While the United States has been preoccupied with another Kennedy scandal, the controversies over Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson, and the political fallout from a recession that may or may not be over, to the north something truly important is taking place. With increasing concentration over the last several years, the Dominion of Canada has been debating its future. Not surprisingly, this debate features the constitutional relationship between Quebec and “the Rest of Canada” (ROC). As the Economist’s John Grimond has put it, “Even in normal times constitutional debate is the Muzak of everyday life in Canada.” But these are not normal times, and Canada’s debate—apart from its intrinsic interest to Canadians—also offers more than a little to citizens of the United States who ponder connections between the shape of government, the will of “the people,” and the common good. Although it may not be obvious at first glance, Canada’s unfolding history is also important for those who feel that religious convictions, institutions, and traditions have a vital role to play in the shaping of a nation’s public life.
The current round of debate over how Quebec and the ROC should get along is only the latest episode in a long history of constitutional uncertainty. It began in 1759, after Wolfe triumphed over Montcalm on Quebec’s Plains of Abraham, with the question of how Britain should incorporate a French-speaking, Roman Catholic colony in an otherwise Protestant empire. It continued with the Quebec Act of 1774. This piece of legislative magnanimity gave Canada’s French Catholics civil rights and religious privileges that Britain would not extend to its own Catholics for another fifty years. But it also incensed the thirteen colonies to the south, who nervously interpreted this act of justice toward Quebec’s Roman Catholics as a sign of Britain’s tyrannical designs upon themselves. In 1839, after abortive revolts in modern-day Quebec and Ontario, a famous report from Lord Durham’s commission proposed “anglicizing” Quebec, since, as the report affirmed, it was a “vain endeavor to preserve a French-Canadian nationality in the midst of Anglo-American colonies and states.” Quebec, to put it mildly, was not pleased, and dug in its heels—with success. When the British North America Act of 1867 created the Dominion of Canada, Quebec was granted a separate provincial government along with considerable autonomy over its own institutions, including religion.
Quebec continued to be an anomaly in North America for almost a century after the Dominion was created. It was a contained society—governed by a secure alliance of large landowners, industrial magnates, conservative political leaders, and the Church’s hierarchy—in a Canada that otherwise was only slightly less democratic and entrepreneurial than the United States. Quebec was an island of French in a sea of English, a French Catholic culture in a North America where elsewhere French immigrants did not stand out, where the Roman Catholic church was dominated by the Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, and Ukrainians, and where Protestants mostly ran the show.
Despite the weight of such traditions, settled patterns began to change during and after World War II. In 1960, the Liberal Party won a decisive provincial election at which voters opted for the outward-looking cultural style that would later mark Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s tenure as national Prime Minister. Following which urban terrorists in the period 1967-1970 bandied Marxism, robbed banks, and assassinated a provincial minister. The attempt at armed revolution did not succeed, but the terrorist Front de Liberation du Quebec, along with other, less violent nationalist groups, did raise the political temperature. In May 1980 the question of independence was finally put to a vote, but the referendum failed. Yet, as has become painfully obvious, the sentiments leading to the eruptions of the 1960s and 1970s had by no means faded away.
The most recent difficulties began when Canada “patriated” its constitution in 1982, an event that fulfilled Trudeau’s long-standing desire to put Canada’s political future entirely in the hands of Canadians. Queen Elizabeth would still be Canada’s sovereign, but that was now the extent of formal connections with Great Britain. This new constitution, as it turned out, followed American rather than British precedent by being a written document and by including an explicit Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Analyzed by itself, the provision of a constitution with a specific “Bill of Rights” has much to be said for it. But as a signpost, for Canada’s broader history, it may have marked a crisis of identity as much as a political reform.
In the event, Trudeau, although a Quebecker himself, had more success convincing the ROC that the new constitution was a good thing than he did Quebec, which, nervous about protecting its hereditary prerogatives, refused to ratify the document. Under Brian Mulroney, from 1984 the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister, provincial leaders hammered out an agreement in 1987 at a government retreat house on Quebec’s Meech Lake that was designed to secure Quebec’s assent to the constitution. This Meech Lake Accord designated Quebec as a “distinct society” and expanded the control it could exercise over its own affairs. But for a number of reasons—including dissatisfaction about special privileges offered to Quebec, a desire by other provinces to also achieve greater autonomy from Ottawa, and Native American contentions for ethnic rights—the Meech Lake Accord failed to secure the approval of all provinces by the stipulated date for its ratification, June 1990.
