Among the many and varied Christian responses I observed to the recent Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) ruling to legalize same-sex marriage, it was the Canadian Evangelical Christian responses that I found the most intriguing. Those in favour of the court’s decision were welcoming, as one might predict, but it was the responses against that were striking – not so much in their content but rather in what they seemed to imply: either an amnesia about the Canadian situation or an underlying resignation towards the Canadian churches and deference to the American churches as the last bastion of “true” Christianity.
These responses reiterated to me the concern that John G. Stackhouse Jr., one of the most prominent historians of Canadian Evangelicalism, noted in a 2008 interview with Canadian Christianity when asked about the main challenges the Canadian church is facing: that we look too instinctively to the United States for scholarship, theology and models of church life. “We do not support sustained and expert research,” he says, “to understand what’s happening in Canada, nor do we often call upon the relatively few experts we have to advise us – as congregations, denominations or other Christian organizations.”
While we worry about “Americanization” in other quarters (thus the focus on “CanLit,” programs such as Canada Reads and Can-con quotas in media), this concern does not appear to extend to our faith. We are quick to understand the need for careful contextualization of theology into other, non-western contexts, but may be too quick to dismiss the need for nuancing across the 49th parallel. Consider, for example, the Christian authors, scholars, bloggers and publications you regularly read, and other Christian media you consume, such as online audio sermons, podcasts and TV programs. How many of them are Canadian? How many address explicitly Canadian concerns or respond to Canadian events?
Though the beauty of the Gospel is that the redemption of Christ crosses national borders and ethnic boundaries, we also know that we are culturally conditioned people, who operate with underlying presuppositions and worldviews formed within our own specific contexts. While the United States has produced (and continues to produce) rich scholarship and theology and associated institutions and publications from which we have much to learn, the numerous similarities between our two nations may allow us to too easily forget the differences. To uncritically assume that American scholars are responding to Canadian concerns as well as their own – or to conflate the two entirely – may leave us with few resources to answer our own questions well, or indeed to even know what questions we should be asking.
A continental divide
The differing histories and contexts in which our churches have formed go back to the founding of modern Canada. As Mark Noll (an American historian of American evangelicalism, ironically) points out, our history of a strong Roman Catholic presence (and related English-French bilateralism), our loyalty to Britain in the midst of the American Revolution, our continuing desire to be (vaguely) “not American” (even as we looked to America on many fronts), the broader influence of a kind of “social Christianity” (seen in the Catholic communalism movement and variations of the Protestant social gospel) as well as the specificities of our political system, all had a strong influence on shaping churches across the theological and denominational spectrum.
Generally, Canadian churches were formed via a more top-down, hierarchical model that more easily deferred to authority (a model reflective of previous trends in Canadian society), whereas American churches were formed with the influence of a more independent, populist sentiment seen vividly played out in the American Revolution.
While in the early 1900s we still followed a similar trajectory to American churches, including feeling the influence of immigrant groups (such as the Dutch Reformed and Mennonite) and periods of revival (influenced, at points, by American revivalist preachers crossing into Canada), Protestant evangelicals did not unite over any nationalist narrative as in the United States, which saw itself in many respects as God’s chosen nation. As Canadian sociologist Lydia Bean points out in her book The Politics of Evangelical Identity, “[Unlike in America] Canadian evangelicals never united around a rival narrative of Christian nationalism, framed in opposition to communism or liberal politics. . . . Because Canadian evangelicals did not forge an early alliance with right-wing politics in the 1940s, this period of institution-building set the stage for how evangelicals would respond to the 1960s.”
It was the 1960s that brought what many commentators call “the culture war” to the forefront of public consciousness in America, revealing some of the stark polarization that exists in American society today. In both Canada and the United States, the 1960s marked a change in church-state relations and saw what some term a “de-Christianization” in both nations, though it looked different across denominations in each country. It was the resulting milieu that has done much to form differing evangelical identities in each nation, particularly in regards to questions on church-state relations, questions that came to a head for Americans with the recent SCOTUS ruling.
In a fascinating 2008 study, a group of sociologists at Harvard University, led by the aforementioned Canadian Lydia Bean, asked why Canada does not have an American-style political Christian right. They concluded that while American and Canadian evangelicals share similar moral views, the way in which their political identities are formed (that is, the way in which they link their religious and moral beliefs to political preference) is related distinctly to their own contexts. Canadians, they conclude, are less likely than Americans to be convinced by political appeals to our religious identity. Additionally, in contradistinction to American evangelicals who often see the United States as a “city on a hill,” Canadians have long understood our nation to be “post-Christian,” and thus see it is a mission field where we are a minority within a multicultural society. Because of this, we have not so easily embraced a polarized “culture war model of public religion.” The authors explain that instead, Canadian evangelicals “responded to the 1960s by developing new tools to engage their society in constructive ways as a cultural minority. [We] remained politically diverse, even as [our] society was rocked by the trends associated with modernity: urbanization, cultural pluralism, the sexual revolution, the growth of higher education and the growth of ‘post materialist’ forms of expressive individualism.”
Some of the specific examples of these tools as developed within the Christian Reformed community in Canada are given by Darren Roorda, Canadian Ministries Director for the CRC, in his piece adjacent. Broadly, these tools reveal a posture of engagement with Canadian culture and society across a diverse range of areas, rather than a fearful reaction or retrenchment, as in a culture war model. This ability to engage has been aided by a general Canadian avoidance of sectarian or partisan attitudes in regards to faith and politics. In the broader evangelical culture, the authors note that, for example, in the 1980s as America’s Religious Right was making its voice known politically, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada deliberately took a more moderate, accommodating approach in contrast to what was happening in America.
The authors’ conclusions were not necessarily meant as a critical judgement on either nation (and some Canadians may indeed find Canadian moderation less encouraging than not), but the conclusions underscore the necessity of continuing to develop tools of societal engagement within recognizance of our differences and with reference to specifically Canadian scholarship and thought. It is this that makes publications such as Christian Courier that much more important, and should lead us to applaud the Christian Reformed Church’s recent move to further distinguish the Canadian cohort as “Ministry in Canada” (a subtle difference from “Canadian Ministries”) and to affirm, as Roorda did at Synod in June, that as we are “joyously unique,” “ministry in Canada demands that all the components of the denomination address the uniqueness that is experienced north of the border as much as it does in the USA.”
The task before us
In the same interview in which Stackhouse expressed concern he also displayed optimism: He is encouraged, he says, in that today, “Leaders of some large churches and some growing church plants in Canada do not reflexively look to America for all wisdom, but have grasped that Canada is different, and its regions are different from each other, so we need to undertake truly indigenous ministry.” He also recommended that “As we do so, furthermore, we should be looking more at Britain, Australia and New Zealand for models of church life in cultures more similar to ours than are most of the regions of the USA.”
None of this means abandoning our observation of and interaction with the church in America. In fact, continuing to learn about the American situation, and from American scholars and churches, can aid us in better understanding ourselves (conversely, understanding the Canadian situation might help Americans better understand their own situation). It is imperative that we also extend our gazes even further southward, to learn from theologians, scholars and church leaders in what we define as “the global south,” increasingly the centre of world Christianity.
While we should not over-state our differences from Americans, and of course there is always the divisive danger of becoming overly inward looking, becoming aware of our own situation may well lead us to more intelligently and wisely interpret, comment on and engage with churches around the world and across the 49th parallel. Ultimately, paying close attention to our own context, culture and formation is critical if we are to properly identify the questions of our own cultural moment – that is, a moment that cannot be conflated with America’s – and bring the Gospel to bear on our own, Canadian, response.