In the last couple of weeks I’ve heard several Christian friends lamenting how Canada is sliding away from “Christian values.” I’ve started to hear a nostalgia for the supposedly Christian past, a nostalgia that until now hasn’t been as common in Canada as it has been in the US. For each of my friends, this nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” seems to have been triggered by our government’s decision to impose a moral litmus test on any organization that wants to receive federal grants. Any group that applies for funding now has to state that they support Canada’s current (extremely open) abortion policies. In other words, groups are being denied funding simply and explicitly because of their beliefs around abortion, regardless of their actions. I’m not surprised that my Christian friends are reacting sharply. I’ve tended to vote Liberal (when I don’t vote NDP) and for the first time I feel directly rejected by that party. Trudeau (for whom I voted) seems to be saying that someone with my (complex) views on abortion isn’t welcome in his country. It’s disturbing. But I’m equally disturbed by the reaction that longs for a supposedly better, more Christian past in Canada.
This nostalgia troubles me because I don’t think the past was actually that much more Christian than our present in Canada. As in any nostalgia, the bright and warm parts of the past glow a bit brighter and warmer than they ever did in reality. And we develop a selective amnesia about the parts of that past that were cold and dark. Of course, many more people went to church in the 1940’s and 50’s. But our spiritual ancestors didn’t agree that they were all really Christian. Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders in particular were constantly warning about “nominal” or “cultural” Christianity which didn’t involve a serious commitment to follow Jesus. People who did make that kind of commitment were still sometimes humiliated or ostracized for their beliefs or their choices. Yes, when I was in elementary school we all lined our chairs up in the cavernous hallway and sang real Christmas carols. But that didn’t make us all Christian. Go back a bit further and we find my Mennonite ancestors being executed in Switzerland and Calvinist Puritans fleeing England in search of religious freedom. A high rate of church attendance never guaranteed that deep faith would be widespread or that devout Christians would be safe.
In fact, there were a lot of things about Canada in my childhood, or even my father’s childhood, that were definitely un-Christian. Now, keep in mind that (on my reading of Scripture) God isn’t just interested in growing church membership lists. God is also interested in more than just saving disembodied souls. His mission is nothing less than the restoration of the cosmos to its intended, life-giving harmony. That includes restoring human society to the holistic peace we were created to enjoy. Yes, God wants us to be reconciled with Him. But he also wants to see us relate in healthy ways and enjoy embodied life as we were meant to in Eden. When Jesus healed sick people and shared a meal with social rejects these weren’t just publicity stunts. He was giving people experiences of God’s kingdom, restoring their corner of creation just a bit. Because whether or not people come to faith that restoration to God’s intended pattern of life is good in itself. This is what our Christian ancestors understood when they built free hospitals or worked to end child labour. So if it means anything to say that a society is “Christian,” or reflects “Christian values,” that should mean that the society is growing closer to an approximation of God’s ideal community.
But there was a lot about Canadian society in the past that jarred against God’s life-giving vision. Racism was rampant. It was only in 1944 that Ontario passed Canada’s first law against racial discrimination, and in 1954 the Toronto Telegram reported on African Canadians still being refused service in small town restaurants. Elsewhere open segregation was tolerated longer. In 1946 Viola Desmond was still arrested in Nova Scotia for sitting in the “Whites only” section of the New Glasgow theatre. It wasn’t until 1962 that Canadian immigration law stopped deliberately trying to keep out immigrants who were Black or Indian or Chinese. Through this whole period you would have a much harder time getting a job or an apartment if your ancestors weren’t from Western Europe. And many upstanding members of the community would have been apoplectic if a daughter brought home a boy with the wrong skin colour.