The failure of the Meech Lake Accord has led to aggressive noises in Quebec about leaving Canada, almost equally aggressive responses of “good riddance” in some Maritime and western areas, growing appeals from other provinces for an autonomy like Quebec’s, the rapid rise of a new force on the national political scene (the Reform Party), and the descent to all-time record lows of citizen satisfaction with Brian Mulroney and his government. Provincial and national politics are probably more thoroughly disconnected in Canada than in the United States, but the national constitutional mess may have contributed to the provincial victories of the New Democratic Party, Canada’s cautiously socialist third-party alternative to the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, that occurred in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia during 1910 and 1991.
Since the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, Canada’s national government has mobilized to address the future. At the end of June 1991, on the eve of the July 1 observation of Canada Day, a commission established by Ottawa, “The Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future,” issued a general report on the state of national affairs prepared after meetings throughout the whole country. Then in late September came a fifty-nine-page constitutional proposal prepared under the supervision of Joe Clark, a former Prime Minister who now serves as Minister of Constitutional Affairs. In between these government reports appeared countless position papers, forums, and discussions from private groups—all seeking to show Canadians what should, or should not, be done to meet the current crisis.
Massive treatment in the Canadian press, along with reports from outsiders like John Grimond (“Nice Country, Nice Mess,” The Economist, June 29, 1991), offer nearly everything that one might want to know about Canada’s current state of affairs. The one exception is the question of how religion figures in the mix. On that subject the truly remarkable news is that there has been virtually no news at all.
In official documents on the constitutional situation religion has either not been mentioned at all, or it figures only in the list of categories that define Canada as a multicultural society. To pause for the inevitable comparison, the current Canadian situation seems more like the United States of 1789 than of 1991. When he was asked why the U.S. Constitution contained no references to God, Alexander Hamilton, speaking for himself and the other delegates, replied with studied flippancy, “We forgot.” That attitude seems much closer to the current Canadian attitude than to what now prevails in the United States. Within living memory, for example, there has been nothing in Canada like the religious reactions in the United States to the Gulf War where, with a mixture of subtlety and fanaticism so characteristic of our history, Americans engaged in ethically strenuous discussion on criteria for a just war and also indulged in a spasm of enthusiasm for wild-eyed apocalyptic literature.
The omission of religion from Canada’s current constitutional crisis is curious for a number of reasons. In the first instance, religious faith remains a significant feature in the lives of some prominent political leaders. Canadian politicians do not exploit their religious allegiances for partisan purposes the way their American counterparts have done over the last three decades, but meaningful, if subdued, religious faith is a major factor in the lives of at least some recent leaders, like the Catholic John Turner (who for a brief period was Trudeau’s successor as a Liberal Prime Minister) and Preston Manning, the evangelical Protestant leader of the Reform Party.
An incident related to one particular recent discussion of Canada’s constitutional future illustrates the continued salience, but also the studied disregard, of religion in the lives of Canadians. In its July 1, 1991, issue, Maclean’s, a Canadian counterpart to Time or Newsweek, released its own “forum” on the fate of the nation. Over a long weekend in early June, the magazine had gathered twelve Canadians from throughout the country, delivered them into the hands of three “conflict managers” from Harvard, and recorded the intense discussions that ensued. The result was a sixty-five-page story, “The People’s Verdict,” with extensive reporting of the weekend conference; a lot of self-conscious attention to the twelve participants, the three Americans who led the discussion, and the process that brought them together; and a final document, “To Clarify a Vision: The Aim—a nation where all people feel at home and fairly treated.” In both this document and extensive stories on Canada’s national history that surrounded reports of the conference, the predominating themes were narrowly constitutional, broadly economic, polemically ethnic, and fuzzily humanistic—e.g., “Social, economic, and constitutional questions have a better chance of being well handled if Canadians work more closely together, side by side, with greater understanding, empathy, tolerance, genuine concern, and a willingness to share.” As for religion, the only mention of it was in an accompanying historical article describing the way that in the early 1960s Quebec was “revitalized” when it “shook off centuries of domination by the Roman Catholic Church” (on which matter, more anon).
