Gary R. Miedema. For Canada's Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Re-making of Canada in the 1960s. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005. xx + 308 pp. + 12 pp. of plates. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-2877-2.
Reviewed by Stephen Fielding
Published on H-Canada (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth (King's University College, UWO)
Religion at the Center
The course of Canadian history is punctuated with clarion calls to make Christianity more compatible with society. The period most often discussed by historians is the turn of the century, when social gospellers such as J. S. Woodsworth and Salem Bland spearheaded a broad movement to invoke the coming of God’s kingdom through social reform. Also frequently examined is The Act of Union in 1925, which brought together the Methodist, Congregationalist, and a large segment of the Presbyterian churches. Historians have usually interpreted these and other religious developments within the context of the secularization debate--the question of when Canada became a secular society.
For Canada’s Sake offers a fresh perspective and welcome break from this tired discourse. For author Gary Miedema, the question is not when Canada became a secular nation per se, but the role of religious institutions in the discourse of national identity. He speaks to the secularization debate, but is not primarily concerned with it. Instead, Miedema examines how the churches engaged the emerging pluralism of the late 1960s and how these responses were played out through displays of public religion over the course of Canada’s Centennial Year. Calls for religious relevance were nothing new by the 1960s; however, Miedema argues that much more was at stake this time. The mainline Christian churches were losing their privileged position in the discourse of national identity; thus, their efforts to shape the national culture at this juncture pointed to the role they would play in the post-Christian social and political climate that followed.
Following in the footsteps of H. V. Nelles (The Art of Nation-Building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec’s Tercentenary, 1999), who won critical praise for his examination of French-English relations during Quebec’s tercentenary celebrations, Miedema describes the religious festivities of Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967 as exercises in nation-building. They were part of a larger state effort to, in his words, “reinterpret Canada to Canadians” during a watershed period in the conversation of national identity (p. 65). This was the age of the flag debate, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the new “points system” immigration policy, and nascent multicultural legislation. In a very short period of time, the ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups once at the margins now claimed their place at the center of political debate. The Canada of 1967 was already well on its way to reinventing itself as a pluralist society. “Inclusive” was the political catch-all of the day, the driving force behind new humanist policies.
Miedema argues that public religious events--specifically, the religious pavilions at the World Exposition in Montreal, the national prayer services on Canada Day, and the interfaith and ecumenical dialogues which marked this period--were key forums through which these major changes were addressed. He points out that pluralism was still more dream than reality at this juncture. Canada was, in the minds of many politicians, leaders of religious denominations, and even the general population, still a Christian nation. The large denominations--particularly, the Anglicans, United Church, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and certain Baptist fellowships--boasted large numbers at Sunday morning services and were still able to influence matters of public interest. The churches’ influential position in society made them indispensable to the state, which actively pursued their participation in Centennial festivities. The state needed to sacralize its agenda of “inclusion,” conferring upon it a notion of moral and spiritual credibility not possible by its own exigencies.
Miedema helps the reader move past the apparent irony of mainline Christian participation in the Centennial celebrations. These events were thematically driven by a call to end the privileged status of Protestant Christians, British descendants, and English-speakers--the very groups filling church pews on Sunday mornings (with the notable exception of the Roman Catholic Church). Miedema effectively navigates this apparent discrepancy by sketching the unstable social climate into which the mainline churches were thrust during the 1960s. He explains that institutions found in this milieu cause to participate in the Centennial and Expo events. Though still influential, the mainline Christian churches had been in a beleaguered state since the early part of the decade. Church and Sunday school attendance was falling; donations were declining each year; the state had recently enacted welfare and immigration legislation without consulting them; and clergy were increasingly alarmed by the high level of materialism prevalent among parishioners. More than anything, mainliners found themselves growing out of touch with Canadian society and seeking active solutions to better engage it. Thus, the churches participated in the Centennial year celebrations because they offered them a short and increasingly rare national window to re-engage the general public. These events gave them a chance to first, appear relevant to an increasingly skeptical and religiously benign population, and second, reassert their voices in the dialogue of national identity.
According to Miedema, the central components of the Christian “reformist impulse” of the late 1960s were ecumenism and a drive to understand “modern man.” In terms of the former, the Anglican and United churches were actively discussing union, and following the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic leaders were increasingly open to and excited about dialogue with their non-Catholic “brothers.” In the face of growing secularization, the large denominations began to search for theological common ground. Modern man, many believed, could be better understood and reached through a united Christian front. However, old strategies had to be abandoned in this process. Modern man, by nature skeptical of authority, critical, individualistic, and intellectual, would not be talked down to. He would be addressed on his terms; the mainline churches, in response, saw that they could no longer claim to speak to him from a position of authority. Instead, they would be “Servant Churches” (p. 62), trying to evoke in him an interest in things Christian while recognizing his status as a free-thinking individual.
