Will Canadian social conservatives sink Andrew Scheer?

Click to play video: 'Scheer unveils leadership team as party faces turmoil'
Scheer unveils leadership team as party faces turmoil
WATCH: As he faces calls to quit, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is standing firm. – Nov 28, 2019

He’s digging in. Against increasing odds, Andrew Scheer is sending every signal that he intends to remain leader of the Conservative party.

Last week, Scheer overhauled his office, dismissing chief of staff Marc-André Leclerc and communications director Brock Harrison. His campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, saw his contract expire, as well.

This week, Scheer unveiled a new “leadership team” which includes former Liberal MP Leona Alleslev as deputy leader. Next up, the reveal of his new shadow cabinet.

READ MORE: Scheer to assign key roles in Tory caucus as questions mount over leadership

“I’m staying on to fight the fight Canadians elected us to do,” the embattled leader said.

“Now is not the time for internal divisions or internal party politics — that is an unfortunate part of the Conservative tradition in this country.”

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Unfortunately for Scheer, conservatives have embraced tradition since the days of Edmund Burke, and Canadian Tories are no exception. In the past 10 days, the Quebec wing of the party held a fractious meeting where defeated candidates told Scheer he can’t win the next election.

Scheer’s former communications director Kory Teneycke advised the leader to “quit and run again” — and then helped establish a non-profit organization, Conservative Victory, dedicated to ousting him.

Former campaign director Jenni Byrne, meanwhile, who has known Scheer for 20 years, is urging him to step aside for the good of the party.

Even defeated Ontario MP Lisa Raitt, one of Scheer’s defenders, mused that, “He’s soft-spoken. And he tries to do what’s right in his world. And as a result of not being the ‘strong man,’ he’s being punished” — a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

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Most significantly, however, social conservative and pro-life groups are agitating for change.

“A lot of social conservatives have no interest whatsoever in backing Andrew Scheer,” ex-Conservative MP and defeated leadership candidate Brad Trost told The Globe and Mail. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, takes a similar view, and is leading 1,100 pastors and “mobilizing Christians across the country” for an eventual leadership race.

READ MORE: Scheer fires 2 top aides in wake of federal election loss, source says

A significant portion of the Conservative caucus may support that effort: anti-abortion groups Campaign Life Coalition and Right Now claim to have helped elect 45 anti-abortion Tory MPs.

If all their efforts come to fruition, it is possible that Scheer could be replaced by a more forcefully pro-life leader, backed by single-issue faith-based groups.

Let’s not mince words: that would be the death knell for the Conservative party. When Angus Reid asked Canadians how a politician’s faith or beliefs impacted their opinion of him or her in the recent election, 51 per cent said coverage of Scheer’s views — which centered mostly on abortion — had a negative impact.

Only 32 per cent of those surveyed say they would believe assurances from a politician about keeping their personal views out of politics, while 41 per cent say they would have doubts and 27 per cent say they wouldn’t believe the person at all.

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In other words, voters believe that when it comes to religion, the personal is political — and in Scheer’s case, they didn’t like it.

Nowhere was that more true than in Quebec. Commentators there roundly criticized Scheer’s pro-life stance; prominent Journal de Montreal caricaturist Ygreck went so far as to depict the Conservative leader as a Roman Catholic cleric with star candidate Sylvie Frechette dressed as Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale.

ANALYSIS: Scheer’s silence on a question of ‘sin’ a barrier to Conservative election hopes

Not surprisingly, the Tories’ share declined across the province, most significantly in Quebec City-area ridings and suburban ridings around Montreal.

In Quebec, of course, religion and politics have become a toxic mix. The province recently enacted a secularism law, known as Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by many public servants and officials. And while the rest of Canada would likely not pass such a discriminatory piece of legislation, secularism is nonetheless on the rise across the country.

Between 1991 and 2011, the percentage of Canadians who identify as Christians declined from 83 to 67 per cent, while the total for “other” religions, including Islam and Sikhism, doubled from four to eight per cent, an increase of 950,000 people.

But the bigger story is the percentage of Canadians who claim no religious affiliation: it rose from 12 to 24 per cent, an increase of just under 3 million people.

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This does not mean that religion has no role in public life. Canadians, including politicians, have the right to their personal religious beliefs. These beliefs will mold them and be part of their lens on the world.

But in a pluralist, increasingly secular country, grounding party platforms in religious beliefs is not a recipe for electoral growth. And when it comes to abortion, they are a non-starter. Even voters who are pro-life for reasons other than faith, or oppose third-trimester or sex-selective abortions, may balk at laws rooted in a politician’s religion.

READ MORE: Scheer spoke to Harper after election loss, vows leadership review will proceed

In Canada, Catholic politicians are particularly susceptible to this, due to the Church’s historic discrimination against women, LGBTQ2 individuals and Indigenous peoples, its role in Quebec society, as well as scandals involving child abuse that sadly continue to make headlines. The Christian Right’s role in American politics — where, this year, nine states passed faith-based bills outlawing abortion — hasn’t helped, either.

Other organized religions, including Islam, also have a record of oppressing women and the LGBTQ2 community. Grounding a policy in religion now automatically drags all manner of baggage in with it — and can tar the politician who espouses it as intolerant.

Maybe Scheer realized this, because he ducked the question of his personal position on abortion for weeks, before finally stating it during the last leaders’ debate. All this did, however, was infuriate his religious base while making the rest of the electorate suspect that he had something to hide.

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These and other errors in judgment disqualify him from leading the party forward. Rather than allow the rug to be pulled from under his feet, he should do the honourable thing and resign with whatever dignity he has left.

Then, it will be up to Conservative members to decide who comes next, and they must choose carefully. A political party exists to tackle a plethora of issues: the economy, the environment, health, education, immigration, the list goes on. It cannot be viewed as a one-issue cause, nor can a party allow itself to be hijacked by a special interest or belief system of any nature.

If the Tories are to offer a true national alternative to the governing Liberals, and unify the country at a time when it needs it so desperately, they must be mindful of this.

Church and State, yes. Church in State, not so much.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.

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