fine with the handgun registry. Similarly, every conservative I’ve ever asked, even here in Alberta, has supported public health care.

In short, social conservatism, particularly evangelical conservatism, is much stronger in the U.S. than in Canada.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.