A poll shows how Canadian and U.S. attitudes vary on family, politics and religion

RAE CORELLI November 4 1996


A poll shows how Canadian and U.S. attitudes vary on family, politics and religion

RAE CORELLI November 4 1996



A poll shows how Canadian and U.S. attitudes vary on family, politics and religion


On a map, Canadian and American border towns— and the hamlets scattered in between—look like paired beads strung along opposite sides of the 8,890-km frontier. The people who live there embrace different allegiances. But for generations, moulded by proximity and circumstance, they have shared the good times and the bad, coming together to fight fires and floods, to dance at one another’s weddings and to mourn at gravesides. The result is that an uninformed visitor to those communities where North meets South might well conclude that they are more or less indistinguishable. But as a comprehensive two-nation Angus Reid Group poll clearly shows, the view at the crossroads is highly deceptive, for there are profound differences in the attitudes of Americans and Canadians towards politics, social issues and religion.

“It surprised me,” said Angus Reid senior vice-president Andrew Grenville, who directed the poll, “that the two nations, which really share so much, could be so vastly different in outlook.”

Titled God and Society in North America, the survey was financed by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia foundation that supports cultural, educational and religious research. It encompassed 6,000 adults—hah in Canada and half in the United States—and relates political leanings and religious beliefs on both sides of the border. Conducted on the eve of a presidential election in the United States and with the prospect of a Canadian election in 1997, the poll asked questions about subjects ranging from political preferences and social concerns to God, prayer and atheism. And while there was surprisingly little cross-border consensus in most of those areas, the most striking contrast was in how the respondents defined and ranked important national issues. Some of the findings:

• For Canadians, jobs are the most important national issue; for Americans, it is international affairs. (In Quebec,

the level of concern about jobs and the economy was far greater than the rest of Canada and indeed the highest of any region in North America.)

• As their number 1 objective, Canadians chose building the economy; Americans opted for promoting the family.

• Decided voters in Canada are roughly equally motivated by liking their candidate or party and their dislike of the alternative; most Americans really prefer the candidate they support, and what they think of his opponent has less influence.

• Significantly more Americans say they go to church, pray and read the Bible than Canadians.


This poll, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia, is based on 3,000 telephone interviews across the United States and 3,000 across Canada conducted between Sept. 19 and Oct. 10 by the Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group. Results for each country are accurate within a margin of 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The margin increases for regional references within those samples. For comparisons between the two countries, the margin of error is 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

• More than twice as many Americans say religion influences their political thinking.

The poll results clearly indicate that voters in the two countries will approach the ballot box with vastly differing agendas. For example, while 46 per cent of Canadians who took part cited jobs as the top issue, 42 per cent picked national unity, 24 per cent the economy, 23 per cent the deficit and 16 per cent, health care. No more than a quarter of Americans, however, assigned priority to any one issue. International affairs was the choice of 24 per cent, followed by education and crime/violence (20% each), drugs—which barely registered among Canadians—the economy and the federal deficit (15% each), and health care (14%). Only nine per cent cited jobs.

When the U.S. and Canadian responses in each category were compared, the divisions between the two societies became even more apparent. For instance, although the Canadian unemployment rate of 9.9 per cent is nearly twice that of the United States, jobs are cited as a concern five times as frequently by Canadians than Americans. Canadian respondents also exhibit substantially greater worry about the federal deficit and the economy generally. On the other hand, twice as many Americans show concern about education, and five times as many about crime and violence.

Within Canada, jobs were of paramount importance in economically battered Quebec, cited by fully 61 per cent of respondents. With unemployment at 12.6 per cent in Montreal, Parti Québécois leaders gathered this week in search of ways to revive the devastated provincial economy. The Atlantic provinces (50%) were the only other region whose concern about jobs registered above the national average. The lowest was Alberta (32%). National unity was a more uniform preoccupation across the land, rated highest in Quebec (45%) and lowest in British Columbia (36%). Albertans, upset by severe cutbacks in health care and education, reflected aboveaverage interest in those issues, but Ontarians, just beginning to feel the bite from their government’s spending cuts, gave those categories no greater emphasis than the nation as a whole.

When the poll questions focused on desirable national objectives rather than existing issues, the cross-border dissimilarity was striking. In a list touching on the economy, law and order, the environment and morality, one-third of Canadians put the most emphasis on building the economy while roughly the same percentage of Americans selected promoting the family. “It’s not that Americans aren’t concerned about their economy,” Grenville said. “But they’ve developed an almost morbid fear that the moral side of their society is slipping away and that the whole thing could come apart if they don’t pay attention to their morality and values.” Respondents in the two nations put much the same emphasis on the need to maintain law and order. But Americans were more than twice as likely to cite the importance of raising moral standards.

28% in Canada... 55% in U.S.... . . . believe the Bible is God’s word, to be taken literally word for word

21% in Canada.. 43% in U.S.... ... read the Bible at least weekly


Who best to resolve all these challenges? In Canada, 55 per cent of the poll’s decided voters picked Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. Fifteen per cent would go with the Conservatives, 12 per cent with the Reform party, eight per cent backed the New Democratic Party and seven per cent the Bloc Québécois. The U.S. respondents heavily backed President Bill Clinton—54 per cent—to Republican Bob Dole’s 32. Maverick Ross Perot got the nod from seven per cent.