The absence of any meaningful reference to religion did not pass entirely unremarked. Harold Jantz, editor of Christian Week, a lively periodical of news and analysis published out of Winnipeg, commented in his July 16 issue that Maclean’s silence on religion was strange in a country where churches and religious institutions of many kinds were, in fact, contributing materially to the nation’s well-being. Among several other ventures, Jantz cited efforts by the Canadian Bible Society to provide new translations of the Scriptures into Native languages, the hundreds of summer church camps that draw together young people from throughout Canada for recreation and inspiration, and the many religiously sponsored relief agencies that collect Canadian wheat, expertise, and funds for stricken corners of the world.
Jantz’s perplexity about the absence of religion in the Maclean’s report continued to rankle, with the result that he eventually got on the phone to three of the twelve participants. What he discovered was that each was to some extent an active Christian—a Baptist from Nova Scotia, a Catholic from Quebec, and a member of the United Church from Ontario. Yet the three reported that the only forays into the territory of religion during the Maclean’s gathering were a passing reference by a Native woman to how Native spirituality shaped her life and a momentary excursion into an Anglican church during a break in the proceedings. Almost as if to echo Alexander Hamilton, one of the participants responded to Jantz that religion simply “never came up.”
The struggle for constitutional stability between Quebec and the ROC is the central political story of Canada’s recent past. But the unfolding of that story, along with the prospects for its successful denouement, are tightly bound up with two other great “public stories.” These other developments, with their interconnections, provide the indispensable context for making sense of the constitutional impasse. One of these other stories is social; it involves the rapid expansion of an individualistic mentality, not unrelated to the concerns of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The other is religious; it concerns the abrupt changes that have taken place in the Canadian practice of religion over just the last generation.
Canada’s social situation is nicely highlighted in two outstanding recent books by eminent sociologists. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (Routledge, 1990) represents the distillation of a full lifetime of study by Seymour Martin Lipset, who during the 1930s did doctoral research on the predecessor of the New Democratic Party in Saskatchewan and who has maintained a steady interest in Canada throughout his distinguished career. Mosaic Madness: The Poverty and Potential of Life in Canada (Stoddart, 1990) by Reginald W. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, follows closely on the heels of his pathbreaking Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada (Irvin, 1987). Lipset’s Continental Divide presents a thoughtful digest of historic differences between Canadian and American societies. Bibby, on the other hand, uses research data from the very recent past (much of which he has collected himself) to present a contemporary snapshot.
This difference in perspective may account for the contrasting tone of the books. Lipset, focusing on the advantages that Canadian society has enjoyed over the United States, writes measured, almost elegiac prose. Bibby, concerned with the contemporary crisis, is agitated and clearly worried. Lipset’s main argument is that Canadian society “has been and is a more class-aware, elitist, law-abiding, statist, collectivity-oriented, and particularistic (group-oriented) society than the United States.” The antistatism, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism that characterize American history have been decidedly less prominent in Canada. Where Canada has stressed the state and community values, the United States has featured the individual and laissez faire. In contrast to the United States’ embrace of classical liberalism (in the nineteenth-century, individualistic sense of the term), Canada has fostered a public attitude stressing communalities, whether “Tory-statist” on the right or “social democratic” on the left. The reasons for these systematic differences are both geographical and historic. Canada’s vast space and sparse population have required a more active government and have placed a premium upon cooperation. Historically, the rejection of the American Revolution, the presence of Quebec as a distinct community, the Loyalism strengthened by American invasions during the War of 1812, and the prosaic understatement of the Dominion’s founding motto (“peace, order, and good government”) have all tended to enforce organic as opposed to individualistic arrangements in Canadian life.
