Extended Book Review
Canada’s Evolving Civic Religion & Evangelicals as the New Dissenters
by Bruce J. Clemenger
If you are a Canadian aged 40 and above, and if you have lived your entire life in Canada, then you might have a vague (or not so vague) sense that Canadian culture has changed – especially in the past 20 years. In his excellent book The New Orthodoxy: Canada’s Emerging Civil Religion, longtime Evangelical Fellowship of Canada leader Bruce Clemenger carefully unpacks the evolution of liberal democratic thought and practice in Canada. Bruce has served the EFC since 1992 and has led the EFC to have intervenor status at various Supreme Court cases in his 30 years in Ottawa. He has been ideally placed to observe and explain the shift from classical to republican liberalism now evident among Canadian policymakers. In part one of this paper, I will briefly summarize Bruce’s account of those changes. My hope is that this will help Christian leaders understand more, and fear less, the changes in the political landscape. I think many of us intuitively “know” political and moral attitudes have changed in Canada and we suspect they have led to less positive view of the church by many Canadians (particularly Canadians in the social and political sphere). In part two, I will provide some theological and discipling points for those leading the church. In part three, I will suggest how we can live as non-anxious religious dissenters in this new culture.
Bruce’s key thesis in his book is that there has been a shift from classical to republican liberalism in the Canadian political and judicial spheres. Please read The New Orthodoxy for his good summary of this. Bruce reminds us that Canada is a nation built on a classical liberal foundation of personal freedom, equality of right, limited government, and consent of the governed. Freedom was primarily viewed in a negative sense – as freedom from coercion. Nineteenth century liberals such as John Stuart Mill worried that individual freedoms needed to be protected from a potentially tyrannical government. Hence nineteenth century liberals felt good government ensured the good of the nation by meddling as little as possible economically, socially, and legislatively. This form of liberalism was supported by a pervasive Judeo-Christian worldview. Bruce reminds us that the pluralism it initially had to accommodate was a Christian pluralism. It avoided privileging one “state” church. Roman Catholicism, Mainline Protestants, and groups like the Methodists who had been “dissenters” in places like Great Britain (which did have a state church), were all welcome to participate in the public square. Christendom, as a moral, cultural phenomenon, provided Canada (and Canadian liberalism) with a shared understanding of morality and the definition of the good.
Bruce highlights the Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1960. For the first time, the Jewish community was consulted to ensure that the theological preamble was not offensive to them. This evidenced a shift from Christian Pluralism to Religious Pluralism that has obviously increased exponentially since 1960. Bruce argues that before 1960 no one Christian denomination had privileged status – after 1960, no religion, including any form of Christianity was to have privileged status. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s not only coincided with the decline of church attendance but also initiated the demise of the Judeo-Christian consensus (the result of which we have seen since about 2000). The state became secular, but a lingering memory of Christianity allowed religion a place in the public sphere. Bruce explains that religion and family were seen to support the creation of good citizens and society. However, as the Judeo-Christian consensus evaporated, and religious and cultural pluralism increased, a moral vacuum was created – morality and the good could no longer be founded on divine religious principles. A new secular basis was needed. Bruce traces the evolution of a new appeal to natural law – a social contract that is assumed to be the basis for all liberal democracies. He highlights the 1982 passing in parliament of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bruce outlines how this document has been increasingly used by Supreme Court Justices in the past 20 years to interpret the core values of the invisible social contract assumed to be the basis of Canadian liberalism/rights and freedoms. During that time, liberalism has evolved in Canada, morphing from a classical liberalism extolling small, non-interventionist government to a republican liberalism that mandates an interventionist government charged with actively providing freedom for all Canadians. The word “freedom” has been radically redefined.