Miedema describes Centennial religious celebrations as efforts by the state to “manage” expressions of faith to fit its humanist paradigm. However, displays of public religion were therefore, to borrow his words, both prescriptive and descriptive--a combination of what the state hoped to achieve and the conditions that existed on the ground. Because of this tension, the end results always fell short of the state’s goal to ensure religious inclusiveness and promote the notion of a pluralistic society. The first case explored within this rubric is The Canadian Interfaith Conference (CIC), an arm’s-length state institution commissioned to coordinate the interfaith events for Canada Day. This organization’s aspirations succeeded only in part. First of all, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec did not participate. The Centennial Year came at the height of the Quiet Revolution. The Roman Catholic Church there had reconciled itself to the “new society,” but limited its scope to the Quebec theatre for political reasons. Second, each denomination did not have the same voice. The mainline Christian denominations--much larger and more representative in Canadian society at that time--carried a higher card at the negotiating table than Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, or conservative evangelical Christians. Compromise was limited to the National Prayer Service. Thematically speaking, it was more watered-down ecumenical Christian than multifaith and egalitarian. “Neutral” biblical passages were chosen for a Centennial Anthology of Prayer, which, in turn, became the source of quotations for public speeches. In what was considered inclusive language for that time, “God” was in and “Jesus” was out. Instead, certain themes were chosen that emphasized the common bonds shared by Canada’s religions: “love of neighbour, generosity of spirit, and loyalty to the state” (p. 77). However, these qualities and values were expressed in the language and sacred text used by the established mainline Christian institutions. Outside of the National Prayer Service, there was even less evidence of a shared sense of common religiosity. The individual exhibits set up by various denominations emphasized a wide spectrum of their own objectives--conversions, stating their historical role in Canadian society, among others--which differed greatly from the CIC’s concept of multifaith pluralism.
The religious pavilions at Expo ‘67 were even less successful attempts at interfaith dialogue. In 1965, the Pearson Government commissioned an arm’s length organization, the Canadian Corporation for the World Expo (CCWE), to bring together all religious institutions and “set the tone” for a multifaith exhibit. Its stated purpose was to showcase the government’s newfound vision for Canada as a pluralistic and inclusive nation. Following the theme set by other Canadian pavilions, it made no mention of French-English tensions or the subaltern status of ethnic minority groups. Instead, it glossed over differences in favor of a sanitized “official” narrative that emphasized shared beliefs and concern for the human condition. In keeping with the theme of Expo ’67, “Man and His World,” the religious pavilion emphasized humankind, not notions about humans conforming themselves to the expectations of a higher power. Religion was only useful insofar as it bettered the lives of humans.
As in the Centennial Day celebrations, the Christian mainliners were the strongest voices in the CCWE. They embraced the humanistic thrust wholeheartedly, but refused to share space with non-Christian institutions. Their protest was successful and the multifaith pavilion was renamed “The Christian Pavilion.” Imbued with the desire to be “relevant” in the new social and political climate, they sought to address a pluralistic society, not reflect one. In response, Canadian Jews chose to set up their own pavilion. Most peculiar, a group of Montreal businesspersons won approval for an exhibit called “Sermons from Science,” which, to the CCWE’s surprise, turned about to be an evangelical attempt to win followers for Christ. Other religious groups were conspicuously absent from the celebration. The author demonstrates that despite its failure to live up to its intended purpose, the Christian Pavilion was a significant religious accomplishment for its time. The parties again agreed upon the “lowest common religious denominator” (p. 77), void of symbols, authoritative claims, or even calls for conversion. In the same vein as the Canada Day Prayer Service, the Christian Pavilion emphasized inclusivity and the so-called aspirations and values shared by all humanity. Once again, however, the language and decision-making process was dominated by the mainline churches.
Miedema artfully reconstructs the inherent paradox of the Christian Pavilion: it was predicated on inclusiveness, but used its humanistic criterion as a yardstick to exclude others--particularly evangelical Christians. These “sects,” as they were derogatorily tagged by mainline leaders, posed a threat to the inclusivity of the pavilion project because of their insistence on proselytizing and claims of biblical inerrancy. The CCWE handled the situation by simply rejecting or ignoring requests to participate from denominations they considered ill-fitted to the pavilion’s objectives. The list of “unwelcome” included, among others, the Salvation Army and Billy Graham himself. Evangelical actors had never enjoyed a position of privilege on the national scene and the CCWE, together with the well-established mainline churches, sought to maintain this arrangement. Paradoxically, the Christian Pavilion was conceived to present an image of religious inclusion in Canada, but it did so by intentionally excluding religions and Christian denominations that did not subscribe to its mandate.
Miedema’s strongest and most fascinating work is his juxtaposition of the two Christian pavilions at Expo 67: the evangelical Sermons from Science exhibit, and the mainline Christian Pavilion. Each addressed modern man in its own way. Both used “total communication” in the Marshall McLuhan usage of overriding the senses with film, still images, and sound, but only the former claimed truth in its appeal. The Sermons from Science Pavilion drew linkages between the complex scientific processes that guide all forms of life and a need to a commit one’s self to their Creator. The Christian Pavilion, by contrast, used emotive images of human suffering, death, materialism, and sexual license to demonstrate the human consequences of modernity’s excesses. Using only a few innocuous biblical passages, its stated intent was to get visitors to think about faith, rather than to make authoritative claims about it. Interestingly, both pavilions sought to invoke interest in Christianity, but employed very different strategies to this end.
