One can hardly pick up a newspaper or newsmagazine these days and not find an article on the contentious subject of faith and politics. In the United States, there are heated debates over President George W. Bush’s world view, the religious right, and foreign policy in the Middle East. Recently, editorialists have been preoccupied with the role of religion in the lives of various Democrats and Republicans who would run for the presidency, and the candidates themselves have issued public statements on the matter. These controversies aside, there remain the perennial controversies about abortion or the teaching of creation and evolution in the nation’s schools.

Overseas, debates rage – often violently – about the nature of Islamic politics. The solutions range from an increasingly rigid theocracy in Iran to a tenuously secular regime in Turkey. Likewise, Israel regularly grapples with the place of Judaism in the politics of the state, particularly with respect to territorial questions and relations with its Arab neighbours. In the nation-states of Europe, once religiously Christian and culturally homogenous, political leaders struggle to cope with growing North African and Turkish minorities whose Islamic faith and culture collide with European notions of civic equality and the nature of law, just to name two points of conflict.

In Canada, debates about religious holy days, turbans, kirpans, hijabs, and burqas have manifest themselves most recently in the form of a Quebec provincial commission struck to determine what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” towards the social customs and religious observances of the province’s minorities. In other parts of the country, there are questions about the funding of faith-based schools, the legal definition of marriage, and limits of free speech with respect to religiously-motivated condemnations of homosexuality.

All of these issues touch on the fundamental question: to what extent should religion – whether in personal or institutional form – play a role in the public life of our country?

Ideally, this would be a straightforward question, the answer to which might be some suitable compromise between Christians, Jews, Muslims, the various other faiths newer to Canada, and those who don’t care to profess any religion at all. In reality, the debate over the place of religion in public life has been frustrated in large part by two mutually conflicting views of Christianity, Canada’s traditional and still majority religious faith. On the one hand, many Christians feel like they are under attack, and note that public expressions of Christianity are regularly suppressed, while other faiths enjoy an unabridged freedom to exercise and express their religious beliefs. The annual fuss over the Christian roots of Christmas exemplifies this sense that perhaps Christians are disadvantaged among other religious points of view. On the other hand, others argue that Christianity has long been an oppressive force with undue influence over Canadian morality, legislation, and education. They argue that Canada must be truly secular, and therefore devoid of any admixture of Christianity and political power or privilege.

But is Canada secular, and what does that mean? Inundated by American media, we Canadians tend to fall into the rhetoric of the separation of church and state as the basis for the supposed ideal of a secular public sphere. In fact, our country has no such tradition. Christianity has a long history of participation in Canadian public life, just as it does in many countries across the western world. For that reason, some historical background is in order.

Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, an inevitable consequence of the emergence of Christian churches has been emergence of church-state relationships, whether hostile or harmonious. In Western Civilization, it is helpful to think about the history of this church-state relationship as a sweeping arc. During the first thousand years of Christianity, western churches rose from a place of social and political insignificance to a place of almost unfathomable political power and status. Over the course of the modern era, however, that power and status have been steadily eroded to the point where churches as institutions have been politically and socially marginalized.

From New Religion to Cultural Dominance

In the first phase of this arc, during the early years of the faith, Romans understood Christianity initially as a Jewish sect, then as a seditious new religious movement. In the year 64, a desperately unpopular politician, the Emperor Nero, tried to deflect some of the criticism directed at him concerning the great fire of Rome by blaming the disaster on Christians. The results were brutal, judging from the grisly accounts of Christians killed by wild animals, by crucifixion, or by being lit on fire as torches at Roman garden parties. Under various Roman emperors that followed, to be a Christian was to be an outlaw, and therefore subject to capital punishment.

While persecution varied in time and place, its root seems to have been the Christians’ refusal to participate in many aspects of public life, not least the celebration of the imperial cults. At that time, the social, political, economic, and cultural life of Rome was infused with pagan religious content. Not to participate in the many sacrifices, processions, or temple feasts was to undermine the authority and stability of the Roman government and to make oneself politically suspect.

All this changed in the fourth century, thanks to the nominal conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the year 312, followed by the Edict of Milan, extending religious toleration to all faiths across the Roman Empire. Constantine soon began to patronize the Christian Church, sponsoring church-building, restoring lost property to Christians, eliminating pockets of persecution, requiring Sunday worship for soldiers, calling the famous Church Council of Nicaea in 325, and enforcing its creedal statement by banishing disagreeable bishops from their cities. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and all pagan cults were banned.