Bruce explains that Classical liberalism mandated that government act as a shield protecting minorities from oppression of the majority (protecting minorities from government overreach). The government was to be as neutral as possible in dealing with dissenters and not be a sword imposing majority values on minorities. Bruce argues that the new republican liberalism no longer sees freedom as mere protection from coercion. Freedom is now viewed as every individual being entitled to be fully autonomous with the ability to create a “style of life and identity for themselves without regard for external authority and public opinion”. In this view, the government must actively ensure that each autonomous individual in the republic has equal ability to create their self-selected identity. The government is morally obligated to knock down all obstacles that inhibit this individual self-definition and self-determination. In this context family and religion can become dangerous – especially as they act to limit the full expression and freedom of the individual (i.e.. when they do not celebrate the identity choices an individual makes). When one looks at the political parties in Canada, one can see the spectrum of classical liberalism to republican religion. The Conservatives hold more to the classical liberal approach of limited, non-interventionist government; the Liberals and NDP are much more committed to larger, more interventionist government that is not just a shield to protect minorities from harm but is a sword to remove all obstacles to individual autonomy and ensure equality of access to self-definition and determination.
A quick note: I am not advocating that one political party in Canada is more “Christian” than another. One can make a case that each political party has items in their platform that are in step and out of step with Jesus’ Kingdom values. Also, I am not saying that classical liberalism was perfect and republican liberalism is evil. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. I am summarizing (using Bruce’s book) how the political and philosophical landscape has shifted. I personally prefer classical liberalism, but I recognize that it has been historically weak in terms of recognizing and remedying systemic injustice. It is strong on individual responsibility, but then seems to assume that all have equal opportunity – a level playing field, with no systemic problems/inequities. On the other hand, the new Republican Liberalism seems only focused on systemic injustice to the point of almost hostility to the notion of personal responsibility. Victims of systemic injustice seem to be viewed as being immune from moral culpability for their actions. The government then seems to be obligated to destroy everything that is seen as “privilege” and protect “victimized” individuals against all groups external to the individual (like church and family) that inhibit their ability to determine and live out their identity.
Bruce highlights well how Republican liberalism worries less about protecting religious freedom and worries more about protecting the individual from limitations imposed by family and religion. Religion becomes something only to be pursued in the private sphere. Religious organizations can only engage in the public sphere when their values coincide with new republican principles. Bruce notes that Quebec has always had a more republican form of liberalism than Canada. This has led the provincial government to impose interventionist policies on language and religious symbols to guard Quebec values. He explains that the recent Summer Jobs “Attestation” that the Liberal government was asking religious organizations to sign is another example of government pushing religion to the private sphere. The liberal government wanted to ensure that government funds only went to organizations that adhered to “Canadian values” that promoted unlimited personal autonomy – specifically as applied to abortion and sexual self-determination. The new assumption is that there are “Canadian values” (implicit in the Charter of rights and Freedoms) that the government must ensure all organizations operating in the public sphere promote.
The shift from classical liberalism to the new republican liberalism can be seen in the two Supreme Court cases that Trinity Western University has been involved in. In 2001, TWU won the appeal at the Supreme Court to have the right to offer a fourth year of teacher training despite having a code of conduct limiting students to sex within traditional marriage (of a man and a woman). The court agreed that individuals could attend school elsewhere and that TWU as a minority religious institution could hold their students to moral behavior that was out of line with the broader culture. I believe that this decision reflected the classical liberal approach to freedom. Fast forward to 2018. After winning their case at the provincial level, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that TWU could not have a law school that forced individuals to abide by a community covenant limiting their sexual behavior. This was seen as a violation of Canadian values and the rights of the autonomous individual – in short, it “harmed” LGBTQ individuals. Interestingly, the minority Supreme Court opinion challenged this republican liberal approach, worrying that an unstated set of “values,” defined by judges alone was a dangerous precedent. Yet the majority opinion, interpreting Canadian values through principles thought to be implicit in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, viewed TWU as doing harm to an individual’s inherent right to fully define and practice their sexual identity.
