Religion Marks a Divergent Path throughout U.S., Canadian History

Article excerpt

Religion in Canada, U.S.: two roads diverged

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WASHINGTON - Canada and the United States are not just two of the world's closest neighbours in terms of commerce, trade and culture, but the former British colonies also shared many of the same fundamental beliefs and ideals as they forged their respective nations.

How, then, did religion come to play such a significant and enduring role in public policy in the United States compared to its neighbour to the north?

Just over 67 per cent of those who participated in the 2011 National Household Survey -- Statistics Canada's voluntary replacement for the cancelled mandatory long-form census -- reported being "affiliated with a Christian religion," the agency reported Wednesday.

But among new Canadian immigrants, the number of Christians has dropped to 47.5 per cent from 78 per cent in 1971, while nearly one-quarter of the Canadian population reported having no religious affiliation at all, compared with 16 per cent in 2001.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans still consider themselves religious -- many of them devoutly so.

A recent Gallup survey found that throughout the U.S. in 2012, 40 per cent of Americans considered themselves to be "very religious." Twenty-nine per cent described themselves as moderately religious, while 31 per cent said they were not religious.

Because Canadians tend to be more socially liberal than their southern neighbours, organized religion pays a greater price for those perceptions in Canada than in the U.S., experts say.

South of the border, by way of contrast, abortion -- to name just one pet cause of the religious right -- remains a hot-button issue as a host of state legislatures pass increasingly restrictive anti-abortion laws. Any prospect of that debate being reopened in Canada has been snuffed out by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

There are myriad reasons for the divergent religious makeup of the U.S. and Canada, academics say.

They run the gamut from demographic and immigration trends to the religious beliefs of the founding fathers of both nations and each country's response to the profound social and cultural shifts of the 1960s.

African-Americans, making up 12 per cent of the U.S. population, are avid churchgoers. A 2009 Pew Research study found they surpass other Americans on a host of faith fronts, including praying more often and attending church more frequently.

Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic in the country and now more numerous than African-Americans at 15 per cent of the population, are also more religious than most Americans, although they're growing less so.

And unlike Canada, there remains a large swath of the United States -- the South -- that is staunchly religious as well as politically powerful. Only pockets of similarly devout believers are scattered throughout Canada, making it harder for them to shape public policy.

The Gallup study found that eight out of 10 of the most religious states in the union are in the South, with Alabama and Mississippi in the Top 3. Utah, with its substantial Mormon population, is No. 2.

Southerners evidently still agree with the founding fathers of the United States, who not only enshrined religious freedom in the Constitution, but also, critically, protected the public exercising of religion.

"Religion has always had a significant role in American public policy, right from Day 1," said Thomas Farr, former director of the U.S. State Department's religious freedom office.

The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment was "the first major sign of the religious nature of our founders and the nature of the country," said Farr, who's now the director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs in Washington.

"We wanted to protect the exercise of religion; not just religious beliefs, but the actual exercise of religion. …