Europe to the North of Us

First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Europe to the North of Us


"Whatever happened to Christian Canada?" I expect many readers have never given a thought to the question. In part, because many, if not most, readers seldom give a thought to Canada. It is said that the difference between Canadians and Americans is that Americans do not think about the difference between Canadians and Americans. Many other such snide observations to which I take umbrage are made about the land of my birth. Truth to tell, I am not greatly offended. But, even if we did not have so many Canadian subscribers, attention must be paid. Not least because Canada is a fascinating study in the dynamics of religion and public life in which all of us, however variously, are involved.

"Whatever Happened to Christian Canada?" is Mark Noll's presidential address to the American Society of Church History and is published in the society's journal, which is, unsurprisingly, named Church History. Noll observes that the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the gift of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, states in the preamble: "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." Many Canadians now date the history of Canada from 1982. So much for Champlain, Wolfe, Montcalm, the Plains of Abraham, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the Great War. And Canada was by 1982 a different country and rapidly becoming more different still. Despite the words in the charter's preamble, says Noll, "Canadian legislation and jurisprudence have increasingly privileged principles of privacy, multiculturalism, enforced toleration, and public religious neutrality, even when such moves dechristianize public space in which religious language was once commonplace." It is true to say that, in most aspects of public life, Christianity has been not only disestablished but also banished.

Some startling statistics are to the point. In 1961, one half of one percent of Canadians were religiously unaffiliated; in 2001, 16.2 percent so described themselves. In the same four decades, those identifying with the Catholic Church declined from 46 to 43 percent, while identification with the four largest Protestant denominations (Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Canada) fell from 41 to 20 percent. "In 1950, Canadian church attendance as a proportion of the total population exceeded church attendance in the U.S. by one-third to one-half, and church attendance in Quebec may have been the highest in the world. Today church attendance in the U.S. is probably one-half to two-thirds greater than in Canada, and attendance in Quebec is the lowest of any state or province in North America."

Noll writes: "The parallel histories of Quebec and the rest of Canada-though never without hypocrisy, patriarchialism, power mongering, partisan conflict, pettimindedness, heavy-handed coercion, interdenominational strife, and the masquerading of self-interest as piety-nonetheless left Canada at the mid-twentieth century with a much stronger claim as a 'Christian nation' than its large neighbor to the south. At least, that is, until the generation after the Second World War, when things began to change, and to change in a hurry."

In his 1990 comparison of the U.S. and Canada, Continental Divide, the late Seymour Martin Lipset observed that Canada "has been and is a more classaware, elitist, law-abiding, statist, collectivity-oriented, group-oriented society than the United States." (Upon Lipset's recent death, an obituary said that he wrote so well he could even interest his American readers in Canada.) Canadians tend to do things and to change together. In part, no doubt, because Canada is a relatively small society keenly aware of the behemoth to the South. Until fairly recently, it was in fact two societies, each with its cultural and religious establishment: Protestantism in English Canada and Catholicism in French Quebec. Taken all in all, Canada was more conservative. After all, they rejected the American Revolution, despite forceful American efforts to include them in the enterprise. …

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