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Cross-Border Evangelicals: Americans and Canadians

Canadian and American evangelicals resemble each other more than they resemble their fellow Canadians or Americans. But understanding their differences can help those Christians whose work at the intersection of faith and public life involves both countries.

For Canadians, comparing ourselves to our American neighbours is our second most popular national sport—after hockey, of course. Though we may suffer from an unfortunate tendency toward self-congratulation when making these comparisons, they can also prove instructive for parties on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel.

Comparisons between Canadian and American evangelicals don't escape this general rule. The danger of easy stereotypes is definitely present: Canadians gazing south, for example, can fall into the trap of assuming that the pictures of American evangelicals served up by the media—late-night televangelists, sketchy celebrity pastors, or political commentators with foot-in-mouth disease—provide a balanced picture of the movement as a whole.

Despite this danger, cross-border comparisons are necessary and inevitable, especially for those whose work involves dealing with evangelical communities in both countries. But because of this danger, such comparisons must be based on a sober assessment of reliable information. Thanks to careful research by sociologists and historians, such an assessment is within our grasp.

The first point that arises from recent research is that Canadian and American evangelicals are remarkably similar. Evangelicals and the Continental Divide (2003), an extensive comparative study by Crandall University sociologist Sam Reimer, found few cross-border differences between evangelicals—so few, in fact, that he concluded that both populations are part of a single evangelical subculture with shared core theological beliefs, moral convictions, religious practices, and group boundaries. In short, on the things that matter most to evangelicals, Canadian and American evangelicals are very much on the same page.

These cross-border similarities persist, argued Reimer, despite striking differences between the religious and cultural characteristics of Canadians and Americans more generally. In fact, Canadian and American evangelicals resemble each other more than they resemble their fellow Canadians or Americans.

Reimer's finding is perhaps less surprising when one notices that this evangelical subculture is embodied in and reinforced by a cross-border web of media ventures, parachurch ministries, publishing houses, and other kinds of organizations, mostly based in the United States. To be sure, one must not forget the existence of major distinct national institutions, such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. But alongside these are a host of groups, from Wycliffe Bible Translators to Focus on the Family, which are supported and patronized by evangelicals on both sides of the border. Similarly, major contemporary trends and movements within North American evangelicalism as diverse as the "third wave" charismatic movement and the Reformed resurgence can be found in Canada as well as the U.S.

Nevertheless, there are still some notable differences between Canadian and American evangelicals that mostly have to do with their national cultural and political contexts. Understanding these differences, and their implications, is particularly important for Christians whose work at the intersection of faith and public life involves both Canada and the United States.

Here are the top five differences emerging from recent research:

  1. Canadian evangelicals are a much smaller minority in Canada than American evangelicals in the United States. Exact numbers vary depending on the definition and counting method one uses, but according to the most meaningful measures, about one in ten Canadians are evangelicals, while about one in three Americans are evangelicals (if one includes black Protestants, most of whom are evangelicals; white evangelicals account for about one in four Americans). Evangelicals are comparatively thin on the ground north of the border. Thus, for example, Canadian evangelicals have less potential to become an important voting bloc than their American counterparts. Evangelical political influence in Canada is more likely to come from well-placed individuals and groups than from sheer numbers, and is more likely to depend on cooperation with non-evangelicals.

  2. Canadian evangelicals inhabit a more secular environment than American evangelicals. This is true of both individual conviction and public convention. According to the World Values Survey, Americans are more likely than Canadians to be members of a church or religious organization, to see God as important in their lives, and to attend church weekly. At the same time, Canadian public discourse is far more resolutely secular than American public discourse (despite the lack of an historical principle of separation of church and state in Canadian jurisprudence). As a result, Canadian evangelicals find themselves more "out of step" with their cultural environment than do American evangelicals, and public expressions of evangelicalism find less sympathy in Canada than in the U.S.

  3. Canadian evangelicals have less confrontational attitudes toward fellow Canadians than American evangelicals do toward fellow Americans. This interesting finding (from Reimer's comparative study) seems surprising, given that Canadian evangelicals are the ones who have less in common with their neighbours. Nevertheless, it can be explained in terms of broader cultural differences between the two countries. Reimer and others have found that Canadians in general place a higher premium on civility and polite tolerance than Americans, who instead stress freedom of expression and the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace of ideas. Confrontational approaches involving conflict with other groups, therefore, tend to be less successful at winning the support of Canadian evangelicals than their American brethren.

  4. Canadian evangelicals are less invested in a national narrative than American evangelicals. This point also reflects general differences between the two countries. As historians and political scientists have long observed, the Revolutionary War, the American Dream, and (above all) the belief that America is a chosen nation with a divine mission lack clear parallels in Canadian history and national identity. In contrast to the United States, Canada has always been a culturally divided collection of regions united more by pragmatic considerations than a unifying grand vision. To the extent that Canadians have national myths, they tend to be relatively recent and underdeveloped, and they lack the overtly religious themes of American myths that often resonate with American evangelicals.

  5. Canadian evangelicals are, on average, less aligned with conventional conservative political stances than are American evangelicals. To be sure, Canadian evangelicals are somewhat more likely to vote for the Conservative Party than the average Canadian, but a recent analysis of evangelical voting trends in Canada between 1996 and 2008 shows that evangelical voters are spread across all of the major parties in Canada in ways that tend to reflect regional differences. Moreover, evangelical voters abandoning the Liberal Party in recent elections went to the "left-wing" NDP as well as the "right-wing" Conservatives. These findings fit well with Reimer's study, which likewise found that Canadian evangelicals are only slightly more conservative than the general population on a range of issues. Reimer found that American evangelicals, on the other hand, are significantly more conservative than Americans in general, who are themselves more conservative than Canadians in general.

Similarly, most observers recognize that Canada lacks an equivalent of the American "Christian Right" (occasional panics from some quarters notwithstanding), and attempts to mobilize Canadian evangelical voters as a decisive force on key social issues such as abortion have not succeeded thus far.

What significance should these differences have for Christians who try to work Christianly in the public sphere, and who deal with one or both evangelical constituencies? Many implications could be drawn from the foregoing, but I will highlight three points of particular relevance.

First, because they are less tied to any one political formation (parties, national myths, firm political battle lines), Canadian evangelicals as evangelicals are more of a "blank slate" politically than their American counterparts. While this may reflect a lack of coherent application of Christian principles to political questions, it also means that Canadian evangelicals are less committed to existing political visions (whether "left" or "right") animated by ideological commitments fundamentally at odds with a Christian worldview. This creates an opening for more integrally Christian approaches that do not easily fit within the one-dimensional schema of conventional politics. A neocalvinist political vision, for example, might be able to make more headway among Canadian evangelicals in the absence of strong attachments to other political ideologies. This is not to say that such headway is impossible among American evangelicals—only that established linkages between American evangelicalism and competing political commitments are more likely to have to be challenged first.

Second, American evangelicals wield some notable political influence in the world's most powerful country; Canadian evangelicals occupy the political margins in a modest "middle power." American evangelicals have access, albeit limited and intermittent, to the core; Canadian evangelicals are doubly peripheral. Thus, while American evangelicals face some of the temptations—but also the opportunities and responsibilities—that come with power, Canadians face a different set of challenges and temptations.

Given the strong cross-border links of North American evangelicalism, a third point worth noting is the possibility of mutual learning from each other's unique strengths and challenges. In this way an awareness of cross-border differences can become, not an excuse for stereotypes, but an opportunity for building each other up; after all, whether north or south, all serve the same Lord.

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Kevin Flatt Kevin Flatt
Kevin Flatt is an associate professor of history and Director of Research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. ... read more »
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