Lipset does recognize that contemporary Canada is changing, and he stresses the role of the new constitution in accelerating the pace of change. As he puts it, “the Charter of Rights . . . probably goes further toward taking the country in an American direction than any other enacted structural change, including the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The Charter’s stress on due process and individual rights, although less stringent than that of the U.S. Bill of Rights, should increase individualism and litigiousness north of the border.” Yet developments in the 1980s do not shake Lipset from his basic conclusion. A preponderance of social indicators (e.g., a lower murder rate, fewer police per capita, a relative absence of civil disorder, a higher tolerance for taxes and government regulation, a willingness to support tight gun control) continue to convince him that the historic differences between Canadian and American society are still present.
Bibby reaches exactly the opposite conclusion. As he describes it, Canadian society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and more aggressively preoccupied with self-fulfillment than even the United States. Indeed, he claims that his book about Canadian society was inspired by two well-publicized indictments of American life, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and associates, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. “Inadvertently,” Bibby thinks, “these Americans have provided critiques more appropriate to Canada than to the United States.”
To Bibby, Canadians have embraced “excessive individualism” and “excessive relativism” to the point of self-destruction. He is particularly harsh with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose vision for Canada Bibby describes as limited to the promotion of tolerance and moderation. The sort of multicultural pluralism for which Trudeau still speaks (as in Towards a Just Society, edited with Thomas Axworthy, 1990) might be all right as far as it goes. But, says Bibby, “there is a danger”:
If there is no subsequent vision, no national goals, no explicit sense of coexisting for some purpose, pluralism becomes an uninspiring end in itself. Rather than coexistence being the foundation that enables a diverse nation to collectively pursue the best kind of existence possible, coexistence degenerates into a national preoccupation. Pluralism ceases to have a cause. The result: mosaic madness.
Flying in the face of Lipset’s data, Bibby cites research to show that Canadians are less likely than Americans to volunteer time and money for communal causes, they participate less actively in institutions like churches, and they have few meaningful figures (past or present) who can be treated like national heroes.
At first glance, little seems to connect the conclusions of Lipset’s Continental Divide and Bibby’s Mosaic Madness. But, beneath the surface, there is a great deal. Bibby’s historical sense, in fact, coincides almost exactly with Lipset’s. He agrees that there may have been more communal spirit and practice in Canada than in the U.S., but only until recent decades. He is also fairly precise about when the modern situation developed and what it has meant:
Since the 1960s, Canada has been encouraging the freedom of groups and individuals without simultaneously laying down cultural expectations. Canada has also been encouraging the expression of viewpoints without simultaneously insisting on the importance of evaluating the merits of those viewpoints. During the past thirty years, 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.
Bibby is also confident that he can chart the stages in the fragmenting of Canadian public life. The first marker was the government’s 1969 declaration making Canada officially bilingual. (In confirmation of his analysis, at least ten of the sixty paragraphs of the 1982 constitution concern the use of English and French as official national languages.) Then came a 1971 statement affirming Canada’s multicultural character. This declaration has led to government agencies and funds explicitly devoted to promoting the self-consciousness of ethnic minorities. Finally came the Charter of Rights and Freedom of 1982 that institutionalized “mosaic madness” as the law of the land. Bibby is cautious about predicting the ultimate effect of the Charter, but its enactment at minimum “appears to reflect the growing sense of the importance not only of cultural groups in Canada, but also of the individual—with or without a group tie.”
Lipset and Bibby, therefore, agree that recent social developments have altered Canada’s historic frame of reference. This point of agreement, in turn, bears directly on the constitutional crisis. Where once Canada had been a nation committed to cohesive action by organic communities (including the national government), it now seems increasingly a society insisting upon ever more precise definition of social fragments and ever more strident advocacy of individual rights. If this transformation has indeed taken place—if, that is, the changes Lipset recognizes and Bibby spotlights have in fact gone as far as Bibby fears they have, then the origin of the constitutional crisis is plain. Provincial governments, native peoples, and linguistic or ethnic coalitions are simply following broader social trends in demanding their rights without much concern for the whole. To the extent that this change has taken place, the Americanization of Canada is pretty nearly complete.
