Is Canada more religious than the U.S.?
I sometimes ask my students, most of whom are part of the millennial generation, whether they think the United States is more religious than Canada or vice-versa. Almost all say the U.S., and I suspect most Canadians and Americans would agree.
The data bear this out. No matter which yardstick you use, there can be little doubt Canada is a less religious place than our big neighbour to the south.
Canadians are more likely than Americans to say they are not affiliated with any religion. Canadian politicians are far less likely than American politicians to talk about God or their faith. Church attendance is much higher in the U.S. than in Canada.
But has Canada always been the less religious of the two?
We often assume the things that define us as a nation today have always defined us. For example, many people think government policies of free-to-use health care, bilingualism and multiculturalism are core components of the Canadian identity. Historically speaking these are all recent developments dating from the 1960s or 1970s.
The same is true of the idea Canada is a less religious country than the U.S. It’s a surprisingly new reality. In fact, back in the 1950s or earlier, most people probably would have thought the opposite, viewing Canada as the more devout nation. What changed?
First, church involvement used to be higher in Canada than in the U.S. Shortly after the Second World War, for example, 67 per cent of Canadians told the Gallup Poll they had attended a religious service in the past seven days. American historian Mark Noll says this is one-third to one-half higher than church attendance in the U.S. in the same period.
In the following decades, church attendance dropped steadily in Canada while it held steady in the U.S. By the 1980s American church attendance was higher than in Canada. And although American attendance has declined very slightly since the early 1980s (54 per cent to their current 46 per cent monthly attendance, according to the Pew Forum), Canadian attendance has fallen at a much faster rate (43 per cent to our current 27 per cent).
Religion’s public presence in Canada also receded rapidly at the same time it was growing in the U.S. Canadian political leaders talked about God a lot in the 1940s and 1950s. When Georges Vanier, a devout Catholic from Quebec, was installed as governor general in 1959, he began his speech with a prayer asking God to guide and bless him and the country. (It’s hard to imagine our current governor general doing this!)
But after 1960, the collapse of Catholicism in Quebec and mainline Protestantism elsewhere contributed to a rapid secularization of politics in Canada. A new generation of leaders, like Pierre Elliot Trudeau, wanted to keep religion out of politics. At the same time politics in the U.S. became more saturated with religious language, partly because of the rise of the Moral Majority and other expressions of evangelical and fundamentalist political influence.
These differences can be partly explained by the different denominational landscapes in the two countries. Historically most Canadians belonged to the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, rather than evangelical Protestant churches or other religions. No region of Canada, with the possible exception of Atlantic Canada, had anything close to a dominant evangelical presence.
In contrast, evangelicalism was dominant across large swaths of the U.S. Today estimates of the evangelical proportion of the U.S. population range from roughly 25 to 40 per cent. Estimates for Canada tend to be in the 8 to 12 per cent range.
This matters for attendance figures because mainline Protestantism and Catholicism (at least in its traditional strongholds) have been very susceptible to decline in numbers and commitment levels since the 1960s, while evangelicalism has remained quite strong.
As a result regions of the U.S. like the northeast, which look more like Canada in terms of their denominational makeup – traditionally dominated by a mix of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism – today also resemble Canada in having low rates of church attendance and a high proportion of the population not affiliated with any religion.
Regions of the U.S. where evangelicalism is dominant – parts of the south, for example – don’t look much like Canada at all with higher rates of church attendance and fewer unaffiliated people.
So, is Canada more religious than the U.S.? Not today, but it used to be. National identities are after all not set in stone.
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.