Their evidence isn’t terribly compelling. Scheer ran as head of a party officially committed to preserving legal abortion and same-sex marriage. His only deviances were that he denounced gay marriage in 2005 and called himself personally “pro-life.” No one has cited any existing polls suggesting that this was decisive for anyone. Yet the fact that the Conservative Party retains any vestigial loyalty to social conservatism has always been anathema to Canada’s studiously secular urban elite — including some within the upper reaches of the Conservative Party itself.
But just as it’s easy to overpraise in others talents you personally lack, it’s easy to scorn what you can’t personally appreciate. Many of those arguing that the Conservative Party must not only ditch its remnants of social conservatism, but also run stubbornly in the opposite direction — have the Tory leader march in a Pride parade, say — underestimate the degree the Conservative Party is a diverse coalition of which irreligious urbanites are but one faction.
It’s cliche to speak of the Conservatives as a coalition, with the “big blue tent” metaphor often employed as a euphemism for the party’s self-satisfied embrace of political moderates, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community (under ex-leader Stephen Harper, the Conservatives even hosted a queer-friendly event called the “fabulous blue tent”). Less celebrated is the probably more representative portion of the Tory coalition that consists of socially conservative white Christians in the country’s rural and prairie regions.
The modern North American conservative movement was synthesized in a Cold War context that brought together traditionalist Christians, national security hawks and free-market capitalists. Their shared desire was not only to protect the homeland from the Soviet Union itself, but also to avoid replicating the authoritarian statism that had proven so deleterious to the freedom of the Soviet citizenry. Defending religious liberty — that is, the freedom to preach and follow religious doctrines even when they conflict with state dogma — was understood as inseparable from the fight to defend freedom more broadly.
Through their congregations, schools and activist networks, over the decades, socially conservative Christians have accordingly provided the Conservative Party with a steady supply of voters, volunteers, staff and even politicians. Canada is obviously a much less Christian country than it used to be, but if anything, the fact that Christians are now less numerous has only led the community to exert more effort to be felt politically.
Consider the last Conservative leadership race, which featured no shortage of Christian conservative candidates. Of this camp, Scheer was the most moderate and establishment-friendly, but still relied on the transferred votes of his more intense social-conservative rivals, such as Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, to push him over the finish line. Even libertarian runner-up Maxime Bernier was in many ways a de facto social-conservative simply for supporting the right of members of Parliament to raise social issues in the House — a stance Scheer would later take flak for holding.
In other words, even if the Conservatives were to someday, somehow elect a perfectly progressive, Pride-marching “Red Tory” leader, they would probably still be forced to say defensive things about gay marriage, abortion and LGBTQ rights on the campaign trail simply to keep their partisan coalition together. Maybe it would just be a mild acknowledgment that those who disagree with social liberalism possess the right to do so. Maybe it would be a comment endorsing the continuation of tax-exempt status for socially conservative churches. However aggressively irreligious a future Tory leader attempts to be, they will still be a conservative, and thereby heir to a particular philosophical tradition that will never be secular enough to satisfy the Conservatives’ left-wing foes. The narrative of the “Conservatives’ so-con problem” will continue.
Rather than chase the fantasy that the Conservatives can ever persuasively rebrand themselves as the party of abortion and the LGBTQ movement, a more viable strategy would be to broaden the definition of social conservatism into a cause both conservative Christians and secular suburbanites alike could see their values reflected in.
Framing more policy battles in social-conservative language — defending the inherent worth of human life, the integrity of the family, the self-determination of local communities, and so on — could help emphasize themes of common cause between the secular and religious without making either camp feel as if they’re selling out to the other. Such rhetoric could similarly help secular conservatives understand social-conservative views on abortion and certain LGBTQ issues as controversial opinions within a shared moral framework, rather than inexplicable bigotries.
Conservatism triumphs when it is understood as a disposition, not a random suite of policies. In recent years, however, Canada’s Conservatives have too often treated their philosophy as a private secret, rather than something capable of inspiring voters. Accordingly, the party now often comes off as unattractive in its arbitrariness, run by an inexplicable coalition that critics assume can be cleaved up without consequence. Those believing the opposite — that the existing Conservative coalition must preserve and expand — must now make their case before the party pursues the wrong answer to a misunderstood problem.