But before such a conclusion can be fully confirmed, the question of religion in relation to Canadian society must be addressed. To raise this issue, however, is to approach the most important understudied story in the religious history of twentieth-century North America. It is also to approach one of the central paradoxes in comparisons between the United States and Canada. Although its implications are complex, that paradox may be stated simply: in the United States a consistently high (and even rising) level of religious practice has been accompanied for more than a generation by systematic efforts to remove the influence of religion from education, the media, and public life, while in Canada, where religious practice has experienced a decline of staggering proportions since World War II, public life remains remarkably open to religious influence.
The 1982 constitution illustrates the paradox in a startling way, for even as that document promotes attention to individual rights at the expense of corporate existence, it also makes statements that are unthinkable in the American context (at least in the American context of recent decades). It would be a rare American, for instance, who would not be jolted by the first words of the 1982 document: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law . . . ” A similar jolt would probably also be provided by the statement prefacing the enunciation of individual rights: “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” In both of these examples, Canada’s constitution, which otherwise seems to imitate the American fixation upon rights, follows a more relaxed British accommodation to long-standing communal traditions.
Even more striking to Americans, for whom public schools have become war zones between the fastidious promoters of church-state separation and aggressive defenders of “traditional values,” is the Canadian posture on education. While Canada has its own church-state conflicts with respect to education, the fact remains that the situation is very different from that in the United States. In Canada, provincial governments subsidize primary and secondary schools established by denominations, confessionally organized institutions of higher learning are incorporated into major public universities, and the school system in at least one province (Newfoundland) is organized completely on denominational lines.
The contrast between Canadian structural openness to religion and American constitutional squeamishness about “establishment” is striking enough by itself. But it is even more so, as has been noted, in light of the fact that Canada has maintained this openness to religion in public life while undergoing an astounding decline in actual religious practice. The reasons for that decline are far from clear, but its dimensions are unquestionable.
When public polling first began in earnest after World War II, Canadians were far more likely to attend religious services than Americans. The Gallup Organization has traditionally asked respondents if they have been in church or synagogue during the past week. In the United States the response to this question has remained remarkably stable for more than a half-century, with figures clustering between 40 percent and 45 percent (a low of 37 percent in 1940, highs of 49 percent in 1955 and 1958, and the most recent readings at about 44 percent). In Canada, by contrast, polls in the early years showed as many as two-thirds of Canadians in church on a typical Sunday, and still well over 50 percent by the mid-1960s. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Canadian figures dropped to about 30 percent. The decline, which has hit Protestants hard, has been even more precipitous among Catholics. In 1955, the year of the first Gallup survey of Canadian religion, 93 percent of Quebec Catholics reported being in church the previous week, and over 80 percent of Catholics in Canada as a whole. By the end of the 1980s, these figures had dropped by about two-thirds.
A recent study of Canadian religious practice, written by Alain Barti and George Mori, in a publication from Statistics Canada, reports on a survey of 10,000 Canadians questioned in 1990. The question asked—did you attend religious services once a week or more during the past year?—was somewhat more demanding than the standard Gallup query, and so could be expected to produce lower totals. Nonetheless, its results illustrate the magnitude of the recent decline. Although over 86 percent of Canadians continue to identify with a religion (almost all some variety of Christianity), only 24 percent said they attended services at least once a week. The same survey reported that the number of Canadians claiming “no religion” increased from 10.4 percent in 1985 to 12.1 percent in 1990. However one counts, the message is clear. Participation in religious life by Canadians has declined massively over the course of one generation.
And the decline has been most rapid in Quebec among Catholics. Where in the United States Catholics continue to attend church more regularly than Protestants (though with a narrowing gap), in Canada rates of attendance are roughly the same. As recently as the early 1950s Quebec was not only the most church-going province in Canada but one of the most church-going regions in the whole world. Today, less than one-fourth of Quebeckers reported regular church attendance in the survey conducted by Barti and Mori.
