Canada’s competing religious visions

By Dennis Gruending

Tommy Douglas and Ernest ManningThe class in Faith and Public Life that I am leading this winter for the Ottawa Lay School of Theology met for its third session on January 26. I provided a quick survey on the political impact that faith and organized religion have had on Canadian society. I offered three brief points by way of introduction. First, that Christian faith is deeply embedded in Canadian history. Secondly, Catholicism has been a prominent force for centuries and it remains so, but to a diminished extent. Thirdly, among Protestant groups there has been a competition between conservatives and progressives over who should wield the greatest influence in Canadian public life. For much of the 20th century the mainline Protestants were more influential. In recent decades, religious conservatives and evangelicals have made gains. Their influence with the current Harper government is but one example.

Religious faith, the early years

Beginning in the early 1600s, religiously motivated leaders such as Samuel de Champlain, along with Catholic priests and religious sisters, were key to the French colonization of North America. We have only to think of the Grey Nuns hospitals and Catholic schools and universities, not to mention Catholic missionary efforts of the Jesuits and others.

The Protestant presence in Canada gained momentum as the British secured a foothold in the Atlantic Provinces in the 1700s, and especially after the fall of Canada to the British in the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763. A flood of United Empire Loyalists streamed into Canada during and after the American revolutionary war in the years 1775-83. These migrations, and others from both the U.S. and Europe, attracted people from many faiths, including itinerant Protestant preachers who staged popular revivalist meetings. These evangelical influences also run deeply in Canada.

The Catholic Church played the (unofficial) role of state church in Quebec until the 1960s when, of necessity, it began to accept a much more modest role. The hierarchy interfered regularly in politics. The bishops were opposed to the Liberals who they believed to be kissing cousins of the revolutionaries in France, and so in Quebec the church supported the Conservatives. A local priest said this during a by-election campaign in 1876: “Do not forget that the bishops of this province assure you that liberalism resembles a serpent in the earthly paradise which creeps close to men in order to bring abut the fall of the human race.” Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal made this comment in 1878: “No Catholic is allowed to call himself a liberal, even a moderate liberal.”

Wilfrid Laurier was elected to the Quebec provincial assembly in 1871 and the House of Commons in 1874. He was a marvellously gifted politician but the bishops attacked him with a vengeance because he was a Liberal. In the longer term Laurier was more than their match. During his time most Quebecois became Liberal supporters.

Catholicism and Protestantism were both changed greatly by the settlement of the Canadian West. Immigration added people of many Protestant denominations and sects, as well as Catholics from a variety of European backgrounds other than French. Christianity developed along sectarian lines, with Catholics competing with Protestants, and a variety of Protestant faiths competing with Catholics and with one another. This was true, for example, of missionary activity toward Aboriginal peoples in Western and Northern Canada. Religion, on this competitive basis, remained a strong presence throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.

Modernity versus fundamentals

The 20th century dawned with Catholics forming a solid majority in Quebec and a minority throughout the rest of Canada, where they were not very influential in political terms. Protestants were a minority in Quebec and the majority elsewhere, but they were divided. In English Canada, it was the mainline Protestants who constituted the political class.

There has, however, been an abiding chasm among Protestants since the early years of the 20th century – and to some extent it continues to this day. Mainline Protestants came to embrace modernism and liberal ideas – for example, an attempt to reconcile Christianity with the rationalist and scientific thought that arose from the Enlightenment. They came to practice “high criticism” of the Bible, teaching that it could be interpreted critically, just as any other document. They believed, for example, that such a reading allowed the Biblical story of creation to coexist with scientific theories of human evolution. The acrimonious debate about evolution became a flashpoint, which led to a bitter division between liberal and fundamentalist Christians.

Mainline Protestants embraced the social gospel, which rested on the premise that Christianity must seek to realize the kingdom of God in this world. This agenda led them to promote reforms leading to Canada’s universal health and social programs. Fundamentalists and evangelicals, however, believed in a personal conversion to Jesus Christ as the only means to salvation.

Competing visions: Douglas and Manning

These competing tendencies can be personified in Tommy Douglas and Ernest Manning, two preachers who became premiers. Douglas was a Baptist pastor in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and responded to the Great Depression by becoming involved with the Farm-Labour Party and later the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The social gospel tradition had its practitioners in people such as Douglas, Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles, all propelled into politics through religious conviction. That tradition lives on today in people such as former MP Bill Blaikie and Saskatchewan’s former premier Lorne Calvert, both United Church ministers.

Ernest Manning was raised on a Saskatchewan farm and experienced a religious conversion while listening to the radio broadcasts of “Bible Bill” Aberhart from Alberta. Young Manning presented himself to Aberhart in Calgary and soon became his mentor’s right hand man. Aberhart decided to insert religion directly into politics and became the Social Credit premier of Alberta in 1935. When he died in 1943, Manning succeeded him. Throughout his years as premier, Manning continued to appear as a lay preacher on the religious radio program that he had inherited from Aberhart. On occasion Manning recruited his son Preston to stand in for him on the show.

Ernest Manning ruled Alberta from the right, particularly after the discovery of oil in the 1950s. He grudgingly introduced welfare measures such as building homes for the aged, but believed none of that would be necessary if people in society were shouldering their Christian duties to care for one another. In Saskatchewan, Douglas ruled from the left and his party introduced North America’s first state medical care insurance program in 1962. When Ottawa proposed Medicare for all Canadian provinces later in the decade, Manning was opposed. Manning’s political tradition has been carried by his son Preston, who led the Reform party, by Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, who are also evangelical Christians.

Evangelical revival

Despite Ernest Manning’s political prominence, most evangelical Christians responded to the modernist-traditionalist debate early in the 20th century by retreating into their own communities of faith. By the 1960s they had moved from the margins of Canadian society toward its centre. They were increasingly well educated and prosperous but retained their old religion.

