Religion and Politics in Canada -- A Brief Overview

By Mark Wegierski
Volume 9, Number 1 (Fall 1998)
Issue theme: "Making the case for faith-based immigration reform"

Like many other phenomena, Christianity in Canada is significantly different from Christianity in the U.S. Notably, there is virtually no putatively right-wing Christian presence, either evangelical Protestant or traditional Catholic provenance. Although an overwhelming majority of Canadians are nominal Christians, this masks a massive and thoroughgoing secularization of society in general, combined with an excessive valorization of religious minorities (such as Muslims, Sikhs, and practitioners of aboriginal nature-rites). Canadian society, however, is so thoroughly secular that references to religious pluralism or diversity are a comparatively minor aspect of multiculturalism.

Probably the most debate is generated over whether certain Islamic practices that many liberals are 'uneasy' about (notably, female circumcision) can be accepted as lawful by Canadian society. One religious debate was over the insistence of Sikhs to wear their turbans and carry their ceremonial daggers everywhere, since it is said to be an integral part of their religion. Sikh insistence led to the turban being allowed as part of a variant official uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a long-established symbol of Canada - an issue which raised much acrimony.

There has also been a controversy over the requirement to remove all headgear when entering Royal Canadian Legion Halls. Contrary to Canadian media reporting, no Sikh veteran is barred from entering the Halls; the rule would generally be enforced only against large groups of non-veterans who were seen as 'barging in.' Admittedly, the requirement to remove headgear was upheld by the Royal Canadian Legion as a symbol of resistance to multiculturalism, raising the question as to whether there is in fact anything (in this case, respect for the war-dead) that the Canadian majority can require newcomers to conform to.

As a result of multiculturalism, the two remaining publicly approved Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, have largely been banned from meaningful civic expression in large metropolitan centers. For example, the phrase 'Season's Greetings' replaces 'Merry Christmas' in nearly all public signs; 'Christmas cake,' 'Christmas specials,' etc., are now designated 'festive cake,' 'festive specials,' etc. The number of religious-themed Christmas cards available in most stores is noticeably dwindling. Christian manifestations of Christmas are not permitted in many workplaces, especially in government offices, and certainly not in the public education system where Christian manifestations are impermissible the year around. Canada has adopted an ultra-expansive definition of 'separation of Church and State,' seeking to expunge all vestiges of Christianity from 'the public square' - but at the same time, it clearly lacks what in the U.S. could be seen as a vibrant and extensive 'Christian counter-culture.'

Unlike the United States, there has been, for a long time, publicly funded Catholic primary and secondary schooling in Canada, but the current trend is toward unification of schooling into single public systems. (Education in Canada is under the jurisdiction of the provinces, not of the federal government.) It may be argued that the receipt of public funds for Catholic primary, secondary, and post-secondary schooling has ironically weakened Catholic content in those institutions, making their secularization all but irresistible.

Religious conflict between Catholicism (which traditionally meant French), and Protestantism (which traditionally meant English), is a major part of Canada's past, but only a minor aspect of the current scene. The curious persistence of some of this animosity in a society undergoing massive trans-formation is exploited by some shrewd politicians who are in reality indifferent or hostile to religion. For example, one of the reasons behind the election of Liberal David Peterson as premier of Ontario in 1985 was that part of the core Protestant support for the Progressive Conservative (or Tory) party disapproved of the extension of public funding to Catholic secondary schools by the earlier Tory premier, Bill Davis, a professed 'moderate.' Some even thought he did this shortly before leaving office to ensure the defeat of his more right-wing Tory successor, Frank Miller. Ironically, the extension of the funding eventually turned out to be a kind of 'poison pill' for the Catholic system, opening it to even further secularization, i.e. requiring it to downplay religious teaching and to hire non-Catholic and non-Christian teachers.

The so-called mainline Protestants in Canada are not quite as denominationally fragmented as in the U.S. There are, among others, the Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the U.S.), the Presbyterians, and the uniquely Canadian phenomenon of the United Church (a union of Congregationalists, Methodists, and some Presbyterians). All of the mainline denominations, including Catholics, are characterized by a sizeable gap between the church leaders who, in most cases, take the most left-liberal interpretations possible of Christian thought, and the congregants who attend church for reasons of tradition and a desire for religious uplift, largely eschewing the radical politics pushed from above. The leaders of the various mainline churches, consisting not only of priests and ministers, but also of a surprisingly large number of 'lay activists,' are not only the main opinion-forming elite of the various denominations, but also exercise tight control over comparatively large financial resources which are typically used to lobby for left-wing causes. The evangelical fundamentalist branches of Christianity in Canada (fairly small in number, but gaining in strength) may be characterized as generally apolitical. There is no massive political mobilization comparable to that of the Christian Coalition in the U.S.