Declines in church attendance in Quebec are, however, only one part, and maybe even a small part, of the religious changes that have overtaken that province since World War IL As an indication of the depth of Catholic culture in Quebec, for the century before 1960 the church maintained a steady average of one priest for every 510 parishioners. As late as 1941, there was one man or woman in religious orders (with two-thirds serving in the schools) for every 87 Quebec Catholics. Harbingers of a new situation, however, appeared during and after the war. In 1943, Quebec for the first time made education compulsory for all children, and during the war more and more people moved to the cities. Shortly thereafter cracks began to appear in the alliance of social and ecclesiastical elites, as, for example, when key church leaders in the late 1940s supported a strike by asbestos workers. In 1960, the same year as the Liberal Party’s political triumph, Quebec’s labor unions, which had always been Catholic organizations, broke their tie with the church.
What followed in the 1960s has sometimes been called “the Quiet Revolution,” but it was a revolution nonetheless. The different voices calling for greater autonomy in Quebec over against Canada as a whole now spoke mostly about economic or linguistic distinctives rather than about Quebec’s Catholic heritage. In 1964 a provincial Ministry of Education was created; for the first time in Quebec’s history the Catholic Church was not in control of the schools. Criticisms of Catholic institutions of a sort once rarely heard were now widespread. Vocations to the priesthood and to the religious orders of men and women alike plummeted. Charles De Gaulle’s 1967 visit from France, when he appealed publicly for a “free Quebec,” added fuel to a fire that was already burning brightly. Almost overnight, it seemed, a stable synthesis of Catholic, French, rural, conservative, isolationist, and pre-capitalist values had disappeared. Earlier weaknesses in the church’s response to modern intellectual problems and social arrangements, as well as the powerful post-World War II inroads of market forces, probably help to account for Quebec’s rapid change. But no fully satisfying explanations for this extraordinary—and extraordinarily swift—revolution have yet been published.
In general terms, secularization has proceeded in the United States 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. The result has been a startling decline in the presence of religion in Canadian life.
But what does this mean? What is actually the connection between the decline of Canadian religious practice and recent social change or the constitutional crisis? The answer involves an academic detour and an irony. Precisely when religion seems to be losing its public importance in Canada—and presumably its capacity to act as a source of cohesive public ordering more generally—Canadian historians have produced a spate of solid works demonstrating the ways in which religion in Canada once provided conceptual foundations, practical purpose, and a remarkably powerful vision for public life. These works demonstrate that in the not-too-distant past religion provided just the sort of meaningful, public-spirited guidance for Canadian life conspicuously absent from the current constitutional situation. The recent books mainly concern English and Protestant Canadians, but among them are some solid studies which, although often focusing on recent changes in Quebec, also pause to outline the nature of things before the Quiet Revolution. One is a symposium edited by Yvon Desrosiers under the title Religion et Culture au Quebec: Figures contemporaines du sacre (Fides, 1986). Several of the contributors to this volume describe recent changes in Quebec as a selective resacralization of family and self rather than merely the secularization of society as a whole. But other contributions also show how the church in the now vanished Quebec of Roman Catholic tradition was a center for popular piety, stable norms of education, equipoise in the face of death, and inspiration (as well as constraint) for literature and the theater. The impression left by such reports is of a society that, however marred (at least to the view of an American Protestant) by an enervating provincialism, yet achieved stability and, even more important, cultural and political solidarity.
The number of works conveying a parallel message for English Protestant Canada has mounted rapidly in the last several years. The greatest outpouring of these books has concerned nineteenth-century Ontario, and the most comprehensive of the Ontario books is from the most magisterial of Canadian religious historians. A Profusion of Spires: Religion in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto, 1988) by John Webster Grant, professor of church history emeritus at Victoria College, University of Toronto, is a splendid survey. Grant reports on a century in which Ontario recapitulated the history that took over 250 years to unfold in the United States, from a thinly populated frontier to a prosperous, secure, and highly developed civilization. Where in 1800 Ontario had barely 20,000 residents and only 25 ministers, in 1900 there were enough Ontario churches to seat every one of its 2,200,000 citizens, with a little space left over for visitors.
