Canadian history reveals positive link
When was the last time you heard a pastor urge their congregation to vote in the next election? If your experience has been anything like mine, politics and what it means for a Christian to live out their civic (as opposed to spiritual) citizenship have rarely, if ever, been addressed in churches. But this has not been the norm in Canada historically.
During the Second World War, when feelings of national pride were running high, Canadian Protestants had a great deal to say about how Christians should practise their national citizenship, though they did not necessarily agree on how this goal should be reached.
Some, like J. Morton Freeman, secretary of the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, believed that "For the sake of Christ and the Gospel, the Christian citizen of today must relate his duties to ends, and those ends must include some definite and not too remote social objectives in keeping with the Spirit of the Gospel."
A related perspective can be seen in the comments of Frank Haskins, a Western Baptist leader. He suggested Christians had "the obligation of seeking to establish the principles of righteousness and equity in the laws of our land."
Likeminded Protestants agreed that sacrificial action, a determination to guard Canada’s heritage of democracy and a dedication to the cause of a more Christian society were all appropriate and necessary duties for a Christian to practise full democratic citizenship.
The country’s largest Protestant denominations had aimed throughout the previous century to shape Canadian society around Christian values such as caring for the vulnerable and including the marginalized, and they had reached a remarkable degree of success in that work. Churches were involved, through money or personnel or both, in almost all social reform in Canada that occurred between 1850 and 1930. What link did they see between social reform and democratic citizenship?
Well, many Canadian Protestants believed democracy was inextricably linked with Christianity. Not only did they assume Canada was a Christian country, but they believed its form of government, inherited from Britain, was ultimately rooted in Christianity. As professor and author John Braithwaite wrote, "Democracy, then, is a form of government which can be established and maintained only by those who have learned to govern themselves on a moral and spiritual basis."
Braithwaite continued. "I like to think that democracy was born in the Garden of Gethsemane in that hour when the Master cried ‘Father. …’ In that moment the complete surrender of self-will and self-interest for the good of humanity was achieved."
R. C. Granberry declared, "A vital Christianity and a genuine democracy are inseparable. The native air of Christianity is liberty. … Liberty and the Spirit of Jesus are one in the same."
Linton believed democracy stood on two fundamental principles – the principle of freedom and the duty of considering others.
These statements might be startling or even seem outlandish to those of us in the 21st century. They illustrate why Canadian Protestants held active Christian citizenship in such high esteem. If democracy was Christian and so was Canada, then anything that threatened those called for immediate action. Putting aside these views of Christian democracy, we can still learn from Canadian Protestants’ ideas about democratic citizenship.
If democracy is not ultimately rooted in Christianity, what is it built on? What compels you, if anything, to be an active citizen? Do Christians have any good reasons to do so?
During the Second World War, Norman Linton responded helpfully to these questions in his denomination’s newspaper. He believed democracy stood on two fundamental principles – the principle of freedom and the duty of considering others.
Regarding these two he wrote, "The privilege [freedom] we are all willing to accept, but are we so ready to carry out the duty? Can we come to see this duty not as something burdensome, but as a joyous privilege? The privilege of loving our neighbour as much that we want to help him in every way possible?"
Today we may still find the simple principle of loving your neighbour, set forth by Christ Himself, is our primary guide for practising an engaged citizenship.
of Hamilton, Ont., is an adjunct instructor at Carey Theological College, with a PhD in Church history from McMaster Divinity College. His research and teaching interests include Canadian church history, Early Church history, church and culture, and the history of Christian missions and imperialism. Read more at