Mark Noll: Knows Canadian history as few other scholars do

Historians in the News

... Mark Noll, a superior historian who just moved from Wheaton College to the University of Notre Dame, knows Canadian religion as few U.S. scholars do, and made it the subject of his presidential address to the American Society of Church History, whose journal Church History (June 2006) published it. I hope my mention of it will prompt a visit to the library or the study of your friendly neighborhood church historian. Line one: "What happened to Christian Canada?" Line two: Noll and most others in the know assume it once was (more) Christian. Now Christian language and "public theism" are waning or disappearing from public scenes, oaths of office, holidays, and all that. Christian education in public schools moves almost to zero from a once secure place. Same-sex marriage support? Almost a breeze. (We may want to argue about whether that means de-christianization, but ....)

Catholic church attendance? Down from the former 80 to 90 percents -- especially in Quebec, where attendance is down to 23 percent. Church attendance overall is about half as large a percentage as in U.S. polls. Catholic clergy and religious orders? In drastic decline -- and Protestant clergy ranks are also in decline. There are empty pews in Catholic, United Church of Canada, and most other kinds of churches, while evangelicalism, showing some signs of life, still tends to appear sectarian. Noll asks what has replaced Christianity as the soul of the body of social cohesion in Canada.

He spends some time contrasting Canadian religion -- which had been more established, communitarian, and in a "stable nation-state" -- with the U.S. and its religion, expressed in "more voluntary and individualistic terms." I care enough about Canada to be content to dwell on what Noll surveys and surmises, but I also cannot resist thinking of the U.S. as I read on, since many of the signs he sees could serve as DEW alerts here. Just as Catholicism and the United Church no longer contribute to social cohesion and interpretation of life there, Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism do less so here than they once did. Of course, what in Canada was "sectarian" is "mainstream evangelical-pentecostal-fundamentalist-conservative" and prospering here, especially in the Sun Belt, formerly known as the Bible Belt. But its one-fourth of America is often so antagonistic to everybody else that it is polarizing, not providing social cohesion -- and it won't, unless in a winner-take-all situation, which is called a "theocracy."

Noll ends with some wise comments from British sociologist David Martin, who has a few words to say about the churches often not having much to say to the culture. "The decline of preaching has something to do [with it]." Noll's favored word for describing Canadian de-christianization is "puzzling." But he throws enough light on the matter that readers may be less puzzled than before.

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