Grant does not neglect the role of Catholics in the development of Ontario, but he demonstrates that it was Protestant aspirations and Protestant principles that lay behind the dramatic transformation of Ontario from a frontier outpost to a paragon of advanced (if also self-conscious and insecure) civilization. Grant uncovers fully the pettiness that sometimes accompanied Protestant zeal, the utilitarian moralism into which Protestant faith could degenerate, and the consumerist complacency that came to attend much religious life. At the same time, however, he cannot hide his admiration for the sacrificial zeal, organizational energy, altruistic dedication, and spiritual power that made Ontario what it was.
The story that Grant paints on a large canvas has been nicely fleshed out in monographic studies by a number of talented younger scholars. William Westfall, Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ontario (McGill-Queen’s, 1989), shows how an early dialectic between Methodist revivalism and Anglican establishmentarianism evolved smoothly into a strong Protestant synthesis in which both order and spiritual vitality nourished each other. Marguerite Van Die, An Evangelical Mind: Nathanael Burwash and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, 1839-1918 (McGill-Queen’s, 1989) highlights the contributions of the leading Methodist theologian in the years between the formation of the Dominion and the First World War, a churchman who was as comfortable promoting revival as he was establishing a university, and who, in addition, tacked with considerable skill between the torrential winds of both fundamentalism and modernism.
Michael Gauvreau, The Evangelical Century: College and Creed in English Canada from the Great Revival to the Great Depression (McGill-Queen’s, 1991), broadens the perspective to take in the Maritime Provinces as well as Ontario. Gauvreau’s conclusions are especially pertinent for modern questions of social and political order, for he shows the great staying power among Canadian Protestants of an “evangelical creed” compounded of biblical faith, Christian appropriation of science, Protestant interpretations of historical change, and activistic morality. As Gauvreau tells the story, this “evangelical creed” provided ballast for Ontario’s intellectuals, but also grounded efforts to establish a durable Christian civilization in the Protestant regions of Ontario and the Maritimes. Like Grant, Gauvreau is not starry-eyed about the result, for he recognizes how this Protestant synthesis throve on antagonism with Quebec Catholicism and also bypassed critical intellectual problems that contemporaries in Britain (and even the United States) were confronting more directly. Yet like Grant again, he also conveys a sense of the socially stabilizing power arising from a religion that balanced heartfelt spirituality and culturally responsible intellect.
Further dimensions of Canadian Protestant civilization have been recovered by George Rawlyk, editor of the McGill-Queen’s series in which several of these significant books appear, and himself a historian of the Maritimes. In several works, like Wrapped Up in God: A Study of Several Canadian Revivals and Revivalists (Welch, 1988), Rawlyk reveals how enduringly significant, for society as well as church, were the religious awakenings in the Maritimes at the end of the eighteenth century. The result of these revivals, sparked initially by Henry Alline, “the Canadian George Whitefield,” was to provide communities of ordinary people in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, usually gathered into Baptist or Methodist churches, with spiritual meaning for their individual lives and religious direction for an often difficult social existence.
In a recently published symposium, The Canadian Protestant Experience, 1760 to 1990 (Welch, 1990), Rawlyk has drawn together five younger historians who provide a coherent account of a history that had not been told as comprehensively or as successfully for a generation. Among the many insights provided by this book’s authors, the most striking to an American reader is the way in which the Protestant denominations provided much of the direction for Canada’s social history. The details of the story of course change depending on which groups are in view, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in the nineteenth century; the United Church, which was formed by Methodists, Congregationalists, and a major portion of the Presbyterians in 1925; or the smaller evangelical bodies like the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Mennonite Brethren, and others that have recently become more important. But the capacity these groups have displayed to build culture while they practiced faith is a strikingly common theme throughout the book.
The message conveyed by this wave of historical scholarship should not be misconstrued; these authors are by no means engaged in depicting some vanished Elysium. Moreover, as modern professional academics, they are fully attuned to the ironical outcomes sometimes attending ardent religious practice, to the ambiguity toward women and the lower classes that characterized earlier decades more generally, and to the sometimes stultifying effects of intellectual complacency. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression of these historical studies remains that, to the extent Canada once enjoyed the social advantages outlined by Seymour Martin Lipset, it enjoyed them because of the vitality, coherence, and social power of its religions.