At this point I want to propose how we as leaders can best shepherd our people to live as followers of Jesus in a culture that follows this new civic religion. First, I think leaders need to speak and act as non-anxious, loving followers of Christ (even as we encounter those who do not agree with Christian morality). This means that we must be a fruit of the spirit people who exhibit kindness, gentleness – and the rest of Galatians 5 fruit. It is not helpful for our people to watch and hear us rant and rave in anger at the evil “out there”. We need to be people who reflect humility, thankfulness, love, mercy, compassion – all the kingdom values that Jesus speaks of in His Sermon on the Mount. Sadly Christians (and preachers particularly) are known by many in the culture as proud, judgmental, hypocritical, holier than thou people who condemn others but live immorally (or support immoral politicians). We are not seen as people of humility, repentance, and forgiveness.
There is a t-shirt that well reflects the philosophy of republican liberalism – it reveals what the culture is for and against. The shirt declares: “Science is real, Black Lives Matter, No Human is Illegal, Love is Love, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, Kindness is Everything!” In many ways, this reveals what people think we are against: science, blacks, immigrants, homosexuals, women – and kindness (we are mean). We can no longer lead with what we are against. We need to lead with Who and what we are for. The T-Shirt is a reaction against those who: deny that science finds truth (think all the conspiracy theories during Covid); deny there is systemic racism of any sort towards blacks; are anti-immigration; are anti-same sex marriage and anti-LGBTQ rights; who are seen as anti-women’s rights (think reproductive rights); and are unkind and hateful. Let me acknowledge that each of these issues is far more nuanced than the far left and far right make them. However, we need to act and call our people to act in ways that reflect the fruit of the spirit and do not legitimize a view that evangelicals are nasty, judgmental haters.
The second way we can help our people live as believers among those following the new civic religion (and who often don’t know it) is to rediscover and teach the richness of Genesis 1-3. For far too long we have branded ourselves as anti-science by using Genesis 1-2 as our proof against the scientific theory of evolution. I am thankful that the Free Church has always been open about young versus old earth. I do not believe that Genesis 1-2 was written primarily to address a 20th century scientific debate. This passage was written to show the Jews the goodness of the Hebrew God (as opposed to the gods of the lands). Genesis reveals His beautiful plan for humans as individuals and as communities of individuals, God’s plan for human flourishing. The beginning of Genesis portrays humans as possessing dignity and purpose (as those made in God’s image). It reveals God’s desire for man and woman, explaining how evil and oppression enter the world when humans choose to define good and evil for themselves and step out to make a name for themselves (unlimited personal autonomy has its serious downsides!). Genesis 1-3 speaks to human identity, human flourishing, stewardship of creation, God’s character, His good plan and so much more. Each of these issues are essential for disciples of Jesus to understand in a world that makes a god of unlimited personal autonomy, self-identity, and unlimited freedom. It is imperative for us to help our people understand God’s character and human character. We need to help our people see that God’s redemptive plan is exponentially superior to the counterfeits the world offers.
A third key is for us to help our people embrace what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What does it mean to follow His commands? What does it mean to pick up our cross and follow Him? Where does suffering fit into this journey? What is the call to mutual submission, of “considering others as more important than ourselves”? How do we live together in community? What is the mission we are called to? How do we live as stewards of the world we live in? How do we live as a loving, redemptive community? Our gospel presentation must include not only personal salvation but the fact that Jesus redeems a people, a holy priesthood, a royal nation, a spiritual temple for Himself (think I Peter). This community of faith must reflect individual and corporate commitment to the “one anothers” found in the New Testament. A popular Christian song currently croons “God is part of your story.” The music to this song is compelling – the lyrics are not. It is true that God is part of my story. Yet He longs to invite us to be part of a much bigger, more compelling story – His story. We need to stop selling a Christian version of radical individual autonomy and invite folks to be disciples of Jesus. He wants to make us part of a Story that has purpose, beauty and joy that eclipses anything Canada’s civil religion offers.
