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July 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 3 · pp. 10–14 

Civil Religion in Canada

John H. Redekop

For reasons which will be spelled out shortly, Canadian Christians rarely address themselves to the topic at hand. Never has it become prominent or controversial; indeed, to the present the questions remain virtually ignored. Oh yes, much is spoken and written by certain Canadians about civil religion, but the focus generally is on the United States or some other country. However, we do well to analyze the matter more closely. We must begin by defining our terms.

By civil religion I mean the fusion of popular, generalized religious ideas and practices with a state’s political norms and structures. In other words, I have in mind an orientation which ties religious success to the political success of a particular state, which therefore supposedly deserves not only respect but also reverence and perhaps even worship. Here nationalism and patriotism stand as expressions of profound piety and any tension between Christian religiosity and national citizenship disappears. In such a scheme of things the state becomes a major bearer of the meaning of history and its leaders serve directly as God’s prophets and ministers. Understandably, civil religionists make much of shrines, heroes, “sacred” writings, heritage, and national destiny. Many become ardent crusaders. After all, if people believe that their nation plays a unique and necessary role in the unfolding of human history and the building of God’s kingdom, it follows that these true believers should feel constrained to defend its symbols and its essence unreservedly.


As defined above, civil religion is hardly discernible in Canada today. In a sense this is a surprising situation because in several important respects Canadians retain official church-state ties. To begin with, Canada’s Queen serves, among other things, as Defender of the Faith and as titular head of the Church of England and thus of all Anglicans in Canada and elsewhere. Additionally, since Canadian Confederation in 1867, several provinces, notably Ontario and Quebec, have retained publicly-funded religious school systems. Consequently Quebeckers, for example, have a four-way choice. They can send their children to French or English Catholic schools or to French or English Protestant schools. Residents of Ontario have two standard options. They can send their children either to the Protestant schools, which have evolved into a largely secular system, or to the Catholic schools which offer government-funded instruction to the end of grade ten. Most of the other eight provinces also pay in varying degrees for the operation of church-operated schools. {11}

While Canada has no official state church, Roman Catholicism enjoys full establishment status in the province of Quebec which constitutes one quarter of Canada’s total population. Though the arrangements are much less official in New Brunswick and Manitoba, Catholicism also enjoys a quasi-official status in those provinces. In all of the provinces and, indeed, in Ottawa, no hesitation is shown in giving special preferences to Christianity; and there is every indication that the Canadian public supports this favouritism. Perhaps such support reflects the fact that almost all Canadians assume Canada to be a Christian country.

The upshot of the whole Canadian experience is that formalized civil religion in Canada has been associated either with liberal Anglicanism or a defensive Roman Catholicism fighting for its privileges, mainly within Quebec. In neither instance has it ever taken on any crusading quality or markedly self-righteous fervor. Identified, in the main, either with a permanent minority speaking a “foreign” tongue or with an upper class whose intellectual, if not familial, roots are more British than Canadian, neither of Canada’s “established” religions has evoked significant support from later waves of immigrants. Until about 1920 certain groups in Canada did retain a Kipling-like faith in the mission of the British Empire, but with its gradual demise and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Nations that faith dissipated quickly. The Canadian custom of retaining ethnic and other distinctives as long as possible has also weakened rather than strengthened the appeal of the established churches.

In recent years some spokesmen in several groups, most notably the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which emerged as a spin-off from the highly civil religious National Association of Evangelicals in the United States, have attempted to foster notions of a Canadian Christian consciousness but their efforts have failed. Those Canadian preachers who could have supported the ideas rejected the approach because it smacked of compromise and ecumenism, and in any event the Canadian public never embraced either the rhetoric or the symbols. Thus the non-official form of civil religion in Canada has had perhaps even less impact than the establishment variety.


Many factors have played a part in shaping the current Canadian scene. Some of these are associated with Canada’s early settlement. There is no way that the coming of the early French fur traders, farmers, or even missionaries can be distorted to become a legend of people fleeing from tyranny to worship God as they saw fit in a new and free land. Oh yes, much zealous missionary work was done, especially among the Huron Indians, but there were no general religious innovations. There was no Mayflower Compact, no recorded first thanksgiving, and no dynamism arising from a rejection of the Old World. Since the French Huguenots and all other Protestants were legally barred from emigrating to New France, no subsequent generations of Canadian Protestants, let alone evangelicals, have felt any spiritual kinship with the early pioneers.

In actual fact the early American experiences were not as different from the early Canadian as many people believe. Both groups stole the land from the Indians and then thanked God for it. In both situations, most settlers were ruthlessly intolerant of religious pluralism and freedom. In both cases the {12} newcomers sought to bring Christianity to the “heathen barbarians.” And, by and large, both groups did not hesitate to use the arm of the law to enforce compliance with their creed. However, the early French-Canadians never incorporated significant anti-European attitudes into their dogma. Perhaps their stolid reliance on traditional Latin litanies and their continuing dependence on the mother country prevented the emergence of such self-serving creedal adulteration.

That our origins are not of the sort of which legends are made becomes significant in light of the fact that any civil religion of note must be ushered in by at least a modicum of profound valor it not apocalyptic fanfare. One thinks of Mohammed returning from the Hegira, of Lenin at the Finland Station, or of Paul Revere riding fearlessly in the dead of night. The early French-Canadians never got caught up in any such dramatic endeavors and never gave thought to either political or religious revolution except to denounce it when it subsequently swept across their motherland. The law-abiding habitants had no spare tea to dump into Montreal harbour and would have shuddered at the thought of replicating Lexington and Concord. Their goal, soon to be reinforced by the British presence, was evolution rather than revolution and cautious gradualism rather than sudden or visionary innovation. Thus Canada never developed a myth of new origins and there could be no basis for notions of new Israelism, of divine intervention, or messianic destiny. New France was solidly traditionalist—more “France” than “new”.