This establishment of Christianity greatly influenced not only Christian theology, but also its geography and institutional structure. Bishops often ruled from Roman provincial capitals, as the organization of the church came to mirror that of the late empire. Important bishops like Ambrose of Milan could sway imperial decisions. A few decades after Pope Leo I named himself the “vicar of Christ” and asserted his headship over the entire Christian church, Pope Gelasius asserted his superiority over secular rulers, on account of his priestly mediation of the sacramental grace of God. Gelasius’ claim was possible in part because the authority of the Roman emperors had collapsed under the weight of the barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries. As Europe fell under the rule of Germanic “barbarians,” the fact that the popes resided in Rome and embodied a connection to the old Roman Empire only augmented their authority.

Res Publica Christiana

All these developments reached their peak in the western Middle Ages. When the Roman Empire was revived as a Germanic kingdom under Charlemagne, it was legitimized by the blessing of the Roman pontiff. The resulting pattern, carried on throughout the following centuries, was that popes would crown new emperors – effectively transmitting both the blessing of God and the authority of ancient Rome – while emperors would protect the Catholic Church, and the popes in particular. While both popes and emperors declared themselves to be Christ’s deputies on earth, guarantors of the “right order of the world” and leaders of the so-called Res Publica Christiana – what we would call Christendom – both recognized that church and state worked together to rule Europe. Kings, emperors, and various other princes served the Church as they engaged in crusades against either the Islamic world or European heretics, while bishops and abbots were not only church leaders, but also large land-owning princes and thus vassals of their feudal lords, the kings and emperors. This was the peak of the historical arc of church-state relations, when Christianity held unmatched social and political authority and the dividing line between the realms of church and state was fuzzy at best.

Breaking the Church-State Union

To be sure, the concept of the Res Publica Christiana lasted much longer in western memory than it ever did in European reality. Already in the late Middle Ages, new national monarchies were emerging in Spain, England, and France, and the German princes grew increasingly autonomous from the Holy Roman Emperor. However, the nominal religious unity of the western world under Catholicism ensured that the idea of the Christian Latin West remained strong in the consciousness of Europeans.

What changed all that was the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s movement split the Holy Roman Empire and divided Christendom along political boundaries. Because church and state were so closely intertwined, one of the major legacies of the confessional competition between Catholic and Protestant was the religious warfare that engulfed Europe for over a century. Domestically, European rulers enforced religious conformity on their subjects, so that it became normal for one’s political identity to include a specific religious identity. To generalize, for instance, it is fair to say that in France, after the expulsion of most Huguenots, to be French was to be Catholic.

Into the Modern World

By the later part of the seventeenth century, Europeans were growing tired of religious division and its chief outcome: violence. The medieval conviction that political unity required religious unity was eventually abandoned in order to restore social peace after such a long and bloody religious conflict. Abandoning the religious foundation of society, Europeans turned to reason and human experience, developing the theories of social contract government and natural law. In this new and rational world, ethical norms would be supplied by natural religion.

Political revolutions the United States and France put Enlightenment political philosophy into practice and began a process of secularizing the political sphere, though not without opposition. Pope Pius IX’s rejection of “progress, liberalism and modern civilization” in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors was only the most notable of the nineteenth-century reactions to political secularization, as both Protestant and Catholic churches allied themselves with the most conservative elements of society: monarchy, nobility, and military. In an age of industrialization, sweeping demographic changes, and emergent popular cultural and political movements, these alliances proved fatal.

All of this marks a strong downward turn in the historical arc of church-state relations, in that it represents the waning political power and status of institutional churches. In Europe, the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of public education over and against church education, civil marriage and divorce law over and against church marriage, and the rise of state social programs over and against religious initiatives. In the twentieth century, political marginalization has given way to social and cultural marginalization, as the influence of the Christian churches has steadily declined.

This dismantling of the church-state symbiosis that dominated the medieval and early modern eras of the western world has been strongest in Europe, but has also affected Canada. Churches and church leaders in our country have lost political power, social status, moral authority, legal privileges, financial support, and (in general) the ear of the state. It is in this sense that Canada and other western countries are no longer Christian nations, though of course they never were Christian in any salvific sense.

