Religion in politics: why is it a bigger deal in the United States?

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

What is Stephen Harper's religion?  What about Thomas Mulcair or Bob Rae? Your MP?

You'll probably have an easier time naming the religions of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and president Barack Obama than you will of the Canadian political leaders.

As evidenced at this week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Americans tend to tie religion to politics more than we do north of the border. There has also been a lot of chatter recently about the Mormon background of the Republican presidential nominee and the Catholic background of the party's vice presidential nominee.

Contrarily, in Canada, we just don't seem to care.

There are several theories as to why religion plays a more prominent role in American politics.

Some have suggested that our parliamentary system produces more closed and concentrated power with fewer openings for evangelical lobbying and mobilization. Others opine that Canada has more religious diversity so that one's faith isn't as pronounced.

Luke MacDonald, a Canadian attending Brigham Young University in Utah, suggests that there is simply a different voter mentality in the U.S.

"Many people see religion as inseparably tied with a person's morals," he writes in an article for the Globe and Mail.

"They also see a person's morals inseparably tied with their political ideology and tendencies. While I may not completely agree with the causal logic and with considering a candidate's religion when deciding who to vote for, the ideas have definitely made a lot more sense in my mind the more I speak to people who subscribe to that particular line of thinking."

MacDonald adds that the idea of an atheist candidate — like former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe was reported to be — would "never fly in the United States."

In other words, according to MacDonald, Americans are just more outwardly religious.

His theory is supported by several surveys on the topic.

Two 2008 studies — one American and one Canadian — indicate that Americans go to church more than Canadians. The U.S. study claims that 32.4 per cent of Americans go to a religious service weekly, while a StatsCan report says that only 21 per cent of Canadians do the same.

A 2010 worldwide Ipsos Reid poll suggests that 65 per cent of Americans, compared to only 36 per cent of Canadians, think religion is "a force for good."

And, according to a 2011 American Values Survey, two-thirds of American voters say that it is important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.  And bad news for Romney: 42 per cent of those surveyed say that a Mormon president would make them uncomfortable.

So, maybe the reason religion plays a more prominent role in U.S. politics is simply because Americans are more religious than Canadians — at least overtly.

God bless them.