Evangelicalism Meets the Continental Divide: Moral and Economic Conservatism in the United States and Canada

Article excerpt

One of the most prominent ideas subsumed within the "American exceptionalism" literature is that evangelical Protestantism has always had an unusually powerful influence on U.S. political culture. In contrast, more recent literature points to the transnational influence of social movements, including those based in evangelicalism and other religious traditions. We examine the extent to which evangelical influences on moral conservatism and economic conservatism are similar in the United States and Canada. We employ regression models with slope dummy variables on data collected from comparable telephone surveys conducted in the two countries in 1996. Evangelical Protestantism's influence on moral conservatism and value priorities is transnational, but its influence on economic conservatism is distinctively American. Compositional analysis shows this pattern is largely shaped by the greater influence of self-identified fundamentalists among evangelical Protestants in the United States.

One of the most prominent ideas subsumed within "American exceptionalism" is that evangelical Protestantism has always had an unusually (perhaps even uniquely) powerful influence on U.S. political culture. This is a commonplace assumption in comparative political study, dating at least to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Even by comparison to Canada, argues Seymour Martin Lipset (1990, 1996), a leading advocate of American exceptionalism, the United States has been and continues to be distinctive.

Lipset's argument is that, from the colonial days to the present, a particular set of values and ideological emphases have distinguished Americans, and these values in turn help explain why U.S. political behavior and institutions are distinctive. Among these ideological tendencies, two are said especially to implicate evangelical Protestants: (1) traditionalist moralism that fuels recurring crusades for social reform, and (2) meritocratic individualism that supports the spirit of capitalism, anti-statist attitudes, and a bourgeois economy. Evangelicalism in the United States is seen as exceptional because it has had exceptional success injecting this ideology-a combination of social and economic conservatism-into the main arteries of the nation's political culture.

Yet Lipset does not directly address whether U.S. evangelicalism is distinctive, either in the muscle it has flexed promoting this ideological package or for its content. Is it possible that one or both of these two right-wing ideological tendencies is not shared by coreligionists abroad? Lipset's failure to examine closely the politics of evangelicals outside the United States is reflective of most of the literature in this area, the vast majority of which is confined to U.S. borders. The extant literature does not clearly establish if evangelical Protestantism has a common political effect across borders, or if it has diverse effects.

This article explores the extent of transnational similarity (an evangelical transnationalism hypothesis) or difference (an evangelical diversity hypothesis) in the effect of evangelical Protestant beliefs on political attitudes. Given the worldwide diffusion of evangelical Protestantism, a full comparative test would require a virtually global study Our analysis has more modest ambitions, focusing on a bilateral comparison of the United States with Canada. As Lipset's own arguments in defense of American exceptionalism attest (Lipset 1990), Canada has great value within the "most similar" strategy of comparative case selection. Canada's structural similarities and proximity to the United States make it an appropriately difficult hurdle for the American exceptionalism thesis to clear. We seek to determine the relationship between evangelical doctrine and policy preferences on a range of moral and economic issues. Employing data from the 1996 God and Society in North America survey conducted by the Angus Reid Group, we use OLS regression and the slope dummy approach to analyze both the direction of the relationship between evangelical religion and these political orientations, and the relative strength of the relationship across the U. …


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