For all of its fascinating insights, and perhaps because of its broad scope, For Canada’s Sake neglects certain important patterns and events relevant to postwar public religion in Canada. First, Miedema’s sole focus on the shift from a predominantly Christian society and national culture to a pluralistic one overlooks a second and very important trend taking place during the 1950s and 1960s: the large movement of parishioners away from the mainline churches to evangelical institutions. The author identifies conservative voices in the mainline churches opposed to the pluralist shift, but he does not mention that many with this mindset were leaving the mainline churches. Indeed, the growth of evangelical churches during this period came largely at the expense of the mainliners. Many “converts” to evangelicalism found in its places of worship a refuge from the excesses of modernity. Robert Burkinshaw explains that the vast majority of evangelicals in 1960s British Columbia had come from the mainline denominations. The largest cohort in this migration left the United Church--particularly following its revised Sunday school curriculum in 1964, which called into question biblical inerrancy and authority. It can be argued that the attempts of mainline churches to engage modernity, as they understood it, only exacerbated their beleaguered state. These findings raise the question: given the recent exodus of parishioners, why then did the mainline churches abandon calls to conversion and claims of truth at the National Prayer Service and Expo ’67?
Second, Miedema sees the coming together of conservative evangelicals in support for the Sermons from Science pavilion as indicative of first, a growing movement to “keep Canada Christian” (pp. 190-191), and second, an attempt to claim privileged space alongside the mainline denominations. Burkinshaw, by contrast, points out that the growing and increasingly powerful evangelicals did not seek to engage society in the same way as their mainline predecessors, but preferred to focus on spiritual conversions and moral ills. The problem with Miedema’s contention is that he disagrees with Burkinshaw based on only a couple events. A more plausible argument is that conservative evangelicals, never accustomed to privileged status and always at the fringes of popular religion in Canada, were not so much attempting to shape the national culture, but rather seeking a certain level of detachment from it. In this vein, the diminishing position of Christianity in the public and political sphere can be better understood as the result of both evangelical withdrawal and the failure of mainliners to retain a privileged place in the emerging pluralistic society.
A third criticism is the passive position in which Miedema situates the mainline Christian denominations during the 1960s. The problem in describing them as solely in a beleaguered state is that it leaves them little agency to shape the wider social milieu. In this book they act from a position of loss, perpetually playing “catch-up” to a social and political climate that has left them behind. Recent research indicates that theirs was not the morally and socially passive role suggested by Miedema. Nancy Christie, for example, has argued that the United Church was at the cutting edge of sexual discourse more than a decade before the sexual revolution. This denomination, largely as a response to anxieties created by greater numbers of women entering the workplace, preached the centrality of sexual fulfillment (in this case between married partners) to family and personal health. The point here is not to challenge Miedema’s contention that the mainline Christian denominations were in a state of crisis, but rather to encourage a more nuanced approach to their engagement with changing social mores.
The fourth criticism is minor and concerns Miedema’s use of the term multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is repeatedly conflated with egalitarianism. This, however, is not a measured understanding of the term in the Canadian context. Multiculturalism, as introduced by the Trudeau government in 1971, was predicated on the supremacy of the individual--specifically, how to help one overcome barriers to greater participation in Canadian society. Trudeau acknowledged that these barriers too often followed ethnic lines; however, his objectives were within the context of a market economy and the two official languages. It was within these parameters--not of any recognition of all cultures and languages being equal, but of a national culture of English and French-speaking individuals composed of many cultures--that multiculturalism was cast. Miedema needs to clarify whether or not he is using the term in a political sense, and if so, explain how it is related to egalitarianism.
In conclusion, For Canada’s Sake is a significant contribution to our understanding of Canadian national identity and the secularization of Canadian society. Notwithstanding some minor oversights, Miedema's examination of religious celebrations provides a fascinating and innovative perspective into the changing face of national culture during the 1960s. By revealing how the Centennial religious events were a compromise between what state planners hoped to project and the aims of a religious coalition dominated by mainline churches, he brings greater clarity to an important period in Canadian history when Christian institutions were losing ground and pluralism had not yet taken hold.
. See also Gregory Brown, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” in Rethinking Church, State, and Modernity: Canada between Europe and America, ed. David Lyon and Marguerite Van Die (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 149-165.
. Robert K. Burkinshaw, Pilgrims in Lotus Land: Conservative Protestantism in British Columbia, 1917-1981 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 258.
. Ibid., 250.
. Ibid., 256.
. Nancy Christie, “Sacred Sex: The United Church and the Privatization of the Family in Post-War Canada,” in Households of Faith: Family, Gender, and Community in Canada, 1760-1969, ed. Nancy Christie (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 348-376.
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Stephen Fielding. Review of Miedema, Gary R., For Canada's Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Re-making of Canada in the 1960s.
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