In Wisdom form Babylon, Gordon Smith outlines four different ways the Church of Jesus Christ can respond to a culture that has changed. First, we can change what we believe and conform to the culture. As people committed to the gospel and the beautiful plan of God in His Word, this is obviously not an option for the EFCC. Second, we can withdraw from the public sphere. We could retreat into monastic or anabaptist-like communities and wall ourselves off from others. Again, as gospel centered people with a redemptive mission, this is not an option. Third, we could declare war on the culture and try to wrestle back our place of privilege and power. This is certainly the strategy of some evangelicals in the US – dating back to Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority.” Suffice it to say that history shows the dark side of the church holding power. Furthermore, Jesus seemed to outright reject power politics (see how he responds to the devil’s temptations and how He launches His kingdom from the margins of power in Matthew 4!), and the Early Church turned the world upside down by not grasping for power but by being a faithful, loving presence (read about it in Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity). That leaves the fourth option the Early Church Embraced – being a non-anxious, faithful. Loving presence.
This means we need to live as exiles or dissenters in a culture that considers us somewhat dangerous. Smith explains this well, as does Tim Mackey and the Bible Project folks in their short video The Way of the Exile. We need to view ourselves like the Jews in exile among foreigners, the Early Church suffering under Roman rule, or the Quakers as dissenters persecuted by an Anglican Church supported by British government. As exiles or dissenters, we are called to seek the well-being of the land and be a loving, subversive presence. In short, we need to act like Christian dissenters in a land with a state religion (the new “civic religion” of Republican Liberalism). We can be a people loyal to our Lord who lovingly critique the arrogance, idolatry, and injustices of our culture. As Peter reminds us, we are foreigners and exiles in this world. The Church needs to conduct itself as a body that is in but not of this world. Fortunately, we have those who represent us on parliament hill. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada consistently speaks truth graciously, promoting revisions to public legislation that promotes sound biblical principles. We need to support their non-anxious presence in Ottawa. We can help our members support initiatives that present gracious alternatives to our politicians that promote sanctity of life, protection of the vulnerable, flourishing of the disadvantaged and strengthening of healthy families.
There is another way the Church can joyfully declare the goodness of our God and His beautiful plan for humanity in the public square. The Church has a host of members who work across the entire social sphere. We can help our people see themselves as salt and light, disciples of Jesus called to seek the welfare of the land. We can find ways to support our people to bless this world, using their work to further His redemptive plan. This goes far beyond sharing Jesus evangelistically. We need to ask our people how their work can further redemptive principles such as sanctify of life, protection of the vulnerable, flourishing of the disadvantaged, and strengthening of healthy families. This work is not limited to teachers, social workers etc. in our churches. We can support and celebrate what God wants to do in these four areas through folks in all “professions.” Celebrating work as a redemptive calling could change how we make disciples. It puts a different end/goal in mind for our disciple making. Finding ways to equip and unleash our people to be a redemptive force outside the walls ought to be a primary goal of our shepherding (see Tom Nelson’s book, “The Flourishing Pastor” for ideas on this).
Much has changed in our country. It is easy to long for the good old days when the church was respected, held moral sway, had political privilege and power. Yet I believe that it is the best time to be the Church of Jesus Christ. Yes, we are on the margins of privilege and power. Christendom has waned. Yet what a great time to offer something far more powerful than an alternative moralism to the one we live in! The living Christ is Lord! He redeems. His kingdom plan is so superior to what the world is offering. May we be encouraged as He transforms lives through His people – people who walk with a limp but can invite people into a theologically rich life following the Lord of the universe!
Reviewed by Bill Taylor
Resources: Bruce Clemenger, Canada’s Emerging Civic Religion; Tim Mackey, The Way of the Exile (thebibleproject.com); Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor; Gordon Smith, Wisdom from Babylon; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity
Share this page