The glare of our nostalgia glosses over how ugly and degrading life in Canada could be if you weren’t at least middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, and male. After World War II many women remained in the workforce. But a woman could expect that she would be paid less than a man doing the same job, and this was only officially banned gradually over the 1950’s. One woman I know recalls working as a bank teller in the 60’s, where her manager regularly groped the women. If one of them complained, she was told to stop imagining things and her job was threatened. It was only in 1964 that a married woman was allowed by law to open a bank account without her husband’s signature or to serve on a jury. If we go back to the mid-1940’s in Canada, poor farmers and workers sweating on factory lines often couldn’t afford to see a doctor, especially if they weren’t close to a charitable hospital. Without the social assistance programs introduced in the 1960’s, breaking a leg or developing severe arthritis could mean that a man’s family sank into desperate poverty. People still starved to death in Canada. I might enjoy the nostalgia of a good Western, but I should never mistake that feeling for the often brutal and agonizing reality of 19th century life. So, too, we should never mistake our stained-glass nostalgia for the real past in Canada.
In fact, I would argue that on balance Canadian society today may reflect the kingdom of God at least as much as it did in the 1940’s or 50’s. One change I do lament is (what I see as) the cheapening of sexuality as it is reduced to a mere physical appetite. I also don’t think that killing a fetus usually fits God’s design, especially if it’s just used as a method of convenient birth control. But there were also a lot of cheap affairs and back-alley abortions before the sexual revolution of the 60’s. I do lament that more people aren’t exposed these days to the Christian message, although I’m not sure that church-going used to do more for some people than inoculate them against the real challenge of Jesus. On the other hand, there are also major ways in which Canadian society today looks more like God’s Kingdom than it did when Mackenzie King or Diefenbaker were Prime Minister. In many ways we live in a less violent and more just society, in the prophetic sense of justice as harmonious, co-operative, and generous community life. My children face a different set of pressures pulling them to act against God’s design. But do they face more pressures? Are the distortions to God’s will for human life more severe? I’m not convinced they are.
When I recognize the impulse toward nostalgia in myself, I find that it’s motivated by fear and self-protection. When it comes right down to it, what I’m often tempted to be nostalgic for is a society in which, as a Christian, I would have been respected and honoured. The government’s move, and some of Trudeau’s statements, remind us that to many Canadians the church appears backward and bigoted. We know that Christians in many parts of the world have always lived as a minority, have always faced violence and hostility simply because of their beliefs. But we are afraid of having to face that hostility in our own front yard. So we retreat into nostalgia. We pine for a past that we imagine to have been safer, even though it was in many ways a terrible time. But in calling that past “Christian” and simply labelling today’s Canada our enemy we implicitly align ourselves–whether we intend to or not–with racism, with misogyny, with poverty and suffering. By saying we want that society back, we seem to say we would be willing to trade the good and just aspects of today’s Canada for our own safety and reputation. Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus asked from his disciples? He didn’t invite them to come and be respected members of the community. He invited them to pick up a cross and drag it along behind him–not because we’re masochists, but because we’re willing to feel some pain ourselves if it will help bring healing and wholeness to other people. So do we really want to side with the “Good Old Days”? Or will we choose to accept that we’re unpopular at the moment, carry that cross, and look for ways to foster God’s kingdom in the present world? Are we more concerned with “winning” or with serving?
I’m deeply disappointed by our government’s moral test for federal funding. But I don’t think that is a sign of a new apocalyptic conflict between the church and society in Canada. People who shared my beliefs were never actually as welcome among Canadian elites as we like to imagine. On the other hand, there are actually a lot of Canadians who share my concern about the current policy. I suspect it wouldn’t stand up to a court challenge precisely because we have a Charter of Rights that protects religious freedom. And there are an increasing number of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists in Canada who on this kind of issue may prove to be allies. But even if Christians are singled out for rough treatment, I’m still not longing for the “Good Old Days.” I lament the ways our culture has drifted away from God’s design, even as I celebrate the ways today’s Canada has come to resemble that just pattern a little bit more. I’m sad when a neighbour writes me off as a bigoted Christian. But I’m still hopeful that together with my neighbours I’ll be able to bring more glimpses of God’s kingdom in our society. And, yes, in that work I’m hopeful that some of them will hear the invitation of Jesus to come and follow.