Story behind nation’s religious collapse

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Church attendance in the U.S. is now double the Canadian average

Mark A. Noll, the historian of American religion most distinguished for his celebrated book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (the scandal being too many Evangelicals don’t use the gray matter God gave them, and many think it wrong to even try) confesses himself mystified of late by a country called Canada.

“What Happened to Christian Canada?” he asks, and that’s the title of his little booklet published this year by Regent College Publishing in Vancouver.

It has been widely ignored by the Canadian news media.

It’s more essay than book, and in about 50 pages sets forth some statistics and other information I have never seen assembled under a single cover by any Canadian author, even the authoritative Reg Bibby at Lethbridge University who has over the years assembled it piece by piece under a great many covers.

Some sample facts:

In 1961, only one half of 1% of Canadians told census takers they were not attached to any religious body. The figure rose to 4.3 % in 1971 and 16.2% in 2001.

After the Second World War, 67% of Canadians told Gallup they had been in a church or synagogue over the previous seven days. By 1990 this figure had fallen by nearly two thirds to 23%. Gallup says it’s now less than 20%.

In 1961, 90% of Quebecers said they had been to church in the last seven days, and the Catholic church had one priest for every 500-700 parishioners. There were 43,000 women in religious orders, one for every 115 Quebec Catholics.

Today, church attendance in Quebec is the lowest of any province, state or nation in North America.

Now what puzzled Noll was this. Although the histories of Canada and the U.S. have many parallels, religious practice isn’t one of them. Nothing like this has happened in the U.S.

Where Canada was, if anything, more loyal to its churches in the first half of the 20th century, it now lags far behind, and church attendance in the U.S. is considerably more than double the Canadian average.

He shows this phenomenon in another way: In 1959, when Georges Vanier was sworn in as Canadian governor general, he began his acceptance speech, “My first words are a prayer. May Almighty God in his infinite wisdom and mercy bless the sacred mission that has been entrusted to me … In exchange for His strength, I offer Him my weakness.”

Forty-six years later, when Michaelle Jean was sworn in, she declared Canadian history “speaks powerfully of the freedom to invent a new world.”

She made no mention whatever of the diety. What a contrast her speech made to the election speeches of both Democrat John Kerry and Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 campaign. Both made repeated references to God.

So what happened to Canadian Christianity, asks Dr. Noll, and for the next 39 pages of his book, he searches for the explanation—searches among the explanations offered by Canadian historians and reaches a few conclusions of his own.

He examines two churches in particular—the Catholic Church in Quebec and the United Church of Canada, both of which have suffered a catastrophic decline in membership. Though the churches are, of course, quite different, he discovered curiously similar explanations.

In Quebec, he finds an explanation in the rise of Catholic Action, a movement that gained great momentum after the Second World War and recruited platoons of talented young people—like Pierre Trudeau, Marc Lalonde and Gerard Pelletier.

Its object was to supplant what had become the moribund Catholicism of historic Quebec with a new amalgam of democratic socialism and a reformed Catholic spirituality and practice.

Quebecers bought the first half of the proposition, but not the second, and people abandoned Christian practice en masse.

The United Church, created in the 1920s by the union of the Methodists, Congregationalists and most Presbyterians, sought to combine the socialistic reforms of the social gospel with the spiritual message of evangelicalism. This had much the same result. When the government itself legislated the social gospel, the church was left with no message at all.

But all this is an inadequate summation of a brief but very observant analysis of Canada’s religious collapse.

Better to read the little book itself—if you can find it.

Ted Byfield
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