Pierre Trudeau became a symbol of all that many of them found wrong with society. Trudeau liberalized laws regarding divorce, abortion, homosexuality and the dissemination of birth control information (promoting birth control was illegal well into the 1960s). What appeared to many to be an overdue modernization of Canadian legislation was to others a sign that Canada had formally ceased to be a “Christian” nation. The 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of a growing network that supported an evangelical worldview. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) opened an office in Ottawa under the leadership of Reverend Brian Stiller, a Pentecostal minister. The EFC began to lobby governments on the issues such as opposition to abortion, Sunday shopping and opposition to gay rights.

When Preston Manning and the Reform Party came along in the 1980s, they resonated well with Evangelical Protestants. Political scientist David Laycock has studied the rise of the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties. “With their evangelical Christian leaders,” Laycock writes, “Reform and the Alliance have also appealed to social and moral conservatives uncomfortable with what they have seen as an over-secularized society. Such voters have worried about the threats both to the traditional family and to citizens’ sense of personal responsibility that they attribute to the modern Canadian welfare state.”
By the 1990s Canadian evangelicals have arrived on the public scene, and they brought their worldview and a growing political sophistication along with them.

Catholics shift right

Catholics support, since the time of Laurier, was the main reason why Liberals remained in power for most of the 20th century. New immigrants also supported the Liberals overwhelmingly and in many cases, especially after World War II, those immigrants were Catholics from Italy, Portugal, and other countries. But there has been a shift to the right among Canadian Catholics, arising to a great extent, from the deliberate emphasis that Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI placed upon issues such as same sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion and family planning. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decided in 2004 that individual bishops could refuse communion to any politician who supported a pro-choice position. Same sex marriage was later added to that list. Some Canadian bishops have also attempted to force politicians into line with church teaching. Three New Democratic Party MPs were denied full participation in their church because of their party’s policy in support of same-sex marriage legislation.  These recent attempts to guide and punish politicians are reminiscent of the attempts made by the Catholic bishops in Quebec to coerce Laurier in the 19th century.

During the liberalization that followed Second Vatican Council, Catholics in Canada participated in coalitions with mainline Protestants on a range of social justice initiatives at the national level, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Those efforts have largely been replaced by a growing partnership with religious conservatives on so-called family issues. For example, the Catholic bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship have gone to the courts as joint intervenors in cases regarding same sex marriage.

A religiously conservative alliance

A religiously conservative political alliance has begun to manifest itself in Canada at both the leadership and grassroots levels. These trends have been building for years but until recently have gone largely unnoticed. The prime minister and other Conservative politicians have courted evangelicals, as well as conservative Catholic and Jewish voters to build a coalition of religious support. Despite these trends, there is no way to predict the future. Churches and religious organizations are not monolithic in their thinking and action. Evangelicals, for example, debate whether their agenda should remain narrowly focused on personal and moral issues, or if they should begin to emphasize issues such as climate change and poverty. The Catholic Church is divided along ethnic and ideological lines and contains many people who do not agree with the increasing focus of the hierarchy on moral conservatism. Progressive Christians — in Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical congregations — have been marginalized in recent years and are now struggling to have their voices heard by politicians and the Canadian public.

Some questions

This description of how faith and politics have intersected in Canadian history is interesting on purely historical grounds, but it also raises some immediate questions. I posed them to the class in our first week. Have religions and religious organizations been a generally positive force in our country, or have they too often attempted to conserve and preserve that which needs changing?  Do faith and religious organizations have a prominent role to play in politics — or are these decisions best left to a secular democracy? If faith and faith groups do have a role to play, what should that role be? For example, should the Catholic Church refuse full participation to elected politics to those who do not accept the church’s official position on questions such as same sex marriage? These are not frivolous questions and for that reason it is well worth considering the links between religion and pubic life.

For the next five weeks in our class, we will hear from guests with special experience and knowledge in the history of Catholic social teaching, the Protestant social gospel, and the evangelical experience in Canada. We will hear, as well, from Member of Parliament Paul Dewar, and from William Janzen and Kathy Vandergrift, who have worked as advocates on behalf of religious organizations to government. If you wish to respond to what I have written, please use the Comments section provided below.

3 thoughts on “Canada’s competing religious visions

  1. Among curious, ironic and interesting twists and turns in the religion-politics relationship: that Roman Catholicism became a mainstay of the Liberal Party; and that the RC social gospel enunciated by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1893) and Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1933) seemed to get “lost” in favor of RC alliance with religious fundamentalists in a narrowed preoccupation with same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion, and support for conservative politics; finally, the seemingly growing alienation between RC laity and hierarchy–surely with political implications.


  2. Hello Dennis:

    I appreciate your postings–keep them coming. Here is a hot potato that you might want to address–abortion and birth control. The Catholic Church opposes abortion, yet also opposes most of the effective means of birth control that would reduce the need for abortions in the first place. To me this is analogous to the situation in the US regarding gun deaths. Politicians speak of wanting to reduce gun deaths, and yet do not act to put reasonable limits on gun ownership. Your thoughts on this subject would be appreciated.

    Best regards,
    Rob Dumont

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your note. I appreciate your comments regarding the Church’s position on birth control and abortion. I have not written an entire piece on these oddly conflicting positions but I have dealt with them in several of my blog entries. See in particular Morgentaler’s Order of Canada (July 03-08); Alphonse Gerwing and Henry Morgentaler (July 27-08); and Cardinal Turcotte stirs abortion debate (Sept. 19-08).


  3. Excellent post.And coming from a person who was once(eons ago) quite dismissive of religion and hence constantly under underestimated the role of religion,particularly that which was positive,that’s saying a lot 😉


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