Any self-respecting civil religion must also have founders and prophets, be they Marx and Engels or Washington and Lincoln. Canadian history has its full quota of great men and women but none has ever been recast as particularly saintly. From Jacques Cartier to Sir John A. Macdonald, the great personages of Canada’s past have generally been accepted according to their actual historical stature. Even our Fathers of Confederation, determined and skilful compromisers that they were, have become known more for their political courage and business acumen than for any religious convictions. Subsequent generations of Canadian elites, historians, opinion leaders, churchmen, and political leaders have never thought it appropriate or necessary to recast the founders of the nation into great Christian saints. This is not to say that early heroes or the Fathers of Confederation were somehow anti-religious; rather it is only a matter of acknowledging that it would be both difficult and dishonest to present General Montcalm and General Wolfe, as well as Sir John A. Macdonald, D’Arcy McGee, George Brown, Charles Tupper, and Georges Etienne Cartier as being motivated in any important way by Christian concerns. Whether the historical facts in the U.S. were actually much different is a matter for objective historians to ascertain.

Not surpisingly, in view of the above, Canada has not generated any holy national shrines. No Canadian Mount Vernon, Concord, Gettysburg, or Appomattox have captured the public’s respect or admiration. Similarly, we are woefully short of sacred texts. Not only is there no Mayflower Compact or Declaration of Independence, there is not even a full-blown native constitution. The British North America Act, technically nothing more than a British statute, still serves as the major component of that part of Canada’s constitutional arrangement which is written. {13}

Significantly, Canadians are far from agreed which date marks the event of independence, although there is agreement that the country has become fully autonomous. Should Canadians celebrate the granting of full responsible government in 1849, formal Confederation in 1867, the recognition by foreign states of Canada’s autonomy during World War I and at the Versailles Conference, the attainment of full autonomy in foreign affairs by 1926 (or is 1931 a better date?), or the termination in 1949 of all judicial appeals from Canadian to British courts? The dilemma is obvious.

Additional factors also help to explain why civil religion has never flourished in Canada. Strong regional and provincial sentiments have thwarted the emergence of any strong national consciousness. The English French dualism with its religious overtones remains an additional divisive factor. And the official Canadian policy of encouraging, even subsidizing, multiculturalism has served to emphasize and reinforce differences rather than commonalities. Then, too, the fact that Canada has remained a small or middle power has provided relatively little occasion for seeing the country in a saviour role, especially as far as military achievements are concerned.

At least three other aspects warrant attention. Without suggesting that Canada has evolved as a society of losers, it must be remembered that the major waves of immigrants knew the taste of abandonment, frustration, and defeat and therefore were understandably disinclined to view their new homeland as God’s special reward or opportunity. The French settlers were soon abandoned by their motherland and then defeated by the English in 1759. The tens of thousands of United Empire Loyalists who fled to Canada from the United States after the Revolutionary War represented the losing side, and for much of the twentieth century immigrants from certain countries often settled in Canada because the United States refused to accept them. In any event no great success myth emerged, let alone one for which God must be ritualistically thanked.

Because of various basic economic, geographical, and social factors, and despite the development of a free society with a very high standard of living, Canada has never been securely established. Consequently Canadians have been occupied more with matters of national survival than with matters of national grandeur, with or without religious coloration. Economic and cultural penetration from the giant neighbor to the South has nurtured the problem.

Finally, I cannot overemphasize the fact that not only has Canadian nationalism remained relatively undeveloped, but also that the Canadian nationalism which did emerge remained essentially secular. The inward looking orientation of French-Canadian Catholicism, the rejection by later immigrants of the civil religion which it produced, and the greater Canadian toleration of religious differences all played a part in creating the phenomenon. In any event, the fact of a moderate and secular nationalism, which should be seen as cause as well as effect, probably played a key role in counteracting any growth of a significant Canadian civil religion. We should note, in passing, that the post-World War II surge of Canadian nationalism was expressed mainly by academics, socialists, media people, and assorted writers, but not by Christians speaking out of Christian conviction. {14}


As a result of the various factors which have been described, civil religion in Canada today is singularly anaemic. Doubtless some Anglicans and some Roman Catholics, especially in Quebec, fuse Christian and civil causes; but the bulk of the population has not developed any tradition of assessing national well-being according to religious categories. Nowhere does one detect concern about civil religious slogans, rituals, or other external paraphernalia. The only remotely relevant debate in Canada is not whether Christianity and nationalism should form a common cause but whether Canadian nationalism itself is defensible.

Such a situation, however, has not prevented American civil religion from spilling over into Canada. Certain Canadian fundamentalists such as Perry F. Rockwood and various well-known American evangelicals such as Billy Graham, Billy James Hargis, and Herbert W. Armstrong have had a noticeable impact, as have the radio and television programs produced by the Mormons, the Cathedral of Tomorrow, the Radio Bible Class, and others. Understandably, Canadian evangelicals, especially those who fled from communist tyranny, have been converted in considerable numbers to the view that Christian-Americanism deserves Christian support as the free world’s only hope to stop the Red threat.

In the total context, however, this Canadian absorption of American civil religion, like its indigenous counterpart, is strictly tangential. Whatever the sins of the Canadian churches, evangelical or other, involving denominational pride, nationalistic hypersensitivity, pious self-righteousness, and a vigorously resilient, smug ethnicity, most Canadian Christians can at least be grateful that they have not additionally succumbed to the cultic compromises of civil religion, whether native or imported.

Dr. Redekop teaches Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

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