Whatever Happened to Christian Canada?

I kind of hope that title catches you by surprise – I certainly had to take a second look at it. It unmistakably implies that Canada was at one time a Christian nation. Indeed, Canada was a Christian nation throughout much of its history. The evidence for this is everywhere. To list just a few obvious places: the national anthem, Canada’s motto from Psalm 72:8 (a mari usque ad mare), and the motto of many of our universities (a topic which we plan to discuss in the near future). So whatever happened to Christian Canada?

Mark Noll is a church historian with a special emphasis on North American Christianity. He has written an excellent book entitled A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. He wrote an article back in June 2006 entitled “What Happened to Christian Canada?” In this blog post, I try to summarize some of his main arguments, but I highly suggest you give his entire article a read.

Noll, Mark A. “What Happened to Christian Canada?”

Church History 75, no. 2 (June 2006): 245-273.

Mark Noll has written an article in the periodical: Church History, asking the question: “What Happened to Christian Canada?” This is an intriguing question because it implies that Canada at one time was a Christian nation. Hardly anyone will deny that modern Canada is a largely secular nation. Indeed, many Canadians take the fact that they are a tolerant, individualistic, and multicultural nation quite proudly. In contrast, the United States is viewed as the great Christian state and religious dialogue is quite often a part of public debate and political policy. However, as Noll points out in his article, for a good portion of Canada’s history it was much more Christian than the United States. This is even true in recent Canadian history: in 1950 church attendance in Quebec may have been the highest in the world (249). Thus, this paper will analytically examine Noll’s article to try to come to a better understanding of whatever happened to Christian Canada.

Noll identifies the primary shift in Canadian Christian thinking as happening post-World War II (249 – 250). Noll argues that Canada, in its early years (late 1800s) always had an emphasis on the state and community values (e.g. peace, order, and good government), in contrast to the United States which emphasized the individualistic values (e.g. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). While peace, order, and good government remain part of Canadian culture, there was a shift away from seeking the communal good to seeking individual good when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted. This allowed for greater personal liberty, toleration, and personal growth (258) that ultimately resulted in a much more individualistic outlook on society.

Personal liberty and individualism were encouraged by both the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada. Back in the 1930s, groups in the Roman Catholic Church were challenging “the hierarchy’s traditional, clergy-directed conceptions of piety” (262). For example, the Service de Preparation au Marriage “encouraged women to seek sexual satisfaction in marriage, to control the timing and number of their children, and even . . . to explore the possibility of using birth control pills to regulate reproduction” (263). These new views were believed to be necessary to provide the “drastic reform [that] was needed for the intergenerational, patriarchal, and emotionally impoverished family of the past” (263).

Noll argues that much of a similar shift was happening in the United Church of Canada (although happening in the 1960s). He quotes Nancy Christie as stating, ‘”evangelicalism in mainline Protestantism foundered upon the rock of modern gender identity and human sexuality’” (266 – 267). The other pitfall of the United Church was its acceptance of neo-orthodox theology and its rejection of an active social gospel (266). The family was to be a private institution rather than a public one. The family was no longer viewed as fundamentally necessary in preserving social order, but rather individual pursuit and happiness trumped the family and communal values (267).

Thus, rather than producing a more relevant Christianity (as was the intent), the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada both started losing their relevance. They started to lose any real sense of meaningful Christianity and thus, they lost their cultural influence. As Noll writes “the personalism of Social Catholicism had captured, but it could not feed, the soul of Quebec” (264). This not only resulted in Catholics giving up on traditional Catholicism, but also turning anti-Catholic (264). Further, the United Church embraced a “modernistic social gospel [that] succeeded in winning the mind of the United Church, [but] that victory left the United Church with little to offer by way of specific Christian content in the radically transformed conditions of the 1960s” (267).

Noll also argues that the story of the Anglicans in Christian Canada is different from that of both the Roman Catholics and the United Church. As Canada moved to greater independence from Great Britain and the old colonial system, so the Anglican Church ceased to become less relevant (267). The Anglican Church in Canada had long acted as the Established Church of Canada, but as the traditional political structure upon which they so heavily depended declined, they did as well. Racked with internal controversy over gender, doctrine, and their less than honourable reputation with the Residential Schools they lost most their influence (268).

Noll also spends some time talking about evangelicals and various Christian sects. While these groups maintained their traditional religious beliefs and seem less impacted by cultural issues than the United Church and Roman Catholic Church, they did not have much influence on Canadian religious culture. This is in part because of their tendency “to remain in self-contained social, intellectual, and cultural ghettoes” (269). Their “’lack of involvement in the cultural mainstream has served to keep them from making a great deal of different in the culture’” (269).

Finally, Noll argues that the Second Vatican Council played a crucial role in the decline of Christianity in Canada because it was destabilizing for both Protestants and Catholics. It confused Christianity for Roman Catholics because “it rapidly altered the liturgy, the language, the music, the tone, the disciplines, and the calendrical observances that for a great part of the faithful had simply constituted the meaning of the faith” (270). It affected Protestants because it destroyed Protestant fear of a “monolithic, archly traditional, ultramontane Roman Catholicism” (271). Protestants in Canada, for much of their history, had an enemy to battle. But when Roman Catholicism lost its dogmatic force, so Protestantism lost its need to battle against Rome.

There is nothing more necessary for contemporary culture than to hear the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thus, in conclusion, Noll makes some very interesting arguments about why Christianity has so rapidly declined in what once was a strong Christian nation. It is particularly interesting that he argues that part of the problem is that various Christian denominations have tried to be culturally relevant, but in doing so, have lost their relevancy. This is a strong warning for Christian churches to avoid the pitfalls of trying to conform to the culture. It has never been the duty of the church to conform to contemporary culture. Rather, the church must be distinct from the world. The church must proclaim the timeless truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mankind always needs the news of the gospel: there is nothing more necessary for contemporary culture than to hear the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.