Canadian Church-State History

But what does this survey of church-state history mean for us as Canadians? How do church-state relations in our country connect with the larger story in Western Civilization? Although Canada has evolved into a multicultural and pluralistic society, the basic patterns of our church-state history come from Britain, where an inclusive Anglicanism tolerated the presence of various dissenting traditions, and from France, where political Catholicism pushed aside its main competitor, the Huguenots.

French Canadian Catholicism

Canadian church history has its beginnings with the arrival of French Catholic missionaries, Jesuits and Recollets, who evangelized the First Nations and founded model settlements of French Catholics. Before the establishment of the Royal Government of 1663, the Roman Catholic Church ruled New France uncontested. In the absence of any state, the Church provided education and social services, regulated immigration, exploration, and other economic activity, and managed relations with the First Nations. Strongly attached to the papacy, the Catholic Church of New France enforced religious uniformity, denying civic rights to French Huguenots.

The British conquest of Quebec and assumption of political authority over the colony in 1763 meant the end of French political protection for Catholicism, though not its decline in status or power. In fact, under the terms of the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec became practically autonomous, and remained in control of its vast land holdings. Under unfamiliar English colonial administrators, Catholic clergy were often the only functioning public leaders in Quebec. Politically powerful, they kept the influence of the French Revolution far from their flocks.

From 1840 onward, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec grew in size and influence. Religious congregations multiplied, priestly vocational education swelled, and the percentage of Catholics attending Easter Mass rose to over 98 percent in the 1890s. At that time, the Quebec Catholicism claimed supremacy over civil authorities and asserted that the Church alone should decide the limits of its socio-political responsibility. Quebec Catholic leaders backed the Conservative Party and opposed the Liberals – as they put it, bleu was the colour of heaven, while rouge was the colour of revolution and hell.

Even after Confederation, Roman Catholics enjoyed all manner of privileges. Confessional schools were the only schools allowed in Quebec, while a Catholic separate school system was created by law across the rest of the country. Quebec civil registries, marriage, and divorce were all in the hands of the Church. Ecclesiastical property was not taxed, the tithe was legally enforced, and the Church controlled education, publishing, the media, social welfare, and health services. In some parishes, more than three-dozen pious organizations demanded the time, resources, and energy of parishioners. The climax of this Catholic triumphalism in Quebec came during the reign of Premier Maurice Duplessis, who held power from 1936 to 1940, and then from 1944 to 1959.

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Quebec society was radically secularized by a combination of events and forces: the Second World War, the rise of the mass media, the overextension of church financial commitments, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the rise of secular nationalism. As traditional authorities were thrown off, French language and Quebecois national identity rapidly replaced Christian faith and church institutions as the basis for political identity in Quebec. Labour unions cut their ties with institutional Catholicism. The state assumed control of education, health care, and social services. And the churches suddenly emptied.

English Canadian Protestantism

In English Canada, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists emerged as the primary denominational traditions in the Maritimes, while in Upper and Lower Canada, the Constitutional Act of 1791 effectively established the Church of England, granting Anglican ministers the sole right to perform marriages and allowing governors to reserve one-seventh of all the lands granted in their colonies for the support and maintenance of the Protestant clergy.

While the establishment of the Anglican Church was part of an attempt to achieve stability and security in British North America, the colonial administration abandoned this policy in the 1840s and the clergy reserves which had guaranteed the establishment of Anglicanism were gradually secularized. This disestablishment of institutional Protestantism did not mean that Canada suddenly lost its Christian character. On the contrary, both political and religious leaders still believed it was necessary to maintain the Christian character of society. Protestant Christianity (in all its denominational variety) was considered to serve the public good and preserve social stability through the cultivation of moral character in the private spheres of home and church. That is why the creation of public social and educational institutions was welcomed by Christian leaders. They believed that personal, voluntary Christian commitment was more powerful than state sanctioned religion. Indeed, the task of founding the public system of education in Ontario was given to the Methodist missionary Egerton Ryerson, who had earlier campaigned for the secularization of the clergy reserves. It was the conviction of Ryerson and others that the participation of Christians with high moral standing would infuse public institutions with bourgeois and Protestant values, a view which remained dominant until the middle of the twentieth century. It was this Canadian consensus around Protestant values that made possible both the religious rhetoric and the political success of prominent Christian politicians like William Aberhart, Ernest Manning, J. S. Woodsworth, and Tommy Douglas.

