This is the third in a series of articles on the Canadian church, drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders.
The public square has become a hostile arena for social-conservative Christians because the public square has been co-opted by a militant SecularismSecularism seeks to eliminate our culture’s acknowledgement of the Divine.” — ‘Our Philosophy of Engagement,’ ECP Centre (Equipping Christians for the Public Square)
“It is High Noon for the church in Canada… A threat is barreling down the track towards us. Years from now our own grandchildren may ask us, ‘Where were you when they tried to muzzle the church in Canada?'” — Rev. Royal M. Hamel, ‘Open Letter to Canadian Clergy on Hate Speech Bill C-415‘
According to a recent Ipsos survey, 39 percent of weekly church attenders “strongly agree… that there is a general bias against the viewpoints that are held by deeply committed Christians.” Only 16 percent of those who don’t attend weekly agree.
Church attenders and a variety of Christian social action groups cite a variety of cases where Christians have been prosecuted before human rights commissions and the courts for speaking out on moral issues, particularly homosexuality. They also cite a number of cases where Christian viewpoints have been excluded from institutions and public forums, most notably in the area of education.
Is this the beginning of a general persecution of Christians in Canada? Will the minority of Canadians who are true Christians soon be silenced and oppressed by a secular majority? And, as is sometimes asked, is this the beginning of the Great Tribulation of the End Times?
In the first place, there is no “secular” majority in Canada. Research compiled by sociologist Reg Bibby shows that only about 7 percent of Canadians are atheists.
In the 2004 General Social Survey done by the Canadian government, 19 percent of Canadians said they had “no religion.” However, perhaps the most accurate gauge of the increase in secularism is the recent Ipsos survey that found that 33 percent of Canadians had not attended church in the past year.
Looked at positively, according to Ipsos, 67 percent of Canadians said they had attended church at least once in the past year, 64 percent said religion is important to their daily life, 64 percent believed the Bible is the Word of God, and 62 percent believed in forgiveness through Christ.
But this does not mean that the majority of Canadians are committed Christians either. As discussed in the first article in this series, only about 20 percent of Canadians attend church weekly and about a third of Canadians attend monthly.
What this means is that in Canada there are a group of committed Christians at one end of the scale, a group of secularists at the other end of the scale and a large group of Canadians somewhere in the middle.
A very telling statistic is the Ipsos finding that 72 percent of Canadians believe that “Private beliefs are more important than what is taught by any church.” In other words, while about two-thirds of Canadians are favourable toward the Christian church, only about a quarter are inclined to accept the authority of the church.
This is particularly true in moral matters, which is the area where Christians experience the most opposition. An Angus Reid survey done for the Vancouver Sun and published last week found that only about 12 percent of Canadians are “Strict Moralists” and about 25 percent are “Laissez-Faire Moralists,” people who “don’t have a problem with almost anything.” The survey found, for instance, that over 60 percent of Canadians approve of abortion and homosexuality, and 83 percent approve of having a baby outside marriage.
While the secular minority might like to silence Christians, the majority of Canadians are quite willing to tolerate the Christian church. On the other hand, those in the middle do not necessarily accept Christian morality either and are increasingly reluctant to support Christians’ attempts to have Christian morality reflected in Canadian law.
The attitude seems to be that Canadian Christians are free to believe what they want as long as they do not try to have those beliefs reflected in public policy. A growing minority, likely composed of secularists and a growing number of those in the middle, is thus less tolerant of committed Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, in public life.
A recent Ipsos survey found that 65 percent of Canadians found it acceptable for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to use “God bless Canada” at the end of his speeches, while only 26 percent (the hard-core secularists?) were opposed.
Similarly, 62 percent thought “Religious communities are a force for good in society,” and 59 percent thought “Religious leaders are a force for good in society.”
In 2006, 63 percent of Canadians said they were willing to vote for an evangelical Christian for prime minister, but that is down from 80 percent in 1996. Significantly, a larger group, 68 percent, were willing to vote for an atheist or a Muslim (down from 72 percent and 74 percent respectively).
Moreover, only 39 percent thought “Christians should get involved in politics to protect their values” (down from 46 percent in 1996), and only 40 percent thought “It is essential that traditional Christian values play a major role in Canadian politics (down from 45 percent).
The polarization was most obvious on the question “I think it’s a good thing if people with strong religious beliefs express their views on political issues” — 21 percent (the committed Christian core?) strongly agreed, and 27 percent (committed secularists?) strongly disagreed, with half of Canadians somewhere in the middle.
Pollster Andrew Grenville told CC.com that a lot of the anti-evangelical sentiment seems to be a reaction against US President George Bush and the Iraq War, and to a lesser extent against Harper. Grenville said he could not predict what might happen to that sentiment once Bush is no longer president. In any case, while admitting that discrimination against Christians does exist in some places, he said it is “not systematic,” the majority of Canadians are still favourably disposed to Christianity, and “the fear of persecution is overblown.”
David Harris, editor of the Presbyterian Record, suggested some of the antagonism to the church is deserved: “The wrongs committed in the name of organized religion, such as involvement in residential schools, continues to taint organized Christianity.” However, he said that that antagonism is not universally shared: “I think there is still a significant skepticism verging towards bias against organized religion in general among the ruling liberal intelligentsia. However, I think Canadians are still very interested in spiritual matters.”
Veteran political observer and journalist Lloyd Mackey suggested another reason why some Christians arouse antagonism: “I am sometimes discouraged by Christian professional polemicists who attempt to build straw persons to attack and then, when attacked in return, play the persecution card.” However, he observed, “While there are a few literate atheists taking articulate potshots at the church, I find that most people are quite respectful toward the church.”
Political scientist John H. Redekop clearly stated the growing problem: “In most parts of Canada the larger society is becoming less supportive of traditional Christian values and practices. Society is becoming more secular. This will create serious problems for the church… It seems to me that in recent years Canadian society, including its vocal leaders, have become increasingly tolerant of minor religions and increasingly less tolerant of Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity.” However, he was not totally pessimistic: “A truly secular society, as it realizes its ideological futility and moral rootlessness, may, in fact, become increasingly open to the Christian gospel and the Christian ethic.”
Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto was more hopeful. “The pendulum of secularism has swung as far as it can, and it’s now in retreat,” he said. Citing recent media coverage and the election of an evangelical (Stephen Harper) as prime minister, he added, “I see this as evidence that the community is not so afraid of who we are or what we believe as they once might have been.”
Bruce J. Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, described the ambiguity: “We are living in a post-Christendom society which is secularized yet very religious and highly individualistic.” On the one hand, “there is a cooperative, conciliatory and generous spirit,” but “societal norms are being challenged and re-evaluated,” he said.
“Canada is in transition,” Clemenger added. “In the aftermath of a period of rapid secularization, Canada is searching for a clearer sense of its identity amidst the diversity of culture, race, religion, lifestyle, social and political visions.”