But for some politicians, there was little comfort in a numerical lead. In Canada, for instance, only 48 per cent of decided Liberal voters said they really liked the party; 50 per cent said they disliked the alternatives more. Similarly, 57 per cent of the separatist Bloc’s supporters said they chose it because they could not abide its rivals. In the United States, a large majority of voters behind both Clinton and Perot said they liked their candidate. Dole’s support was softer; 47 per cent of those who said they would vote for him were motivated by dislike of his rivals.

Meanwhile, the growth of the so-called Christian right, both in numbers and political activism, was reflected in the poll’s exploration of the often subtle and sometimes surprising influences of religion. Overall, it is the “highly committed” Christians of all stripes—the ones who attend church, pray and read the Bible most often—who demand morality in politics and who, at the same time, are most involved in volunteer work in associations and institutions.

In Canada, although a third of the highly committed evangelical Protestants among the respondents said they would vote Reform, nearly 40 per cent favored the Liberals. Adherents of the mainline Protestant faiths (United, Anglican, Baptist, etc.) were strongly Liberal, as were more than two-thirds of highly committed Roman Catholics. South of the border, Dole was the solid choice of highly committed Evangelicals and mainline Protestants, and Clinton attracted less-committed Evangelicals, Roman Catholics and voters of no religious affiliation.

When the tables were turned and the candidate’s religion—rather than the voter’s—came into play, the two countries were far apart. Asked whether they would vote for a government leader who was either an evangelical Christian, a Muslim or an atheist, a large majority of the Canadians would accept any of the three. When those responses were broken down by religion, each of the hypothetical nominees got at least 50-per-cent support across the board—except for the highly committed evangelical Christians who turned thumbs down on the atheist.

It was a different story in the United States. Most Americans would vote for an evangelical Christian president and, in spite of the Gulf War, well over half would cast their ballots for a Muslim. Not so for an atheist, who would get just 43 per cent of respondents’ support. Only the highly committed Evangelicals gave the Muslim less than 50 per cent. But the atheist was soundly rejected by Evangelicals, the mainline Protestants and the highly committed Catholics.

Spreading the gospel

Percentage who say: “It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians.”

Those cross-border distinctions, says Gerald Vandezande, national public affairs director for the Toronto-based ecumenical lobby group Citizens for Public Justice, point to a greater willingness by Canadians to judge candidates by performance rather than their professed religion. “Canadians are interested in what a candidate represents in terms of core values,” says Vandezande. Americans, on the other hand, says historian Mark A. Noll of Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, are “more sensitized to religious labels.”

Religion’s role in politics became more clearly defined

when the respondents were asked about their responsibility to the process beyond merely choosing candidates. Responses on both sides of the border, said the polling firm’s president, Angus Reid, show profound differences between the two countries, “which on many other dimensions attitudinally look the same.” Well over half the Americans felt traditional Christian values should have a major influence in politics (56%) and that Christians should become involved to protect those values (64%). A minority of Canadians shared those positions (45% and 46% respectively) . And more than twice as many Americans said religion was important in their political thinking (41% to 19%). But the level of conviction in both countries on all three points diminished sharply among respondents who attended church less frequently.

Regionally, there were huge swings. In Canada, the proportion of those who believe that religion is important in political thinking was highest in the Atlantic and the Prairies, although even there the idea was embraced by fewer than one-third of the respondents. The weakest endorsement for the notion came from Quebec, at nine per cent. By comparison, the idea generated substantial enthusiasm in the U.S. South (49%) and Midwest (41%) and its lowest support was still higher than any of the Canadian numbers.

On the question of religious affiliation, significantly more Americans than Canadians identified themselves as Christian—76 per cent compared with 68 per cent.

At the same time, religious indifference was higher in Canada, where more than one-fifth of the respondents said they either had no sectarian affiliation or were agnostics or atheists, compared with 13 per cent of the Americans.

Across regions of North America, the strongest Christian identification was in the U.S. Midwest and South, and in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. British Columbia showed the least interest of all.

The Christian respondents in each country were divided into three groups—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholics. Fully half of the Evangelicals in both nations reported they were highly committed to their churches. But only about one-third of mainline American Protestants and Catholics say they are highly committed, and that support level was even lower among comparable Canadians—20 per cent among Catholics and 14 per cent among Protestants.

That pattern was clearly evident else-

where. For example, nearly three-quarters of the Americans said they prayed weekly compared with less than half of Canadians. The U.S. South had the highest proportion of weekly supplicants—77 per cent—and again British Columbia had the least with slightly more than half that number. Even so, prayer was a far more popular religious activity in both countries than weekly churchgoing and Bible reading.

Only in the American South did more than half the people say they read the Bible every week; at the other end of the scale, in once-devoutly Roman Catholic Quebec, that figure was 13 per cent. Canadians who say they read the Bible at least weekly topped 30 per cent only in the Atlantic provinces. When it came to church attendance, the results were roughly similar—highest in the American South and Midwest, lowest in Quebec and British Columbia.

More than four-fifths of Canadians said they did not have to go to church to be good Christians. And when asked to name the most important religious leader in their country, seven in 10 Americans had someone in mind—most often Billy Graham. Canadians, collectively, drew a blank, with threequarters unable to name anyone.


The end is nigh

Percentage who say: “The world will end in the Battle of Armageddon between Jesus and the Antichrist.”

Christians by major denomination

Religion and politics

Percentage willing to vote for a party led by a ...

The most commonly cited: the Pope, by just she per cent of respondents, including just 20 per cent of highly committed Catholics.