Without drawing any over-ambitious conclusions from all this, the following speculative chain of reasoning might be proposed: If there is a connection between the decline in Canadians’ religious practice and the rise of an individualistic social mood; and if this individual, Stoic social mood has helped to transform discussions of Canada’s constitution into competition for self-interest; and if the practice of religion once was Canada’s strongest restraint on the headlong pursuit of private interest as well as its strongest encouragement to social solidarity; then the main hope for Canada’s constitution may be religious revitalization.
There are certain reservations to be made. For one, the religions that once gave social solidarity to Canadian life were also considered by their respective adherents to be antithetical to one another: Protestants feared and despised Catholics, and Catholics returned the favor. Whether it is possible, even at this late date in ecumenical understanding, to promote a generic public religion, or even a generic public Christianity, in a nation where Catholic-Protestant animosity was long a pervasive reality is not clear. Yet precedents are riot altogether unfavorable. Canada elected a Roman Catholic Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, more than half a century before the United States elected John E Kennedy. One of the reasons this breakthrough could take place was because Laurier of Quebec and Protestant leaders in the ROC had learned how to negotiate.
Another reservation is that any appeal for religious revitalization in Canada must recognize that a simple Protestant-Catholic division of Canadian public life is also a thing of the past. In Canada as in the United States, modern Catholicism harbors almost as many “parties” under its one umbrella as there are competing Protestant groupings. The Ukrainian and Greek Orthodox are stronger proportionately in Canada than in the United States. Besides, Christian notions of justice, even more than contemporary multiculturalism, demand that the civil polity accord dignified respect to representatives of non-Christian religions, of which in Canada there are many (Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Doukhobor, and more).
From a religious point of view, the most important reservation about calling for a revitalization of religion as a means to solve a political problem is the consequence for religion itself. As both Canada and the United States have experienced many times, the utilitarian exploitation of religion for civil purposes harms religion and paganizes society. On the other hand—and this is the ray of hope for the current situation—both Canada and the United States have also witnessed at least a few occasions when those who sought religion with their whole hearts also provided unexpected blessings for the polity as well.
In the face of Canada’s constitutional crisis it is gratifying that, even if the big-time media have forgotten religion, voices can still be heard reminding Canadians of where they have been and what might still be possible. Thus Joe Clark, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, agreed to meet on August 8, 1991, with an “Ad Hoc Interfaith Working Group on Canada’s Future” made up of seven Christians, a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Buddhist. Afterwards, Clark said he hoped the vision of this group—to fashion a Canada that truly would be “a community of communities,” instead of a Canada preoccupied with the crasser sort of power maneuvering represented by the Meech Lake Accord—could guide the constitutional debate. Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), which comes from Canada’s strong network of Christian Reformed Churches, has published a report echoing the Ad-Hoc group, with its expectation that current negotiations lead to “an overriding concern for justice rather than personal and institutional self-interest.” And Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Montreal, has expressed a general hope that, late in the twentieth century, can be read without the imperialistic connotations such words may have carried a century ago: “We desire a country whose most basic values reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ. For us, Jesus, the Son of God, is the light of nations. In Him, we find our hope and many of our reasons for living.”
Reginald Bibby, whose work has done so much to underscore the drift toward self in modern Canada, nonetheless has well understood the history of his country. And so, at the end of Mosaic Madness, as Bibby ponders possibilities for Canadian society as well as the constitutional impasse, he turns in a traditional direction. At the center of his hope is “religion . . . Canada’s sleeping giant.” If, Bibby asks, religion can be a force for social cohesion and personal renewal in Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Africa, and scattered locations in South America, why can it not work to the same ends in Canada? It might, he concludes, if religious leaders can speak with boldness to as well as fromculture, exploit rather than simply bemoan the media, and, most important, renew the resources of faith to overcome the pall of individualistic relativism.
A tall order indeed. But in Canada at least, it has been done before.
Mark A. Noll, who contributed “The Lutheran Difference” to our February issue, is Professor of History at Wheaton College.