The few right-wing aspects of Christian religion in Canada, apart from the general tendency of some congregations in virtually all denominations to be socially conservative, may be identified as follows

* the residue of French Quebec's once very deep Roman Catholic tradition and faith;

* traditionalist residues in the Catholic church outside Quebec, especially in the 'white ethnic' parishes (e.g., Poles, Ukrainians, Italians);

* certain residues in nominally Catholic institutions of higher learning (post-secondary Catholic institutions receive public funding. Unlike the U.S.,there are no major private Catholic colleges in Canada);

* small traditionalist groups in the Catholic church, notably Opus Dei (vastly weaker in Canada than in the U.S.), Tradition, Family, and Property (T.F.P.), and the Oratorian Order (the most prominent rivals to the almost-invariably left-wing Jesuits today);

* the recently established, Ottawa-based, Centre for Renewal in Public Policy, a highly prestigious, mildly traditionalist and Christian, public-policy and research institute;

* a few very committed activists of national prominence, such as the Rev. Ken Campbell;

* a relatively significant anti-abortion movement, with some high-profile supporters, including some Canadian MPs and Senators (one of the main publications of its Catholic wing is the fairly credible monthly, The Interim);

* a small, marginal Christian Heritage Party, representing an explicit political focus for Christian traditionalists;

* some residues of the Social Credit party, especially in Quebec (distributes a newsletter in French and English called Michael Journal across various parts of Canada);

* a small, breakaway Anglican Traditionalist Church;

* a number of fundamentalist Protestant educational enclaves, notably Trinity Western University (Langley, British Columbia), the only prominent, entirely private, denominational college in Canada. (It may be noted that there are probably hundreds of such institutions of higher learning in the U.S.);

* Western Canada's right-leaning newsmagazine, Alberta Report (which appears in British Columbia as B.C. Report, and in Saskatchewan and Manitoba as Western Report), which often takes stances that are derived from right-wing interpretations of Christian thought.

The left-liberal aspects of Christianity in Canada are massive, overwhelming, and easily discernible. The policies officially formulated by the various mainline denominations vis-ŗ-vis many issues of public policy encompass the most left-liberal interpretations possible of Christian thought. The embrace of massive dissimilar immigration along with an undifferentiated mass of all of 'the poor' are commandments. In terms of relations with the Third World, the prevalent dogma appears to be 'they are poor, because we are rich' - avoiding entirely the question of overpopulation, and the grotesque misallocation of resources by corrupt regimes. The only criticisms that are made are of the few regimes that can be identified as explicitly right wing. (In the 1980s, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala - and, of course, South Africa - were particular bÍte noires, and many Canadian churches actively worked with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, demonizing the Contras.) Among Christian missionary and aid work, the prevalent tone, rather than encouraging what Christopher Lasch has called 'a discipline against resentment,' is to inflame the feelings of Third World populations - 'you are poor because the West is rich.' The churches cleave to an ultra-universalism that would have probably been rejected by the most ardent Christians before the 1960s.

In regard to domestic social policy, the churches no longer dare to suggest that there could be a moral distinction between those who are poor through no fault of their own, and those who are in fact harmful vagrants or vagabonds. And, rather than emphasizing the importance of voluntary charity, the churches advocate ever-increasing taxation of 'the rich,' and an ever-more extensive welfare state, which they perceive as being under a savage and entirely unwarranted attack by 'neoconservative ideologues.'

Concurrently, Christianity in Canada has been in hasty retreat on the social and moral issues that are often seen as its hallmark and raison d'Ítre - the United Church now, for example, accepts lesbians as ministers.

Christianity in Canada today seems to offer very little to young people, to consciously conservative persons, or to the few young conservative persons who might be searching for a coherent alternative to left-liberalism. It does not even fulfill its possible role as a meeting place for more socially conservative young people. Evangelical Protestants are probably most adept at doing so.

Intellectually and socially, the prestige of the churches is very low, especially in the mainline denominations which tend to attract the most mediocre, second-rate sorts of persons into their leadership positions - shallow activists who opt for work in the churches as a 'second-best career' to one in the media, education or the civil service. In a situation which is the exact opposite of what occurred in the days of the later Roman Empire, it is not the most intellectually acute men who flee to the Church from the State, but rather the dullards, the second-raters, who flood into leadership posts in the churches.

So it seems that the chances of any dynamic intellectual, cultural, or social counter-tendencies to the prevalent left-liberalism in Canada arising from the matrix of organized Christian religion and its official policy-formulating bodies, are extremely low. There exists a slightly greater chance that some traditionalist activists at the margins of their official churches, or the leaders of small, evangelical congregations, will have some impact in introducing certain aspects of social conservatism into mainstream Canadian political parties, especially within the Reform Party of Canada.

The variants of social conservatism espoused by even the most traditional Christians in Canada, however, are unlikely to include a desire for major restrictions on immigration, and are (for obvious reasons) even less likely to embrace the promotion of serious measures to combat overpopulation in the Third World. As is probably also the case in the United States, the impetus for bringing immigration, population, and ecological issues to the fore will have to be generated from other sectors and matrices of 'the broad-based reform coalition' - notably, 'the new nationalists,' the so-called right-wing Greens, perspicacious paleoconservative theorists, and the scientific and social-scientific thinkers.

It may be concluded that the issue of a future for Christianity in the West is one as deeply troubled as the future of the West itself. TSC