And so it was that institutional Protestantism and the Canadian government retained their symbiotic relationship, even under institutional secularization. Through laws and policies protecting the Sabbath, enforcing temperance, and opening schools to Christian teaching, the federal and provincial governments provided the legal framework that the churches required to do their work of moral formation. In turn, the churches laboured to produce citizens of integrity whose lives contributed to the public good.

It should not surprise us, then, that the independent Canada of 1867 was called a “dominion” and given the motto “From Sea to Sea,” both references to Psalm 72. Protestants influenced by evangelical revivalism worked to shape Canadian society through all manner of Christian social and moral associations and through a new national church, the United Church of Canada, which was formed in 1925 through a merger of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. Governments looked favourably upon these developments, and entrusted various aspects of social welfare policy to the Christian churches, not least the continuing work of educating and assimilating First Nations peoples through church-run residential and day schools. Cheaper to fund than to replace with public education, denominational schools run by Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians operated widely from the pre-Confederation era to the second half of the twentieth century.

Recent Developments

Since the Second World War, however, and particularly since the 1960s, the “Protestant consensus” of the nineteenth century has melted away. Notwithstanding the debate over the reference to God in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the impact of the Charter has been to erode many privileges enjoyed by Protestant and Catholic churches alike, and to undermine many of the old “majority values” held by Canadian Christians. Other factors have also contributed to this process, such as the social liberalization in the 1960s, new nationalisms in French and English Canada, and the growing multiculturalism and religious pluralism of Canada.

As a result, the earlier role of the churches as institutions of moral education and the collective conscience of society has been decisively rejected in recent decades, at least in public policy and judicial practise. If our nineteenth-century predecessors believed that the presence of Christian denominations preserved the Christian nature of Canadian society and prevented the religious monopoly of a single state church in this country, today many Canadians would argue that any public expression of religious conviction is subversive of the full expression of individual rights in a liberal society. In other words, the Christian faith-political interface that once made for social harmony in Canada is now seen to produce disharmony, even discrimination.

Thus it is that many of the social and moral laws and policies which once protected both the interests of the churches and their role in society have been overturned, on matters as diverse as Sunday shopping, school prayer, religious holidays, the sale of alcohol, homosexual rights and sexual policy, abortion rights, euthanasia, divorce law, and the redefinition of marriage. In sum, it would not be going too far to argue that the three branches of government in Canada have largely effected the de-Christianization of the public sphere over the past twenty-five years or so.

Where Do We Go From Here?

What, then, does this short history of church-state relations tell us? For one, it helps explain why some Canadian Christians feel increasingly marginalized in society, while other Canadians fear the political power of institutional Christianity. In truth, Christianity is not like any other religious faith in Canada. Because of its past presence in public life, it does generate suspicion when Christianity makes its way into political affairs.
Christians who would engage in political activity must be sensitive to a long history of Christian political stridency and Christian moral crusading, and understand the decisive rejection of that approach by Canadians in the second half of the twentieth century. That rejection of overtly Christian politics is not a rejection of Christianity itself or even of all Christian political goals, only a rejection of a Christian agenda that was once acceptable under the Catholic era of Quebec politics or the Protestant consensus in English Canada, but is no longer deemed appropriate.

Christians who would engage in political activity must also realize that Christians have often managed political power badly, most often by pursuing particular Christian agendas that did not serve the needs of the whole political community. Christians have sometimes forgotten that Jesus’ call to follow is an invitation to be offered to others, and not a mandate to be legislated or a decree to be enforced. Because moral problems are intrinsically spiritual problems, legislative attempts to coerce morality will never “make Canada Christian.”

That said, it must also be acknowledged that Western Civilization, and Canada in particular, have strong roots in the Christian tradition, and that we owe much of what is good about our way of life to Christianity. Indeed, Christians in many times and places have alleviated the sufferings of the weakest members of society, spoken prophetically against individual and systemic injustice, and served as faithful, upright leaders, working for the creation of the common good. Churches as institutions have fostered literacy and higher education, social and medical care, robust communal life, ethical concern for others, and public stability. Christians would do well to tell more stories like that of William Wilberforce, the tireless British abolitionist.

Judging from our history, and from the examples of respected Christian politicians of today, perhaps it is only in pursuing Jesus’ radical notions of brotherly and sisterly love, of servanthood, of sacrifice, of the abandonment of our own interests, and of the relentless pursuit of the well-being of others that we Christians can win the right and responsibility to shape the political direction of our country in the years to come.