2007: Whatever Happened to Christian Canada? (Review) / Richard John Neuhaus

This is a review of the presidential address of Evangelical scholar Mark Noll, professor of church history at Notre Dame University. It is by Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine.

See the original of this review, published in First Things in March 2007, on the First Things website at this link.

Thanks much,

Steve St.Clair
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 de-christianize 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 class-aware, 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. In 1867, when Canada became a dominion within the British Empire, the motto was “peace, order, and good government.” Distinctly different, one might note, from America’s more adventurous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A Web of Contingencies
When I was a boy, Maurice Duplessis was the master of Quebec. As premier, he was le Chef who brokered the interests of the English-speaking business class and the Catholic hierarchy in maintaining the all-encompassing dominance of his party, Union Nationale. “In retrospect,” says Noll, “the Duplessis regime must be considered a bottle stop under which great pressure built up to modernize Quebec’s economic, political, religious, and cultural strife. The regime achieved stasis, but only by avoiding the province’s intensifying push for systematic modernization.”

I’m somewhat skeptical about that. There was not all that much “strife” in Quebec at the time. And I’m strongly skeptical about the idea of a systematic connection between modernization and secularization. Noll is on firmer ground, and is marvelously instructive, when he attends to the “web of contingency” that effected such great changes in Canada. One can readily imagine other contingencies with other outcomes. It might have been different.

One can imagine, for instance, Trudeau never having become prime minister. In 1969, his Liberal government engineered a declaration making all of Canada officially bilingual. Ethnic, religious, and other social particularities were being set aside in favor of a universalistic vision of multicultural toleration and of toleration as a mandated celebration of diversity. Canadian historian Reginald Bibby sees 1969 as a key turn from the traditional Christian identities of both French and English Canada toward an ideology of pluralism. “Since the 1960s,” Bibby writes, “Canada has been encouraging the freedom of groups and individuals without simultaneously laying down cultural expectations. Colorful collages of mosaics have been forming throughout Canadian life. Our expectation has been that fragments of the mosaic will somehow add up to a healthy and cohesive society. It is not at all clear why we should expect such an outcome.”

That is delicately put. In its determined effort to distinguish itself from the U.S., Canada has in some ways become more like the U.S. For instance, the 1982 charter has pushed Canadian jurisprudence into the American pattern of activist judges becoming the agents of social change. On the usual hot-button issues (e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage), the national and provincial parliaments have become junior partners as the judicial usurpation of politics proceeds apace.

It is a long and intriguing story that Mark Noll tells. In Quebec, for instance, it is understandable that reformers in the Church bristled under the stifling regime of Duplessis, in which the bishops “had traded their religious birthright for a pottage of corrupt political patronage.” Well before the Second Vatican Council, reformers in Catholic Action and other groups pressed for a radical break-not only in church teaching and practice but also in family and social life-from what had been monolithically “Catholic Quebec.” They were successful, says Noll, “in convincing Quebec of the need for a rupture with older forms of Catholicism, but they were not successful in getting the citizens of Quebec to embrace their version of a reformed, modern Catholicism. Rather, most Quebec citizens, when they gave up the older form of Catholicism, turned to the a- or anti-Catholic forms of nationalism, state rule, and linguistic sovereignty promoted by more secular or even radical forces.

Historian Preston Jones puts it this way: “French Canadian nationalism as a cultural disposition rooted in Quebec’s Catholic history was transformed into Quebecois separatism as a secular faith founded upon an aspiration for political salvation from the influences of the English.” In the words of Noll, the new and reformed Catholicism “captured, but could not feed, the soul of Quebec.” In the rural and northern parishes of Quebec where I serve a few weeks of the summer, Catholic commitment is relatively strong, but it is not, as the old-timers routinely volunteer, anything like what it used to be. In Montreal it is not unusual that Sunday Mass in churches built for thousands is attended by two dozen of the faithful who seem lost in an ecclesiastical cosmos that, according to some observers, is on a trajectory toward oblivion.

As for the United Church of Canada, which resulted from a 1920s merger of Methodists and most Presbyterians, it still thought of itself as key to the religio-cultural establishment of English-speaking Canada. Its leadership is decidedly on the modernist side of the usual theological divides and was once confident that the UCC had an important part to play in helping the government create a new and more just society. Noll writes: “The irony of the situation was that while a modernistic social gospel succeeded in winning the mind of the United Church, that victory left the United Church with little to offer by way of specific Christian content in the radically transformed conditions of the 1960s, when Canadian governments acted far more effectively than the churches in guaranteeing personal welfare.” The Anglicans, who were once the Canadian elite, or much of the elite, at prayer have also fallen on hard times: “Efforts by Anglicans to preserve a measure of social influence have been set back by extensive court battles arising from earlier abuses of First Nation’s children in residential schools and by corrosive internal debates on matters of sexuality and doctrine. The struggle to define a meaningful Anglican presence for a denomination now marked by wide doctrinal pluralism leaves little energy for the magisterial guidance the denomination once provided for at least some ranks of Canadian society.”

There is an Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, but as Noll observes: “The relatively small size and modest means of the sectarian cohort in Canada, compared to the much larger and much wealthier cohort in the United States, constitute a major difference. But so does the fact that voluntaristic sectarians flourish in the United States at least in part because their loose, traditionless, entrepreneurial style fits well with the United States’ historically looser, less traditional, more republican, and more entrepreneurial culture, whereas north of the border no form of sectarianism or voluntarism has ever exerted a major public influence in Canada’s more corporate, conformist, cooperative, and monarchical culture.”

Secularism Alongside and Within
Toward the end of his survey, Noll says that Lipset’s point about Canada being a more communal and traditional society than the U.S. still holds. It is simply that the specifically Christian substance of that tradition has been largely evacuated. “In the United States, secularization has proceeded alongside of the fragmented, populist structures of American churches. In Canada, by contrast, it has worked through the communal, top-down structures of traditional Canadian society.” That is, I believe, an incisive observation, and helps explain, as Noll writes, “how Canada, which for so long looked much more Christian than Western Europe, and considerably more Christian than its southern neighbor, now appears in its religious character to resemble Europe much more closely than it does the United States.”

More recently, the Conservative party under the leadership of Stephen Harper has been able to form a minority government and is enjoying widespread support. Harper gives indications, however subtle, of greater sympathy for Canada’s earlier Christian tradition and its importance in addressing social issues of moral moment. It’s an apparently small thing, but much note is taken of his ending public speeches with “God bless Canada.” Also more recently, there are signs that some evangelicals and Catholics are overcoming their typically Canadian reticence-and their fear of seeming to be like those Americans-and are asserting a stronger public voice. It is possible that these are political and religious portents of major change. Many things are possible. But, for a lucid and persuasive explanation of recent decades, I recommend Mark Noll’s “What Happened to Christian Canada?”

Oh yes, another hopeful note on the Canadian scene. Archbishop Thomas Collins of Edmonton has just been installed as the new archbishop of Toronto. A Toronto paper ran an interview in which he was asked about his favorite movie, television show, food, football team, etc., etc. He said he didn’t pay enough attention to such things to have favorites. Then he was asked what is his favorite magazine, to which he responded: “I don’t really get magazines and if I do, they relate to my religious life. The one I subscribe to is First Things.” Sounds like a good man.


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