Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States by James Farney (University of Toronto, $27.95, 168 pages, paperback).
Pundits and political scientists like to ponder the differences between Canada and the United States, and one question is why does the American conservative movement have a vital socially conservative element (the Religious Right) while social conservatism has had minimal influence on Canadian politics? James Farney, an associate professor of political science at the University of Regina, attempts to answer it in Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States. The book is based on his thesis, but, although it is an academic treatment of the subject, it is readable. Furthermore, Farney is sympathetic in that he is truly trying to understand the social conservative movement, even if his policy sympathies lay elsewhere.
Farney examines the issues the Religious Right (in the U.S.) and social conservatism (in Canada) has focused on over the past four decades and their roles, or lack thereof, in the political ebbs and flows of the Republican and various Canadian right-of-center parties (the Progressive Conservatives, Reform, Canadian Alliance, and Conservative parties). A major strength and weakness of Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States is that it is just 139 pages before the end notes and bibliography. The story and analysis moves fairly quickly, but covering 40 years of not only socially conservative history, but the history of the broader conservative movement in two countries requires a longer treatment.
The story necessarily takes shortcuts and focuses on four Canadian groups (Campaign Life Coalition, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and REAL Women), and there are severalincorrect impressions, if not errors: Farney suggests that CLC is Catholic and, until the 1990s, closely tied to the Liberals. It has always been ecumenical and non-partisan.
The main reasons Farney locates for the prominent place abortion and gay rights is the larger role that religion plays south of the border and essential Toryism here in Canada; Toryism valued political and social stability, placing a premium on minimizing social friction and limiting morality to the religious realm. Even though the Progressive Conservative Party that embodied that tradition has technically disappeared, on social or moral issues, the Conservative Party has maintained the Tory approach to public morality.
For those who wonder why the Reform Party’s apparently more socially conservative tradition has not had more influence in Stephen Harper`s Conservative Party, Farney attempts to disabuse readers of the notions that Reform was very socially conservative or had a large religious element.
Readers might be disappointed by Farney’s conclusion that the influence of social conservatism is declining on both sides of the border, and confused by his seemingly contradictory observations that they have had a “limited ability to change public policy” yet made “important contributions” to mainstream conservative thought and partisan political successes. His broader conclusion is that other religious questions -– freedom of expression and thought, the limits of tolerance – will replace the abortion and gay rights as issues for social conservatives; this is ultimately unpersuasive but fits with his ostensibly dissonant narrative of social conservatism’s declining influence and important if hardly central place in the broader conservative movement.
Paul Tuns is editor-in-chief of The Interim and author of Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal.