For years, religion was not an issue in Canadian politics. A politician's religious views were considered private and, it was assumed, would have little impact on his or her political decisions.
Two years ago, that began to change when Stockwell Day, a devout evangelical Christian, won the leadership of Canada's second-largest political party. A one-time lay Pentecostal preacher whose anti-abortion and family-values politics were well known, Mr. Day's surprise victory suggested that moral issues would return to the political debate.
But the growing influence of Canada's "religious right" suffered a setback late last month after Day failed in his bid to be reelected leader of the Canadian Alliance. His defeat suggests that Canada's moral conservatives are still a far cry from the level of influence of their devout brethren in the US.
"Fairly or unfairly, Day became a symbol of a form of political belief and activism that many Canadians would associate with elections south of the border, not with their own tradition," says Kevin Christiano, a sociologist from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, who specializes in Canadian politics.
It is not an easy comparison. Canada's social conservatives predominately evangelical Protestants, but also some Roman Catholics and non-Christians make up about 15 percent of the population, compared with about 30 percent in the US.
They also show less political cohesion. "I'd say we're about 10 years behind the US" in the level of political influence, says Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of the Alberta-based Canada Family Action Coalition.
Studies suggest that devout Christians who might agree with Day's opposition to abortion and gay rights do not necessarily gravitate toward the right-wing politics of the Canadian Alliance, says Dennis Hoover, a political scientist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Mr. Hoover says social conservatives in Canada "are to the right of center on the moral issues, and pretty much at the center for other issues."
In some pockets of the country, such as the rural prairie district of Day's home province of Alberta, a mix of social and fiscal conservatism is not uncommon. As a provincial politician, Day opposed abortion while championing tougher treatment of criminals and funding for private religious schools. His religious background was accepted in Alberta, where Premier Ernest Manning, an evangelical preacher, served for 25 years.
Yet when Day entered the national political arena, his religion suddenly became an issue. This was most evident during the federal election in 2000, when political opponents and the media criticized his insistence on not campaigning on Sundays and mocked his belief in creationism.
Canada has a long tradition of separating church and state. "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation," said former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968 when, as justice minister, he introduced reforms to divorce, homosexuality, and abortion laws.
Since then, the country has shown a political shift toward multiculturalism and secularization, says Marguerite Van Die, a historian from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Although the churches were very influential in the creation of a Canadian welfare state in the early 20th century, the dominant churches gradually lost their influence as the state took control of formerly religion-affiliated hospitals and schools.
"We're speaking of a population that doesn't tie religion to the well-being or the welfare of the nation," says Ms. Van Die, who recently co-directed a three-year study of religion and politics in Canada and the United States.
Van Die says many Canadians view religion as "divisive." In contrast, she says, many politicians in the United States see religious symbolism as a unifying force. "For better or for worse, [Canada's] ceremony [after Sept. 11] had absolutely no religious symbols in comparison to the one that was held in Washington Cathedral," she says. "The religious rhetoric that people like George W. Bush use ... is something Canadians haven't had much of in the past."
The Canadian Alliance seems to have recognized this. Day was replaced by conservative economist Stephen Harper, who shows little interest in a social-conservative agenda.
Yet Mr. Christiano thinks the issues raised by Day's experience may not stay submerged for long. "To the degree that it entered discussions in a positive or negative light in 2000, that might be a signal that something is about to change," he says.